Addressing Concerns About Safety
A community’s interest in a dog park may be initiated in several ways. It often takes the action of just a few residents, usually dog owners or dog lovers, who may write a letter to a city council, stop by the local parks and recreation department to talk, or show up at a municipal meeting to express their interest in a public setting. These beginnings, or variations of these examples, are very common. Or, a dog park may be initiated by municipal employees, often parks and recreation administrators. Sometimes local politicians express interest in the community developing a dog park. I know of a county executive from a northeastern state who encountered dog parks for the first time while vacationing with his wife and their dog in Florida. Upon returning from his vacation, he immediately contacted the county parks administrator and requested that work begin on a dog park for the county. (This was to be a traditional fenced off-leash area, since recent signage to discourage owners from letting dogs run uncontrolled throughout the park hadn’t worked. Their signs indicating that all dogs must be leashed simply prompted owners to attach leashes to their dogs’ collars, but they weren’t holding the other end of the leash! The leashes were just trailing along the ground behind the dogs!)
Regardless of how a community dog park is initiated, it may be met with resistance. This is often the case for locations where dog parks are considered a new concept, where many are unfamiliar with dog parks, or where residents feel it’s an unneeded, unwise use of municipal funds. This is especially true if this is to be the first dog park in a particular area or city. Many cities, after experiencing the popularity of dog parks, create several parks in different neighborhoods, since residents may request the convenience of one closer to their home. In addition, a number of cities with numerous dog parks have established standards for creating them that make it far easier and more cost-efficient for future dog park development—thus, no need to reinvent the wheel. In these situations, of course, the growing pains typically reflecting resistance are often nonexistent.
The resistance, when it comes, may take many forms. It may be about anticipated noise or barking, problems concerning owners not picking up after their dogs, the expected foul smell, the municipal funding (“You’re going to build a park for dogs when we need more soccer fields and playgrounds for children?”), health concerns, dog fights, and so on. Some will complain about the selected location (“I like the idea of a dog park, I just don’t want it there!”) or NIMBY issues (i.e., Not In My Back Yard). Most of these concerns relate to a lack of information or understanding, but those in opposition might simply dislike dogs. Some may have had a negative personal experience with a dog and have had a fear of them since that time. Others have visited poorly designed or poorly maintained dog parks and have come away with a negative impression. Still others have heard negative stories about dog parks. All these, and more, are verbalized concerns that you may encounter. However, you can address virtually all of them with solid, quality education. You can provide education about these concerns in several ways:
- Offer public informational presentations at your city hall, a community center, library, or at community organization meetings.
- Distribute informational publications at a variety of community locations or send them to households along with other municipal items, such as the parks and recreation program brochures.
- Advertise through local television or radio presentations.
- Provide information through the Internet, perhaps on the community’s website.
These examples of ways you can disseminate information about dog parks should certainly help change minds, at least for open-minded residents. Be aware, however, as with so many community issues, that some people will be unmoved, despite your best efforts. The idea of a dog park, to them, may remain controversial. In most cases, however, if you present the material well, people will begin to get excited about the prospect of a dog park in their city!
The first hurdle here is the simplest: just the idea of a dog park may be upsetting to some who are unfamiliar with this type of facility! “Who ever heard of such a thing? Ridiculous!” Quite honestly, my initial reaction years ago was similar. However, I quickly then thought, “Really? Can it be what it sounds like? A park for dogs? How cool!” Then I simply had to learn more! Many folks, though, aren’t so quick to respond positively. Without any knowledge or experience, it’s hard to blame them for being critical and finding the concept absurd. Thus, the need for education and understanding, as mentioned previously, is clear.
One of the most common concerns, especially for those unfamiliar with dog parks, relates to worries about dog fights. Fights between dogs can and do happen. However, perhaps surprisingly, they are rare! The majority of fights between dogs concern territorial issues. In a dog park, there are so many different smells and scents that it’s a no-man’s-land, or rather, a no-dog’s-land, when it comes to whose territory is whose. Thus, without territory concerns, dogs freely socialize, play, run, and generally have fun with one another. Those unfamiliar with the concept of dog parks usually find this downright amazing and hard to believe. The reality, of course, is that if this were not the case, there would be no dog parks!
Two uncommon issues that may contribute to fights, though quite infrequent, relate to stress and guarding of resources. What looks like stress in a dog can simply be excitement—they are often thrilled to come to the dog park! Owners should know their dogs; they need to recognize their dog’s behaviors and be able to identify when a problem might occur. When dogs first arrive at the park for a visit, other dogs already inside may run to greet the new visitor at the entrance. This is extremely common. For the most part, it’s not only usually harmless, it can appear downright endearing—a veritable doggy welcome wagon! However, a good-sized gang of dogs meeting and greeting can make the newcomer feel threatened or vulnerable. When owners know their dog as they should, they can learn ways to handle this situation to avoid a problem. Again, most dogs deal with this just fine, but owners must take responsibility for learning their dog’s park behaviors. Resource guarding is really about owners bringing their dog’s toys or similar items into a dog park. Again, this may be an infrequent problem, but owners must heed the park rules, which often indicate these items should not be brought into the dog park. So again, owners must be vigilant about knowing their dog’s behavior and complying with a dog park’s rules. As stated previously, if these types of issues were a common concern in dog parks, there probably wouldn’t be dog parks!