City council debates $500,000 solution to Denver's dog park problem

Dog owner often spend time commuting to parks for their pets

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For years, Taylor Nelson would load dogs Ozzie and Titan into his car, start the engine and embark on his half-hour daily commute. Except he wasn't commuting to work — he was going to the dog park.

“It was 25 minutes' drive each way, and that was the closest one,” said Nelson, who formerly lived in Washington Park. “It was a lot. The things we do for our kids.”

For those in Washington Park and many others, long dog park commutes are just part of the daily routine.

But in response to requests from many residents for additional dog parks, Denver officials are considering using more than $500,000 of the 2019 budget to build a new dog park somewhere in south Denver.

The Denver area currently has 12 dog parks, which are designated spaces where owners can take their dogs off-leash. Anywhere else in the city, pet owners are required by law to keep their dogs on a leash.

In comparison, Las Vegas, a city with about 60,000 fewer residents than Denver's 693,060, boasts 18 off-leash sites, according to website BringFido.

“As I was visiting other cities, I would notice that compared to them, we really don't have an adequate number of dog parks,” said Jolon Clark, Denver's city council president. “It felt like we were behind the times.”

Looking for the right space

Clark, a fellow dog owner, first heard about Denver's dog park problem when asked about it during his campaign in 2015.

“My constituents rose the flag, and I went to work advocating for them,” he said. Clark started a dog park group to talk about residents' requests and surveyed his constituents via email, as well.

Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment estimates that 89,144 Denver households have dogs and that 143,000 dogs live in the city.

That number rivals the child population of Denver—there are about 147,000 people under the age of 18 in Denver, according to the World Population Review.

With so many dogs in the area, Clark hopes adding a dog park will address issues of overcrowding at current parks.

“We used to go to Railyard Dog Park, which was very, very crowded on weekends,” Nelson said.

The park at 19th and Little Raven streets, which is approximately .8 acres in size, is smaller than most others in the city. Berkeley Dog Park at Sheridan Boulevard and West 46th Avenue, for instance, covers 1.86 acres.

According to Denver's Dog Park Master Plan, written in 2010, new dog parks must be a “minimum size of one acre, with preference given to two or three acres.”

Because there is little space available in the city, this standard is often difficult to meet, Clark said.

As a result, Denver Parks and Recreation has decided to update the plan.

“We're incorporating what we've learned in the past few years,” said Mark Tabor, the department's principal park planner. “Some of the standards of size, location and proximity are going to be revisited.”

Parks key to dogs' physical, social health

But even smaller dog parks, such as Railyard, have their advantage, Clark said. He believes that no matter their size, offering additional off-leash sites will discourage owners from violating the dog leash law.

“People get frustrated that there's no place to have their dog play off-leash, so they let their dog be off-leash in places where they're not supposed to,” he said. This often results in tension between dog owners and other park visitors, he said.

Therefore, he said, “creating a safe place for dogs where we don't have that conflict between users is critical for all our residents.”

Likewise, Tabor stressed that all residents, not just dog owners, should have a voice in the decision to build a new dog park.

“When you develop a dog park, that land can't be used for anything else,” he said. “You have to find a park that has enough open space so you aren't taking away an opportunity from others who don't have a dog.”

Dog owners advocating for the new park say dog parks are an integral part of their pets' physical and social health.

“The dogs really do enjoy being in new places and meeting new dogs, so the more places we can go, the better,” said Denver dog owner Brett Forsberg.

Nelson—who has recently moved to a new neighborhood, where the nearest dog park is just up the street—agreed with Forsberg. The parks don't only make the dogs happy, he said. The owners love them, too.

“I can't imagine my life without them,” he said.

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