Establishing a Dog Park

Any neighborhood can now establish a dog park in Chicago, or any city by following the Windy City’s unique formula.

Just four years, ago there wasn’t a single safe place in this city of more than 750,000 dogs to legally play off a leash. Now, there are ten dog friendly areas with more on the way, including dog friendly beach spaces, which will sprout up along the shores of Lake Michigan next spring.

Chicago’s recipe for creating dog friendly green places requires grass roots neighborhood support. Dog owners and non-dog owners work together creating solutions to problems where they live.

Mayor Richard M. Daley barks, “Most dog owners are responsible people. Like anything else, you have to give opportunities to those people who prove they are responsible. They deserve a place for their dogs to walk and swim. It’s all part of getting along with one another in a big city.”

But these responsibilities happened for dog owners in the Windy City only after a full out war of the dogs was escalated to a shocking level in 1995 after a sicko planted hamburger meat laced with arsenic in a park.

Of all complaints received at the Chicago Park District – about crime, trash and everything else – noisy, aggressive and pooping dogs were at the top of the list. The police were told to strictly enforce leash laws.

They sure did. In Oz Park, on the city’s tony near north side, two police officers made a habit of hiding behind trees. They’d holler “Stop in the name of the law!” when they’d witness the crime of an owner allowing a dog off-leash to play fetch with a tennis ball. Some owners who were claimed they were targeted here only because they live in a community where most of them can afford to pay fines.

One dog owner was not only ticketed, she was actually hauled away in a squad car when she permitted her dogs off-leash along a north side beach in winter. Her dogs were hardly giving sunbathers a hard time. Surprised witnesses from nearby high rises watched what amounted to police brutality.

Police actions pushed otherwise upstanding citizens to belligerence, flaunting leash laws while relationships with local police officers disintegrated. Meanwhile, the mess was getting messier, literally. Non-dog owners took dog waste and placed it on the steps of dog owners who weren’t picking up.

Before local skirmishes disintegrated into war, communities from New York City to tiny towns along the Pacific coast, had given dogs their own fenced off places.

Stacey Hawk, a Chicago German shepherd dog owner and supplier of music and video licensing to restaurants and bars, wanted one of these dog areas in her neighborhood, and headed a canine committee for her local neighborhood association. “I thought it was important to develop an alliance of support for dog areas,” says Hawk. “Instead of mandating a place for dogs, I felt the neighborhood should earn it, creating a sense of ownership and responsibility – like the difference between renting and owning.”

Hawk and her group ultimately transformed of an overgrown lot used by gang bangers and street people into a dog park now known as Wiggly Field. Hawk helped to start the Dog Advisory Work Group (D.A.W.G.), which includes both people who live with and without canine companionship.

Albeit admirable, Wiggly Field, was hardly enough to satisfy a city with about as many dogs than children. Tired of the city and the park district moving at the pace of a basset hound, Chicago sculptor Lauren Grey, who has a pair of Portuguese water dogs, created D.O.G./Chicago. This was a coalition offering a single voice to about a dozen loose-knit groups from many neighborhoods in the city who wanted dog parks, and she enlisted support from the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association, the city’s department of animal care and control and local dog trainers. D.O.G./Chicago convinced the city and park district to take action on behalf of dog owners.

“What makes Chicago’s dog areas so different than any other city in the nation is the need for community involvement, ultimately people are overseeing responsibility for their own dog areas,” says Drew Becher, now chief of staff at the Chicago Park District, and in 1999 a high level, Michael J. Fox-like assistant to Mayor Daley when he was first approached by Grey.

“When you ask a child to draw a crayon picture of the family, you get mom, dad and the family pet,” Becher adds. “Pets are a part of the family. In fact, we’re including dog friendly spaces into the design of all new (city) parks.”

D.A.W.G’s co-chair is Cynthia Bathurst, a non-dog owner long involved in community activism. “One of D.A.W.G’s prime directives is education, on both sides of the dog fence, which includes a city-wide Scoop the Poop campaign,” she says. “Dogs are never a problem, it’s advocating responsible ownership.”

Perhaps, this is why Becher confirms dog problems are no longer anywhere near the top of the park district list of public complaints.

Daley is thrilled when dog owners pick up. “I like it when dog owners carry extra plastic bags. If you see someone else (not picking up), you say ‘Do the right thing. Here’s an extra plastic bag.’ We all have responsibilities in life. You have to carry that out. Then, we all enjoy a better city.”

For communities seeking advice, or the protocol to create dog friendly areas from D.A.W.G., call 312-409-2169.

Note: This article is copyrighted by Steve Dale and can be used as source material and for reference only. It cannot be reprinted verbatim. Please contact Steve Dale at [email protected] if you have any questions.

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