The idea that a dog park can influence where people want to live, work and play will not be breaking news to dog owners. Social dynamics often change between strangers when a dog is present.
I got Trout—my first dog—a few years ago. He’s an English springer spaniel who loves to run, fetch and swim, and generally found covered with burrs. In the beginning, I found myself surprised by the amount of attention and conversation we entered into during our walks. Sure, Trout is adorable, and it's not uncommon for children to ask to pet him, but I encountered many people who wanted to introduce Trout and I to their dogs, making them friends, and talk about dog related issues. The mini sidewalk conversations have continued throughout the years, and now I expect it and find myself approaching strangers with dogs too.
As someone who is educated in urban design and has spent time studying how people use their streets and communities to engage with one another, I find these little interactions between strangers and their dogs very curious.
You might think to yourself: dog people talk to each other, who cares? However, these little interactions every day are essential for building trust and pride in the neighbourhood. I regularly see the same people walking their dogs every day at six in the morning, and now I have faces that populate those blocks around my house. The quick “good morning” or long conversation turns me from anonymous individual to a community member. Similar to how you see the same people at the bus stop each morning, these people are familiar—often nameless but not faceless, keeping everyone accountable.
However, the experience of walking in my neighbourhood is nothing compared to the dog park. Your dog decides who to play with and in turn decides who you interact with as well. Since frequenting different dog parks, I have had long conversations with people from all walks of life as our dogs play together. The simple fact that you have a dog is your “in”, your jumping, barking icebreaker, acting as a common interest and invites conversation. I can imagine that this type of blind common interest, which breaks all typical barriers of strangers spontaneously talking to each other, is similar to parents waiting outside their kid’s school or sitting around a play structure watching their kids play. It’s a convenient, easy opportunity to engage with others.
In Winnipeg, dog parks at a community level are almost non-existent. The 11 off-leash areas in the city are treated more as destinations or regional parks, accessible by vehicle and not by foot. These larger parks are lovely spaces to spend a few hours in, but we are missing the community level spaces that you stop at a few times during the week and interact with your neighbours. To put the lack of off-leash areas in perspective, Winnipeg has one of the highest dog populations in a major Canadian city. In 2017, the City of Winnipeg Animal Services licensed 51,665 dogs—one dog for every 14 people. In comparison, Calgary has one dog for every 12 people and boasts 150 off-leash areas.
In addition to the community building aspect of dog parks, there is also an element of community watch and increased eyes on the street. In my experience, the off-leash areas are well used from early in the morning to late at night, year round. Even on the coldest days, you can always find a few brave souls and their pups in the park. There are not many other park programs that can guarantee that amount of activity from such a diverse demographic and age group. This constant activity increases the perceived safety of the space.
Regarding a public amenity, dog parks or off-leash areas in existing and new parks are relatively low cost and low maintenance. All it takes is an open space and a fence. Dogs and their owners don’t expect perfectly mown sod, free of weeds and ware marks like some other park users might. Owners simply need a secure place for their dog to run and explore.
To be clear, I am not saying that dogs are necessary to create a safe, personable and prideful neighbourhood. However, the types of interactions that dogs can evoke most definitely are. Public spaces such as dog parks, green spaces, sports fields are essential to a healthy community, and we should never stop encouraging the use and creation of them.