Designing Dog Parks

Dog parks--while nowhere near as ubiquitous as ball fields, picnic tables or tennis courts--are starting to become part of the American park landscape.

7 min read

Considerations and alternatives for dog-friendly areas

By Mary Helen Sprecher

Dog parks--while nowhere near as ubiquitous as ball fields, picnic tables or tennis courts--are starting to become part of the American park landscape. Particularly in urban areas where dog owners are unlikely to have adequate residential space for their pets to run, the dog park serves as a community’s backyard.

Various concepts exist to make municipal parks dog-friendly. In addition to the traditional fenced enclosure, other models include unfenced areas within parks where dogs are allowed to be unleashed, and the institution of off-leash hours in regular parks.

While the fenced dog park, unlike the other two, does represent a significant investment and a modification to existing areas, it is probably the best accepted alternative in a community that includes both dog owners and those who prefer not to share their parks with unleashed dogs. This article, therefore, will focus on that model, although ideas for amenities, accessories, hygiene and more can be applied to all dog-friendly areas.

The Particulars
Many fenced dog parks are areas within larger parks that have been set aside for dog use. Some municipalities have successfully seen so-called “pocket parks” (unused space at the end of a block, between houses or in other vacant tracts of city- or county-owned land) converted to dog parks as well.

No matter what area is under consideration, the location must be noted carefully. If a dog park is built too close to residences, homeowners may be bothered by the dogs’ barking, their owners calling them, etc.

Decide in advance whether the park will be open 24 hours a day, or locked between dawn and dusk. If the park is to be open at night, it should be well-lit for the safety of all users--canine and human. However, lighting must not trespass into residential areas. Investigate all zoning regulations for the area under consideration and hold meetings with nearby homeowners’ groups to make sure a consensus is reached.

The American Kennel Club's website ( recommends space for a dog park to be “one acre or more of land surrounded by a four- to six-foot high chain-link fence. Preferably, the fence should be equipped with a double-gated entry to keep dogs from escaping, and to facilitate wheelchair access.”

Admittedly, not every city or every park has one or more acres lying unused; as a result, many dog parks are smaller than the desired acreage. If yours falls into this category, work with the health department or local humane associations and kennel clubs to get recommendations on rules regarding the number of dogs allowed in the area at a time.

The Surface
Dog-park surfaces are limited only by the budget of the city, or by the fundraising ability of those who will be supporting and maintaining them. Early dog parks were simply grass fields or bare dirt, either with or without a coating of pea gravel or crusher run. Some have been as low-tech as vacant paved areas, such as unused parking lots. These days, dog parks might be surfaced in dog park-specific antimicrobial artificial turf.

Note: Prior to construction, always have soil testing done to determine whether or not an area is capable of handling the biological load a dog park will place upon it. A soils engineer will be able to conduct this type of testing and make recommendations.

The design of the park will be dictated by available space, budget, etc. Many dog parks are simply fenced areas, while others contain natural structures, such as rocks, logs, hills and even small swimming pools where dogs can play. Some parks even feature non-working fire hydrants for dogs’ convenience.

Just as with a regular backyard, a dog park isn't self-cleaning, says Alex Levitsky of Global Sports & Tennis Design Group LLC in Fair Haven, N.J. The easier it is for users to keep the dog park sanitary, the more likely it is that users will become stewards of the park and encourage others to be good citizens as well.

“In addition to being a place for dogs to run, ample pooper-scoopers and trash cans or doggy out-houses (where the poop is disposed of) are a must,” says Levitsky.

Many dog parks offer receptacles filled with plastic bags that owners can use to pick up and dispose of dog waste. Bags can be those manufactured especially for that purpose, or they can be reclaimed plastic shopping bags and newspaper-delivery bags, donated by community members and dog owners.

Depending upon soil conditions, some dog parks are able to use actual septic-disposal systems into which dog waste (unbagged) can be shoveled, so that natural enzymes break down the waste. Information on such systems can be found in kennel-supply catalogues and websites.

