Evolving Dog-Park Design Standards

As our little corner of the world here in Douglas County, Colorado started to grow, our park district received numerous requests for the development of off-leash dog areas (dog parks). It seemed the folks moving to town (and those already here), wanted a place for their dogs to run, play and socialize off-leash.

Because of this input, the 2003 master-planning process for two regional parks in the county was careful to include a dog park in each of the proposed parks.

But then, an interesting thing happened. As the ensuing design discussions took place, it quickly became apparent there was not much history on dog-park design. It seems that, as a group, landscape architects and park planners have been designing parks for about 150 years, sports complexes for 80-90 years, but dog parks for only five years (although some have been around longer).

We were going to have to do some research and, perhaps, play a role in helping to evolve dog-park design.

Design Decisions – Where to Begin?

Our research method of choice was to observe existing dog parks in the Denver metro-area and break apart their designs for our own use. We learned a few things:

1) There were no hard and fast rules about dog-park design (all were different based on their particular situation).

2) All the parks experienced extremely high, active use.

3) In most cases, they were being used too much.

In short, there were no right, or more important, wrong design solutions – it seemed a simple case of “build it and they will come.” But there were design considerations we felt could make the dog park more aesthetically pleasing for both human and animal users.

First-Generation Dog-Park Design

As we continued to observe dog parks in our area, we found a progression of designs. It seemed each successive park took the best part of previous designs and then improved upon them with their own, new ideas. We started defining them as either first-generation or second-generation parks.

The first-generation parks we looked at were just large enclosures with a single entry/exit gate, and although they function very well to contain dogs, they are limited in aesthetic value.

The most obvious challenge discovered in first-generation parks was turf wear. Because of the concentrated use at the single entry/exit gate, the turf disappeared, leaving a rutted, dirt entry path. And, if the turf throughout these parks was not irrigated, large sections of the park were destroyed, unable to recover from year to year.

In some cases, where the turf was irrigated, the turf could withstand the beating, only showing wear in areas of concentrated activity (like the entry/exit gate) and stood a better chance of recovery year to year. But overuse was still a considerable problem.

The single entry/exit point in first-generation parks also posed another unique problem. As we observed several times, it seemed very hard for owners to control the entering dog (because it was so excited to get in), and it was equally hard to prevent the dogs that were already in the park from getting out (to investigate the new dog). These issues were addressed in the next generation of design.

Second-Generation Dog-Park Design

The second generation of dog park design was similar to the first — one large open area, with the addition of what we call the bullpen.

The bullpen is basically a pen within a pen. It’s a small enclosed entry area, generally 10’ x 10’ to 15’ x 15’, and has two gates. The first is the entry/exit gate used to get to the bullpen; the second is a gate from the bullpen into the dog park itself. The surface of the bullpen is generally some material, either hard (concrete) or soft (crusher fines) to match the entry.

This system enables a person to enter the bullpen, close the gate, unleash the dog and then open the gate into the dog park. This allows for more control of both the entering dog, and the dogs in the park itself. To leave, the process is reversed.

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