By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"As soon as a puppy gets his shots, get him to the dog park," Arrington advises. "That's critical socialization, right there at about 14 weeks. It's just like children in preschool: It's how they learn sharing the toys."
Compared to the unofficial meet-up areas of the 1990s, dogs are clearly enjoying new levels of comfort and socialization. Even more telling than being able to sniff leash-free are the ever-burgeoning (and seemingly recession-proof) variations on pet care. According to author Michael Schaffer, whose book on the pet industry, One Nation Under Dog, was published this March, the latest in dog luxury ranges from designer collars at Pet Fashion Week in New York City to pet chauffeurs to $300-a-night doggie hotels. All told, it's a $40-billion-plus industry.
This April, Schaffer told NPR about his experience at a dog park:
"There's this very intricate network of rules, and what you're supposed to do and not supposed to do, and no one wrote them down...You could see how the people who were regulars at the park would just sort of shun people who engaged in behavior that wasn't cool...Heaven forbid you let your dog poop and don't pick it up, because everyone will remind you."
But no matter the extent of enforcement by Dallas regulars or the many improvements at the Mockingbird Point Dog Park, the dependable and free public dog park is no match for the latest incarnation of dog park luxury.
The grass is always greener at Unleashed. Softer too. That's because the fashionable indoor dog park has K9Grass, a patented, antimicrobial synthetic grass designed to enhance dogs' comfort and safety. At the official opening of Unleashed this March, hundreds of dogs, from the world's tallest Great Dane to teacup poodles and every multicolored mutt in between, romped on 25,000 square feet of K9Grass in a spacious, sunlit building. Enormous ceiling fans kept the air moving. Handlers, dressed in khakis and black polo shirts emblazoned with Unleashed's logo of a running dog, kept owners and their dogs in line, tossing Frisbees and reminding people to clean up after their pets. Should the rare fight break out, the handlers are trained in techniques to separate the dogs.
In a section of the indoor park dedicated to smaller dogs, five cocker spaniels trailed eagerly behind a tall, blond girl in a college sweatshirt who led them in circles around the little enclosure. Nearby, older dogs rested on doggie beds arranged next to chairs and tables for their owners, and the groomer and retail shop were running a brisk business in all things canine. The married co-owners of Unleashed, Kelly and Cody Acree, are planning to install a café, restaurant and outdoor dog park—complete with splash pools, waterfalls and towels to dry off dogs so nobody's car gets dirty.
The Acrees believe that Unleashed is the country's first indoor dog park—which means they had nowhere to look for design advice, except a model of what they didn't want: the Mockingbird Point Dog Park at White Rock Lake.
"We went to White Rock Lake with our own dog many, many Saturdays," Kelly recalls. And one busy, sunny Saturday a few years ago, after waiting for a parking spot at Mockingbird Point, the Acrees, on a whim, started counting cars and people. "They would literally come in the gate as fast as I could click," Kelly says. "We were counting 150 dogs an hour coming and going."
But as soon as the weather turned bad, those numbers plummeted. "The dog park is very appealing to people, but it doesn't take much to make it unappealing, especially in the summer or the cold-weather months," Kelly says. The couple figured that by providing a venue where people could exercise their dogs and find certain amenities—permanent restrooms, climate control and a process to ensure that all the dogs had their shots and weren't aggressive—they'd attract the people who didn't go to White Rock, or who went but wanted something better.
So far, they're succeeding. Unleashed doesn't smell; the giant fans, combined with a gravel drainage system, keep it clean. It proved the perfect spot when this year's annual Easter pet parade and canine costume contest, usually held in Lee Park on Turtle Creek, got rained out. And having handlers on the floor during dog play has helped avoid—for the most part—the problems that arise when dogs fight.
When the Dallas City Council approved the creation of off-leash dog parks, it also added certain provisions to the city code aimed at governing how people and their dogs behave in the parks. Generally, the rules are the same as Unleashed's requirements: No unvaccinated puppies, no female dogs in heat, owners must clean up what their dogs leave behind. Tinning says they took some of the lessons they had learned from the unofficial dog park and implemented them at the Mockingbird dog park.
She recalls a woman who brought a Yorkshire terrier in a diaper to the Mockingbird park just days after the park had opened. "We didn't have the little dog park yet, and there were like 14 huge yellow Labs running around the park," Tinning says. She asked the woman if her dog was injured; when she replied that her dog was in heat, Tinning suggested the woman leave.