Dog Parks: Then and Now

What you need to know to build one in your city.

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The next time you visit a dog park, thank the snowy plover.

The decline in the shorebird’s numbers along some of San Francisco’s remote beaches in the 1970s forced inland the burgeoning off-leash culture after naturalists linked the bird’s predicament to unleashed dogs romping along the shore.

Unbowed, the dog owners headed to San Francisco and nearby Berkeley’s web of small municipal parks. The once-sleepy plots soon transformed into mini battlegrounds, with off-leash opponents refusing to relinquish any of the city’s precious open space.

A cease-fire of sorts was reached in 1979 with the opening of Berkeley’s Experimental Dog Park in Ohlone Park, now widely considered the world’s first dog park.

“It had a fence, two Mulberry trees, three big rocks, weeds, and not much else,” remembers Doris Richards, a founder of the park now named Martha Scott Benedict Memorial Dog Park.

Today there are an estimated 1,000-plus parks across the United States. Experts predict that number will climb, as city governments approve new dog parks every month. Government Magazine calls America’s dog park lobby “unstoppable,” and says attempts by government to obstruct pet owners is the new third rail of local politics.

Michele Biscoe, who helped found the first dog park in Somerville, Mass., says it’s time for city governments to recognize dog owners’ rights. “Public open space must serve the many and diverse recreational needs of all residents,” she says.

Stow (Ohio) Mayor Karen Fritschel was a big supporter of her city’s dog park, Bow Wow Beach. It features the latest amenities, including a three-acre swimming pond, sandy beach, separate fenced areas for large and small dogs, and a doggie washing station — all free of charge.

“The dog park has been one of the most popular things the city has done,” Fritschel says. “When it opened, I received an unbelievable number of positive e-mails and phone calls.”

Fritschel understands why dog parks are important to a community. “Since the dogs love coming to the dog park, it makes their owners very happy.”

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