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More Church of Dog

John and Stacie and I took Lando, Payton, and Remy to the dogpark down by the airport. It doesn't require a license, so they were checking it out to see if Lando would like it. I think the verdict was an enthusiastic "YES!" I think my kids have begun to be deliberately wild and crazy at home in order to get to go to "church," but then, I may be imagining things because I like going there so much.

Saturday's Star Tribune had an article about the growing number of dog parks in the Cities: (I don't know how long you'll be able to access it, so I reprinted it in the extended entry)

Last update: May 27, 2005 at 11:28 PM
Minnesotans let the dogs out
Mary Lynn Smith
Star Tribune
Published May 28, 2005

Taking out the dog means taking off the leash for growing numbers of local pet lovers.

Parks where dogs can romp free of leashes and shock collars are sprouting rapidly throughout the Twin Cities, making the region a national model for letting the dog out. And in the latest twist on the trend, indoor play areas and groups are popping up for the more petite pooches.

With many of the outdoor off-leash areas geared toward larger dogs, the midget mutts and the styling breeds find comfort being with their own size. In a frenzy of fur, they chase, race and scamper after balls, through tunnels and in circles, out of the harsh elements in the winter and the mud and dirt the rest of the year.

"Small-dog owners don't like that stuff," said Wendy VanKerKhove, a dog trainer who supervises "Pint Size Play" at Downtown Dogs in Minneapolis. "Small-dog owners are more prissy. They carry their dogs a lot. ... They put bows on [the dogs] and pink-beaded harnesses."

Pampering pets isn't anything new, said Stanley Coren, psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and author of "How Dogs Think."

But historically it was reserved for the wealthy. "Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786) had a special wing in his castle for his little Italian greyhound," Coren said.

But as more people marry later, have fewer children and live longer, they have more money and time to have a dog and pamper it, he said.

And social hours for the spaniel makes sense because socialized dogs are better behaved, he said.

Roaming free

Indoors or out, canines and humans alike find camaraderie and companionship when the leashes come off.

For nearly two decades, persistent, passionate dog owners have petitioned and pestered regional and city park officials to let more outdoor space go to the dogs.

"The best guess is that nearly 50 percent of the homeowners in Eden Prairie own dogs. ... You're putting your head in the sand if you don't recognize that [an off-leash park] is a new demand," said Bob Lambert, Eden Prairie's park and recreation director, where one off-leash park is operating and another is on the way. "People will argue that little Johnny has greater needs than Fido. But Fido is part of the family, too, and his needs are just as great as Johnny's."

And it's not just Eden Prairie.

Consider the numbers: Nearly one-third of metro homeowners have dogs, slightly less than the 36 percent of the households that include children. But the number of households with children is projected to shrink over the next 30 years, and park officials have taken notice. Acres of land are being fenced so Rover can romp without offending those who don't want a beagle bounding at them, said Tom McDowell, director of program and facility services for Three Rivers Park District.

Leading the pack

While national dog activists believe the off-leash park got its start in California, they agree that Minnesota has pushed ahead as one of the leaders of the pack.

Minnesota dog enthusiasts led in part by ROMP (Responsible Owners of Mannerly Pets) have proven themselves to be "one of the best off-leash groups in the country," said Claudia Kawczynska, editor and founder of the national magazine, "Bark."

Barb Heideman, cofounder and executive director of ROMP, said the Twin Cities can boast about not only the numbers of dog parks but also the large size and high quality of the parks.

"The original design for a dog park amounted to some astro turf and a fence," Heideman said. "We raised the bar. ... in part because Three Rivers [Park District] and Ramsey County was willing to look at these in a different way."

A place to mingle

As soon as an off-leash park opens, it's instantly busy, Lambert said. The 16-acre Dakota County park near Coates has become a new favorite doggie getaway for Julie McNulty and her sister-in-law, Kim Mosier. The county opened the off-leash park last summer with volunteers.

"This is so wonderful," Mosier said. "It's so open. It has trails in the woods. It's a more natural setting for a dog."

And owners.

"Most owners and dogs don't do well with the leash," said Heideman. "Dogs choke, gag and pull against it. It turns into a terrible ordeal to walk a dog on a leash. ... They're meant to run. They're social creatures."

As McNulty tended to her 2-year-old son, Levi, her chocolate Labrador retriever romped with Mosier's dog, a Rottweiler and Akita mix. "With leash laws in the city, it's hard for dogs to be dogs and do what dogs do," Mosier said.

The popularity of such parks has inspired Carver County officials to propose an 18-acre off-leash area in Lake Minnewashta Regional Park. And it's why Tammy Scott is pushing Scott County officials to open one near Jordan, Belle Plaine and New Prague, saving her -- and her dog -- a 15-mile drive along back roads to the nearest off-leash area in Cleary Park.

Washington County officials also may consider an off-leash area when they update their master plan for Lake Elmo Park Reserve, although the demand is less in the area where many nearby landowners have large lots.

"It's become a bit of a trend," said McDowell, adding that requests and expectations from dog owners outpace most other groups.

Park officials also considered that park police were reporting an increasing number of leash-law infractions. "It's one of the toughest issues in the parks," McDowell said. "Dog usage is only going to increase, so we would do well to manage it."

Three Rivers Park District, formerly Hennepin Parks, was among the leaders of the pack, converting an old orchard at Elm Creek Park Reserve into the district's first off-leash area in 1983.

More sites to open

The district now has four off-leash areas that chalked up 70,700 visits in 2004, including nearly 1,100 people who paid $30 for an annual permit. Park officials plan to open three more sites next year. In the meantime, the district recently agreed to allow dog-walking on all regional trails because many connect to city trails where it's allowed.

Owners of small dogs, meanwhile, are showing they'll pay for separate indoor play.

Many of these dogs would be intimidated at an off-leash park, said VanKerKhove, the trainer, who owns a 55-pound golden retriever-border collie mix and a 15-pound cockapoo.

VanKerKhove points to Tikva, the delicate-looking Maltese with the yellow bow and one of more than a dozen pampered pets scampering through an old Minneapolis warehouse that serves as a dog day care by day and a play area by night once a week. "She doesn't even know she's a dog," VanKerKhove said.

Tikva sat on Judith Razieli's lap, watching as the other dogs scampered by. Nearby, Joni Smith's Bichon, BJ, ran off. "He's an only dog and doesn't get to be around dogs very much," Smith said.

"We come every week," said Razieli, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a larger-than-life photo of Tikva. "I just want her to know she's a dog."

And it's working. "She's starting to sniff other dogs," Razieli said. "The people here are all dog people, and they don't think you're the least bit cuckoo."

Mary Lynn Smith is at mlsmith@startribune.com

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