Amenities And Accessories
Some designs include upper fountains for humans, while drinking basins at the ground level can be filled for dogs’ use.

“Of course,” jokes Levitsky, “if you have a sense of humor, you can make the fountain for a dog look like a toilet bowl.”

A hose bib and power outlet will come in handy for clean-ups, and can also be used if the dog park will host special events, such as animal-rescue festivals, pet blessings, presentations by dog-agility groups or trainers, etc.

Since owners are usually required to remain in the park with their dogs and to take responsibility for them at all times, Levitsky recommends placing benches as well as shelters, such as gazebos, in case of rain.

Other amenities might include weatherproof donation or storage boxes to hold durable dog toys, such as Frisbees, balls, etc. Some storage units can double as benches.

The rules of the park should be clearly posted both inside and outside the fence. A covered bulletin board can be used to showcase announcements, news of upcoming programs or activities, cleanups or improvements or the address of the dog park’s website.

Depending upon the local weather, the dog park may be open year-round, or if heavy snows are the norm, it may be open only in certain seasons. If the facility has synthetic turf, check with the manufacturer of the surfacing system for any recommendations regarding snow removal and other weather-related maintenance issues.

Safety First
Over the years, dog-park design has advanced, and many groups now advocate for separate areas of the park (divided by a chain-link fence): one for smaller or older dogs, and one for larger, younger or more boisterous animals.

Of course, the size and shape of a park may preclude this type of design, in which case it may be wise to post recommendations regarding the age, size or number of dogs allowed in the enclosure at various times.

Some dog parks have rules governing the presence of children as well.

The AKC's website includes a list of suggested rules for dog parks, as well as case studies of various parks.

Who's In Charge?
Some dog parks are strictly the responsibility of the local recreation and parks department, while others may be governed by a group of volunteers who have developed a Memorandum of Understanding with the municipality, which clearly states who is responsible for expenses associated with the park, as well as for maintenance.

No matter which setup a dog park has, Levitsky advocates organizing “a dog-lovers’ volunteer association,” which takes responsibility for enforcing the rules of the park, setting up dates for cleanups and other activities.

If the fenced dog area is large and grassy, it must be mowed, weeded, seeded, fertilized, and aerated, just as with any sports field. During rainy weather, the park will turn into mud very quickly. You might want to speak to a turf specialist about whether the park should be “rested” periodically so that grass can re-establish itself. (This decision will not be popular among dog owners, however.)

Unfortunately, there's no getting around one point: dogs are hard on natural grass, and the smaller the park, the more heavily used its surface will be. In a compact area, the area may become skinned and bare because of dog and foot traffic (and dog urine). You may want to consult a soils engineer about periodic testing for possible contamination from heavy dog use. Occasionally, soil remediation may be necessary for some facilities.

Artificial turf must also be kept clean, and all manufacturers’ recommendations regarding maintenance and repair must be followed. Before attempting any procedures on such turf, consult the installer for advice, as mistakes may be expensive (if not impossible) to fix.

Community Benefit
Dog parks can be a touchy subject--for every person who supports them, there is someone who is opposed to the idea. However, over time, dog parks have gone from an esoteric concept to a desirable community amenity, particularly in urban areas where opportunities for exercising dogs may be limited.

Despite the expense of installation, fenced dog parks can be a great selling point--as long as they are well-designed, well-built, well-located, well-maintained and governed by a group of individuals who take their stewardship seriously. Keep them in good repair, enforce the rules, work with committed volunteers, and you'll see a return on your investment.

Note: The American Sports Builders Association (ASBA) is a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality sports facility construction. The ASBA sponsors informative meetings and publishes newsletters, books and technical construction guidelines for athletic facilities, including sports fields. Available at no charge is a listing of all publications offered by the Association, as well as the ASBA’s Membership Directory. Info: 866-501-ASBA (2722) or

Mary Helen Sprecher has been a technical writer for more than 20 years with the American Sports Builders Association. She has written on various topics relating to sports-facility design, construction and supply, as well as sports medicine, education, health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.