Around the time the sun first peeks over the eastern horizon, Jim Christian loads his three black dogs into his silver Honda and drives a few miles to the Mockingbird Point Dog Park, a fenced enclosure of dirt and grass at the northwest tip of White Rock Lake. He's alone on this chilly March morning; even most die-hards don't start coming until 7:30 or 8. So Christian unloads his dogs and takes them for a short walk along the lake.
After the walk, he lets them enter the first gate to the big-dog park—there's a separate one for small dogs—and takes off their leashes. Except for its periphery, most of the big-dog park is bare dirt: a dust bowl when it's dry; a mud pit when it rains. Christian opens the second gate, and his dogs bound into the center of the park, chasing each other around wooden picnic tables and sniffing the perimeter. Luke, a mix of black Lab and greyhound, busily marks the fence posts, securing his territory. Luke's harem includes Lucy Jane, a curmudgeonly old Rottweiler mix, and Journey, a mutt who's the smartest and sweetest of the bunch.
It's been three years since Christian, an art dealer, first started coming here. "I ended up with three restless rescue dogs who needed to get some kinks worked out of them," recalls Christian, whose search for something bigger than his own backyard led him to the dog park. The fringe benefit to letting his dogs run and play was the social gathering of humans that Christian now calls his "country club," a group of dog park regulars who meet each morning at the big-dog park. It's Christian's self-appointed position at the big-dog park to keep the peace—and the conversation—going.
Web extra:Take our quiz to find out what kind of a dog owner you are.
More photos: Dogs and owners in costume at the Easter pooch parade at Unleashed, in our slideshow here.
Plus, see the Cotton Bowl turn into Dallas' biggest dog park for a day -- photos from this year's Dog Bowl in our slideshow here.
Today, he braces himself from the cold by cinching up his khaki-colored ski coat and pulling down his striped knit hat. He wears the same gray fleece pants almost every morning—most of the dog park regulars wear their own uniform, and one woman even keeps hers outside the house because of the smell. Christian knows most of the regular dogs' names and their corresponding characteristics—Huckleberry's "a dog park legend and kleptomaniac"; Wilbur the bulldog loves to attack a stream of water when someone turns on the hose—but it's the morning regulars he watches out for, and by 7:45 two of them—Bill Wilcox, a big-boned software engineer, and Stephen Foster, a former bank employee in red flannel—arrive.
They arrange several plastic chairs in a haphazard circle around Christian, and the growing mass of dogs fight playfully in the center.
"This is Prince," Wilcox says, gesturing toward a chilled-out black dog with white feet. The name, he explains, is fallout from his daughter's princess phase. "Now he's the dog known as Prince," he jokes.
Foster's dog is Smokey, a Schipperke-Lab mix he found in his front yard with a gunshot wound.
"My dogs are pedigreed," Christian says with a mischievous grin. "Luke is a Tibetan temple hound. You can look that up. There are only nine in the U.S."
The other men laugh.
"Journey is an Ibiza humping hound"—and the constant object of Luke's affections—"and Lucy is an American domestic short-legged Rotten-weiler," Christian deadpans as Lucy Jane snarls at a chocolate Lab who's come out of nowhere to join the mix.
"Tom," says Christian, connecting the Lab to her owner. "His name is Thomas William Tinkle: Tom will tinkle." It's a well-worn joke, and when Tinkle hears it, he shakes his head. "And this," Tinkle says, pointing to the Lab, "is Wonky Bitch."
"Everyone beats up on her," Christian observes. "She comes in clean and leaves dirty." Indeed, she's currently being chased by the rest of the pack; before long, she'll be on her back in the dust, the rest of the dogs snapping at her legs and haunches.
The men watch for a moment, then turn their attention to the outrage of the day: a bike race that has taken over Peavy Road, blocking access to part of the lake. There's a constant competition between cyclists and dog park users for Saturday parking spaces at Mockingbird Point. "We have terrible nerve, using the roads for transportation," Christian says.
The conversation begins to take on a frat-like quality—and then Lee Pelton-Shapiro arrives with her three dogs, two of whom are German shepherds. Both bark excitedly, one of them clambering onto the laps of other owners.
"Fritz!" Pelton-Shapiro yells, trying in vain to calm him down. "That's Fritz," she explains as she takes a seat. "His real name is Dumbshit." The other shepherd, Wolfie, is older and better-behaved; Pelton-Shapiro's third is Sugar, a white ball of curled fur with black eyes. His two main interests appear to be getting as muddy as possible and indiscriminately humping all other dogs. Lucy Jane, meanwhile, is holding down the fort at Christian's feet, growling at anything, human or canine, that comes close to her.
