Going to the Dogs

Advocates are working to unleash a plan for a public park where pooches can play

If your commute takes you past an office-park lawn or schoolyard, you may have noticed after-work socials where dogs roam free and romp in packs while owners stand to the side, plastic bags, you hope, at the ready.

These informal dog playgrounds, like the places where teenagers gather to drink beer, are completely illegal and have the potential for getting dangerously out of control. But they can also offer humans or animals harmless fun and the chance to alleviate stress and gain confidence among their peers.

Responsible adults struggle to find safe places for both their kids and their dogs to exercise and socialize -- and dogs are simple creatures, far easier to please than human adolescents.

Donna Barkow used to take her two dogs to the Lanier Middle School campus when classes weren't in session. That lasted until one evening when she and her friends (two- and four-legged) found the gates padlocked. Last summer she was moved, not to sneak onto another football field but to start the Houston Dog Park Association with a dozen or so other folks who believe Houston is more than ready for at least one dog park.

Barkow's research indicates there are 400-odd dog parks in the United States, most of which opened in the '90s. The wiggle room in stats comes because exact figures are elusive -- some dog parks are city parks, some are county facilities, and a few are private for-profit establishments. The trend toward animal ownership, however, is obvious: Boutique pet supply stores such as Petco are more common than Bed, Bath & Beyonds; the Animal Planet channel shows people weeping over euthanized pets 24/7, and then there's that ubiquitous sock puppet.

If the pet population is booming, there are still plenty of problems in unleashing them at parks or recreation sites. Local laws make owners liable for $200 fines if they let their pets run loose in public -- more if the animal is unlicensed.

Barkow and her group don't expect their park for dogs to be delivered by pets.com. Creating a proposal, winning support and funding, finding a site and other bureaucratic requirements typically take three to four years. They've got petitions at the SPCA and Three Dogs Bakery, and notices are up at area pet stores. The association is applying with the IRS for nonprofit status, and though the group has sent letters of introduction, it doesn't intend to formally approach city or county bodies or potential corporate sponsors until there's a very solid, very credible plan.

At this point, they believe six-foot-high cyclone fencing is a must, for safety. "For my dogs," Barkow wryly observes, "obedience is a destination." (She has a border collie mix from the SPCA and a Lab-type found wandering the streets of downtown, bone-thin with a tattered bandanna around its neck.) It would cost about $30,000 for a fence around the three to five acres the group feels is needed. Barkow says parks of less than an acre have overuse problems. Pragmatically, she notes that "shade is also required, and a park needs good drainage for health reasons."

Other amenities are a wish list: "Running water would be nice; might be nice to have lights; benches would be nice, and, if we got a lot of money, a pond." The group has scouted several sites, including flood-control-district land.

Especially with her name, Barkow seems properly suited for the leadership role. On a recent day, she wore silver paw-print earrings. She's got close-cropped, no-nonsense dark hair and looks somewhat solemn, in a Miss Jane sort of way, which makes her moments of whimsy more surprising. While discussing dog parks, for instance, she is composed, nearly formal, in a severe suit, prepared with a file folder of facts, figures and clippings. When asked if intact male dogs would be allowed in her dream park, she uses risqué pantomime to illustrate what enforcing such a rule would require.

Barkow doesn't want any more restrictions than necessary. The rules she envisions are similar to those posted at various dog parks around the country. They restrict females in heat, puppies under a certain age, unlicensed dogs and the number of dogs any one person can have in the park at the same time. (Three dogs over six months old is the legal limit for a local household, by the way.) There's also the issue of children. (No legal limit for the number of children in a household.) "Some parks," Barkow says, "have rules about no children under ten; we must find a way to supervise children."

Other general ideas cover operating hours. "Depending on where it is and if there are neighbors nearby," Barkow says, "you might want it to have a closed time for quiet." Dog parks typically have a noise level comparable to a tennis court or swimming pool.

While there are no firm budget estimates, the city does have an initial construction expense, and corporate sponsorships may help with the bill. "Maybe the Iams dog park," she explains, "like Enron Field." Once the park is built, the city would be responsible only for mowing and trash pickup. She hopes the folks who would use the park could rely on peer pressure for policing the rules.

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