By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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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.
Animal control workers are basically pro dog park. They take care of irresponsible people's pets, so they're eager for anything emphasizing responsible pet ownership. City and county workers, however, have understandable concerns about liability issues and maintenance costs.
Kathy Barton, city Health Department information officer, describes the dog park model as more like that of a public pool, with supervision. "This is an issue we have been looking at for a number of years, and the biggest holdback is available money but you don't just open up a park and say, 'Okay, dogs, come on,' " she says. "You have to fence it. You have to make sure dogs are properly licensed and vaccinated. You need a great deal of supervision."
Although Barton doesn't reject the idea of a properly supervised dog park, her three dogs would not go. "I'm infinitely too paranoid," she says, "and my dogs are little dogs, and I have a huge backyard."
The parks department concurs about the concerns over funding. Spokeswoman Joy Sewing says, "It's going to take a partnership." The Houston Dog Park Association is aware that acquiring a site, fencing and other amenities have a price tag, but they are not thinking staff. Nationally, most dog parks are unstaffed -- peer pressure is what makes dog owners dutiful about poop-scooping and so forth.
Those who deal with stray and abandoned animals on the taxpayers' dime are more cautious than those who work for charities. Stacey Wilbanks, the Houston SPCA director of community outreach, is a dog park fan. She lived next to a fenced city dog park in California. "All the city did was mow and stuff," Wilbanks says, "and people would take care of things. Every one that I've ever been to, it's a peer pressure thing; people who are going there want to keep it nice."
Wilbanks sees a dog park not only as a benefit for herself and like-minded dog owners, but as an urgent civic project. She notes that Austin is reported to have more than a dozen dog parks. "It's desperately needed, it really is," she says. "I just don't like being beat like that by Austin."
Dogs who would go to such parks have been socialized, Wilbanks says, adding that she has never heard of major problems. "It's just been a very healthy situation all around." Besides, she says, "The parks are not responsible for safety. Usually there's a liability notice posted by the gate."
So, the dream is a safe, fenced few acres where dog owners can take their pets for free play in a civilized setting. At one California park, volunteers bring fresh coffee around, ask for honor system subsidies and remind parkgoers to visit a nearby Diedrich coffeehouse to thank them for their support.
Advocates say the benefits extend to those with no animals. Spayed or neutered, well-trained, properly licensed and vaccinated dogs are much easier to live with, from both the owners' and neighbors' perspectives, than untrained dogs chained in backyards. Workers in animal control and public health say a visible population of responsible, educated pet owners is considered the solution to dog problems.
The Centers for Disease Control says there are 4.7 million dog bite reports each year, that around 800,000 people seek medical attention and a dozen people are killed. Infants and the elderly are the most common fatalities, but boys age five to nine are the highest risk group.
Julie Gilchrist, a pediatrician in injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control, says, "When people think of dog attacks, they think of strays and packs, but we try to overcome that myth. You are much more likely to be bitten by your own dog or a dog that you know. Education will make the biggest difference; you need leash laws and good fencing, but it comes down to education."