"Lucy's keeping watch," Tinkle says, looking as the half-blind dog barks at nothing in particular. "She's like the...the hall monitor."
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.
"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.
"And she goes, 'It's a public park; I can be in here!'" Tinning says. "I said, 'OK. Do you see all of those Labs? What do you think is going to happen to your baby when they get her scent?' All the color drained out of her face, and she practically ran out of the park. To me, that's common sense."
If public dog parks get a bad rap for anything, though, it's more for fighting than for breeding issues—and discussions about dog fights rarely go far without a mention of pit bulls. This February, a fight between a pit bull mix and an Australian shepherd at the Mockingbird Point Dog Park only heightened the controversy. When the dogs began to fight, the owner of the shepherd pulled out a switchblade to separate them; instead he accidentally stabbed the pit bull's owner in the face. The shepherd's owner argued that he was merely defending his dog, and the pit bull's owner did not press charges. But when another fight involving a pit bull mix broke out at Unleashed just two days after its unofficial opening, the Acrees' insurance company required them to ban pit bulls altogether.
As a dog park regular, Jim Christian has his own share of war stories, and a lot of them involve pit bulls.
"The city has problems with pit bulls," Christian says, as the subject of one morning discussion returns, inevitably, to dogs. "It's people throwing testosterone fits and using their dogs to do it. Any dog will go off. The problem is, pit bulls are built to do more damage," he says.
"The owners are the problem," Pelton-Shapiro agrees. "There used to be a guy with two pit bulls. He'd come in and brag that it had been a week since his female had killed another dog."
To Arrington, the animal behaviorist, banning one breed won't solve any problems.
"I don't think you could say certain breeds—any more than you could say certain races of humans—are more prone to killing or fighting," Arrington says. "I don't like to talk breeds because their DNA is all the same. They look different, [but] they're all still dogs."
And any dog can get in an argument, she adds—"just like children. Usually there's an object involved—a ball, a toy, a chewy. Generally it's going to be a little spat over a prized object, and they'll [snarl] and then it's over."
That's not to say that things can't get ugly. Just recently, on a crowded Saturday at the dog park, Christian and his three dogs were minding their own business when a pit bull came up to Luke and challenged him.
"So Luke starts fighting her, because he's got to protect his pack," Christian explains. "Well, I wasn't going to pull her off, because I got 17 stitches in my hand from another pit bull earlier this year. So I pulled Luke off, and the best I could do is just kind of kick the pit bull away."
As for the other owner, "He was just watching," Christian recalls, shaking his head. "He said, 'They're dogs! Let 'em fight it out!'" Christian wasn't inclined to do so, but it was worth asking Arrington: What should an owner do in such a situation?
"You could put the word 'never' in capital letters: NEVER let them fight it out," Arrington says. "Not at a dog park. Letting them fight it out could mean the death of one of them." The solution, she says, is to avoid fights by training dogs appropriately and banning those individual dogs that are aggressive.
While the Mockingbird Point park does post a list of rules, one of which bars aggressive dogs and requires any dogs exhibiting aggression to leave the park, there is little enforcement in the dog park, aside from the efforts of dog park regulars such as Christian, Pelton-Shapiro and Tinning.
Unleashed now requires owners to fill out a questionnaire about their dogs' behavior and, if they're leaving a dog for day care, submit their pets to a brief behavioral exam of the dog's temperament.
"We can kind of tell when they come in the gate," Kelly Acree says. "You just start watching basic temperaments, which change from minute to minute in many cases, and keeping an eye on how they're all interacting together: Are they playing fair? Is one cornering another?" So far, adds Kelly, Unleashed hasn't had to turn away any dogs. Not so in the public dog park.
"There are those jerks out there who bring a dog that shouldn't be around any other dogs," Tinning admits. "You have to be willing to say, 'You need to leave,' or [call] the police or animal control. It doesn't happen very often, but it happens."
More often than not, the social interaction that occurs at a dog park is positive—though dogs aren't the only species socializing. Tinning says that once the park at Mockingbird Point became official, people started coming because they just enjoyed the whole dog park experience.
"There were hookups; there were friendships formed," Tinning recalls. "It was just a great sense of community."
Unleashed has already seen couples on first dates at the dog park, and the Acrees say they plan to host monthly singles and couples mixers for dog owners. Encouraging human socialization as well as pet interaction is part of the logic behind the café and restaurant too.
At a dog park, says Kelly Acree, "There's a big social element—a chance to talk and meet new people because you have common ground. It's easy to talk—'What kind of dog do you have? Oh, he's so cute!'—and suddenly you've struck up a conversation with someone you would never have talked to otherwise."
