Dog parks prove a hit with pups and owners

Popularity has caused a few growing pains

May 10, 2006|By JONI GUHNE | JONI GUHNE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Well before anyone brought out the scissors to cut the ribbon at Anne Arundel County's first dog park on Dec. 1, 2001, a line of patient pooches and their people had formed outside the gates.

By the time it opened at Quiet Waters Park, recalled John Marshall, chief of county park operations, there were 80 dogs. The area surrounded by 6-foot fencing allowed the new park patrons their first unrestrained public romp and enabled their owners to meet other canine aficionados.

"They were coming and going all day," Marshall said.

Today there are four county dog parks: a 1 1/4 -acre park in Quiet Waters, 3-acre versions in Broadneck Park and Bell Branch Park in Davidsonville, and a 2-acre facility in Maryland City Park near Laurel. Each consists of one fenced area for large dogs and another for small or old dogs.

They have proven wildly popular, so much so that they have suffered a few growing pains along the way and have sent Marshall on a hunt for more dog park sites in the northern and southern parts of the county.

Liz Johns of Arnold and her Siberian husky, Kayla, have been regular visitors to the Broadneck park since Kayla "adopted" her two years ago, Johns said.

"The uniqueness of the dog park is that the people get as much out of it as the dogs," said Johns, a Navy retiree and a county corrections officer. "The park crosses different personality and socioeconomic types. We're an extended family here. When someone needs help, it's, `Here's my phone number; here's Donna's number.' All of the differences in people just fall away, and the common denominator is our dogs.

"It's just another way our dogs take care of us," Johns said.

Marshall said the county doesn't have a way of counting how many people come to the dog parks. But visitors to Quiet Waters Park and Downs Park in Pasadena pay a $5 vehicle entry fee and are tallied by an automatic traffic counter. Usually park visitations inch up 1 percent to 2 percent a year, but the year the Quiet Waters dog park opened, he said, visits increased 20 percent.

"On a nice weekend," the park chief estimated, "every third car entering the park has a dog in it."

Annapolis resident Jan O'Connell has been coming to the Broadneck park with her vizsla-Lab mix, Maxamilli, since it opened.

Before then, said O'Connell, a registered nurse and executive director at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, people were so anxious for a place to take their dogs that "they used to congregate with their dogs at one of the park's ball fields."

The Quiet Waters dog park turned out to be too popular for its modest size.

Installing a water faucet to provide drinking water for the dogs within the fenced area also proved to be a mistake. In no time, said Marshall, paws had churned the surrounding ground into a mud hole, and the only solution was to install an expensive cement pad.

The county then determined that additional dog parks must have a minimum of 2 acres, have room for adequate parking and be far enough from homes that pets will not disturb park neighbors. Water faucets must be located outside the fenced areas, and to further prevent erosion, a large area in each park where people congregate is paved.

Building the Quiet Waters dog park cost $25,000, said Marshall. The most recent dog park, Maryland City, was completed about two years ago for about $40,000, which covered the cost of benches, fencing and a concrete mow strip under the fence.

Because of rising expenses associated with concrete, steel and labor, Marshall estimates that a future dog park will cost as much as $80,000. Funding comes from the park improvement fund, and a dog park can be finished in six weeks, said Marshall.

His office has received requests for dog parks in South County.

"There's plenty of land there," he said. The problem is trying to find a suitable site in the northern part of the county, where congestion makes the search difficult. The Department of Recreation and Parks is investigating potential sites in North County, Marshall added.

He often receives requests to speak to groups throughout the United States to share "the lessons we learned," he said.

Montgomery and Queen Anne's counties are establishing their first dog parks on information supplied by Marshall.

In addition to dog parks, Anne Arundel has dog beaches at Quiet Waters Park and Downs Park. Because there are no lifeguards and because the Health Department has not approved the water for human use, people may not wade or swim with their pooches.

Each visitor is allowed to bring two dogs into a park. Hours are the same as park hours, Marshall said, "basically from dawn to dusk."

Signs in bold red letters at each park entrance remind patrons: "No aggressive dogs allowed." If a problem arises, volunteer "bark rangers" make a note of the owner's car license number and pass that information on to Marshall.

"Then they get a letter from me," he said. Among the thousands of visitors, he figures he's sent fewer than a dozen letters.

Owners are also responsible for cleaning up after their dogs. A large mailbox at each dog park gate holds a supply of plastic bags. Patrons of the park adhere to an unwritten code: It's their job to supply the plastic bags, and to bring jugs of water to the park during the winter when the water is turned off.

But they don't mind. They're all dog lovers. And friends.

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