By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
At this park, Lucy Jane is the closest thing there is to a dog marshal. City employees come by once a day, in the morning, to empty the garbage cans, and the dog park closes twice a month for maintenance, but other than that, it's pretty much controlled chaos.
But what began as a city-sanctioned canine recreation spot has since mushroomed into something more. There's no official statistic for the number of dogs that frequent the dog park in a weekend, but several dog park regulars place the number at a few thousand. Over the years, a simple fenced area at the north end of White Rock Lake has been transformed into two separate dog parks—30 pounds is the weight limit for the small-dog park—with a thrice-renovated landing for lake access, overhead lighting and even dog-treat vending machines. None of these additions seems particularly extravagant, not when compared to the trendy Unleashed, one of the country's first indoor dog parks, which opened up just six miles from White Rock Lake this March.
While the privately owned Unleashed has a strict code of conduct enforced against owner and dog alike, the real enforcement at the Mockingbird Point Dog Park falls to people like Christian and Pelton-Shapiro (and dogs like Lucy Jane). They are the ones who remind people to pick up after their dogs and ask them to leave when they're not following the rules. It's up to them to enforce civility—not only among the dogs, but also among their human owners.
"Only, we don't call them owners," Pelton-Shapiro interjects. "We call them mothers and fathers."
Before cities started building official dog parks, the first off-leash dog meet-ups were held on beaches and in empty lots. Dallas had one on the southern edge of White Rock Lake, at the green space near Winsted Drive. Beginning in the 1990s, East Dallas dog owners began meeting there on Saturdays so their dogs could play together. But there were no fences or rules, and there was always the risk of dogs running into the road or fighting or bothering kids at the nearby playground, says Melissa Tinning, a local dog owner who became one of the early advocates for a city-sanctioned dog park. As the meet-up gained popularity, parking became a problem too.
"On a Saturday morning, there might be 60-70 cars around this little neighborhood park," Tinning recalls. "The neighbors recognized that we needed a [dog] park." Together with Andie Comini, another East Dallas dog owner, Tinning helped establish White Rock Lake Dog Park Inc., an interest group that worked to get a city-approved off-leash dog park in Dallas.
Comini says they spent months trying to get city officials and local residents to see the value—community and canine safety, dog socialization and health—in having a city-authorized dog park. "I went to all these neighborhood association meetings, trying to convince people it would be a good idea," Comini says. "We had a lot of resentment, a lot of, 'Well, gee, we just don't know; our dogs don't want to play with other dogs.'" On top of that, she says, "It was not easy to convince the city. Nobody wanted to touch it until it was a success. Then they all wanted to say they started it."
But in December 2000, the Dallas City Council approved development of five off-leash dog parks, including one at Mockingbird Point, stipulating that the necessary improvements—fences, gates, garbage cans and benches—be privately funded. The following spring, Comini and Tinning's group secured a $25,000 grant from Muenster Milling Co., a pet food company, to establish the Mockingbird Point Dog Park. The park became official on June 8, 2001, with former Texas Rangers ace Nolan Ryan throwing out the opening-day pitch (a dog toy).
After Dallas approved off-leash dog parks, cities across the metroplex followed suit: Plano opened its first dog park in the summer of 2002, and by 2004, there was another Dallas dog park, Bark Park Central, under U.S. Highway 75 in Deep Ellum and one in Fort Worth (Fort Woof). Since then, dog parks have opened in Arlington, Southlake, Denton and Grand Prairie.
In cities around the country, says Vicki Küng, co-founder of the Web site DogPark.com, "the off-leash movement" started gaining strength in the mid-1990s. "Work habits changed, [and] the presence of dogs in people's daily lives—moving from backyard to family member—really prompted the growth and acceptance of dog parks." She estimates that there are currently more than 400 official (fenced, city-approved) dog parks in the United States. Küng says she's seen change not only in relationships between dogs and their owners, but also in the perception of dog parks.
"When we started our Web site 11 years ago, dog park advocates were often considered the lunatic fringe of a community's recreational users," Küng says. Now, though, "there is an increasing acceptance of the benefits of a dog park for socializing dogs, getting people out in the fresh air and being a reasonable use of community park resources."
"No human can play with a dog like another dog," explains Diane Arrington, an animal behaviorist and founder and director of Dallas' PetPerfect Academy. That dog-on-dog interaction is so important that Arrington tells her clients to take their dogs to the park as early as possible.