That's pretty much how dog park regulars form their circle. What's routine for dogs—playing with a ball, sniffing rear ends—can be, for owners, an ice breaker to talk about breeds, ages, behavior or the dog park itself. When a dog repeatedly mounts another dog—behavior Arrington says is more about dominance than sex—the right thing to do would be to walk over to the other dog's owner and apologize.
On Saturday mornings around 8:30 a.m., there is a gathering parallel to the big-dog park—the circling-up of green plastic chairs, the dog-side chats, the excessive energy of enthusiastic dogs—which happens at Mockingbird Point's small-dog park. The regulars file in, dragging their chairs over to a designated area at one end of the park. The first ones there—Kelly Christensen, an outgoing, auburn-haired woman with an apricot-colored mutt named Sweetie Pie; Paige Mims, the owner of two rambunctious 18-month-old pups named Jack and Jill; Ron Comte, an unassuming, blue-eyed man in baggy jeans, with his two rescued mutts—form the core of the circle, while others come and go over the next couple of hours.
The conversation is lively. Most of these people have been seeing each other once or twice a week for years, and they're comfortable enough to tease and be teased. Other than a surreptitious "war" over the green plastic chairs—people in the small-dog park blame those in the big-dog park for taking too many green plastic chairs, and vice versa—there's little animosity. Christensen takes Sweetie Pie over to the big-dog park some mornings, and she says Jim Christian always welcomes her. But it's not the same as being here, in what Christensen calls her "therapy circle."
"I'm unemployed, and they support me and believe in me. They make jokes about my being unemployed." She pauses. "There's one woman, though, who comes, and she'll just sit there and complain for two hours! When we see her coming, we tighten the circle. [But] we're not mean. There are no mean cliques here." That social groups do exist, though, she won't deny.
"We're a very diverse group," Christensen continues. "If you had to say who was the patriarch of this park, it would be Ron," she says, pausing. "And Jerry," she adds—that's Jerry Posten, owner of the hyper, wire-haired Twiggy—"but Ron's more responsible, because if a pretty woman comes in here, Jerry will jump the fence to talk to her."
Today, though, there's not much action. Comte seems relaxed; Posten comments about how having an indoor dog park defeats the purpose of dog parks—"The whole idea behind a dog park is to get out and get a little dirty."
"Oh, now it's going to get interesting," Christensen says, eyeing the parking lot. A white pickup truck, painted with black spots to look like a dairy cow, has just driven in. The driver, a petite woman with a thick blond ponytail, is leaning out the window and working the horn, which issues a loud "Moo."
"That's Andie," Christensen says, as if the name explains everything. Andie Comini, she means—one of the dog park founders and a true dog park personality—who makes a dramatic entrance with her three well-groomed, black-and-white Japanese chins, PooChiNi, RooBella and BooKoozzo. When Comini walks up to join the circle, Comte sticks out a hand and introduces himself.
"Screw you," Comini mutters, grinning. She looks around at the group, teasing people for looking hung-over and weighing in on the plastic chair war. (She used to buy white plastic chairs for the dog park, she says, but claims that when she left them here, the city took them away because it thought they looked trashy. Now she buys the harder-to-find green ones—and marks them with three brown spots so the big-dog park people won't steal them.)
Meanwhile, Christensen's describing an "alpha rag," a training toy that she covers with her "scent" by rubbing her hands on it and then throws gently at her dog to show Sweetie Pie who's dominant.
"She's been using this with men at bars too," Comini interjects. "It works!" Christensen dismisses her with a laugh.
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It's getting later, and the crowd is changing from a few quiet park-goers to families with children and puppies. Two very young, still-clumsy yellow Lab puppies, one named Marley, elicit a series of eye rolls from the circle because it's such a blatant reference to the recent movie, Marley and Me. Chihuahuas and Pomeranians are starting to outnumber the mutts, and as the sun climbs higher, the morning regulars start to filter out of the park.
On her way out, Comini stops to talk to the family of the Marley puppy, checking to make sure the dogs have had all their shots. "OK, good," she says, then continues out of the park, her three little dogs bouncing comically at her heels.
Across the path, Jim Christian is gathering his dogs. Lucy Jane walks slowly next to him on her short, old-lady legs, while Luke and Journey have one last tussle as he untangles their leashes at the gate. As the sun arcs over the dog park, the crowd here changes, swelling in the late morning, winnowing out around noon, then growing even bigger and rowdier in the afternoon.
Night comes slowly, and everyone goes home. In the moonlight, the dog park looks like a jumbled mess of overturned chairs, half-chewed sticks and forgotten toys. But before morning begins, and as long as there isn't rain, Christian will be back, with Luke and the ladies by his side, to awaken the park again.