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The Bark Unleashed

Scooter, a wire-haired black-and-tan mutt, doesn’t cower around other dogs and people like she used to. Even when Hunter, a friendly Husky mix, approaches her to play, Scooter stands her ground. After the requisite sniffing and strutting, they romp across the shaded yard with big doggie-grins on their faces.

Big doggie-grins are what visitors see a lot of at the Pet Supplies Plus Off-leash Dog Park. There are plenty of human grins, too.

Located at the intersection of Lyon and Benjamin streets, the dog park is the city’s hot spot for canine lovers and their four-legged friends. Two large fenced “yards”—one for small dogs and puppies, one for large dogs—provide a safe environment for pets to exercise, play, and socialize.

“Scooter used to be timid,” said Karen Maylone, a friend and weekend guest of Scooter’s owners. “This is a nice place for her to learn how to behave around other dogs. She’s alone in a second-floor apartment during the day, so she doesn’t get to interact with others much. Her owners had to work today, so I walked her over here from Eastown.”

Northern Michigan University student Amanda Goller is home for the summer. She and Hunter, the husky mix, live just around the corner from the park. “I can’t take him for a walk around the block anymore. He pulls at the leash to get to the dog park. After we come here, he’s really content when we go home.”

Ronald DeVree, a park regular, brings his four-year-old Rottweiler, Rena, to the off-leash area almost every day. “All I have to do is spell the word ‘park’ and she’s at the door,” he said. “The park is a really good idea. The leash law keeps dogs confined, but here we can let the dogs run free.”

A Place Where Dogs, People Unwind
The park frees up the owners, too. By having a space where their dogs can romp in safety, owners can relax and chat with each other at the picnic tables or in groups around the yards. Some spend the time training their dogs to fetch or respond to obedience commands. Others just enjoy the camaraderie and watching their pets have fun.

According to Doctor Karyl Ropko, DVM, from Northeast Cat & Dog Hospital, “Having our pets with us tends to decrease our inhibitions, gives us common ground, and is a great social icebreaker. You meet someone from down the street you didn’t even know had a dog, and all of a sudden, you’ve got a new friend.”

Ropko added that for a society obsessed with multi-tasking, going to the dog park is perfect. “You’re exercising your dog, you’re getting quality time with them, you’re relaxing and getting time for yourself, and you’re able to interact with others in a social way that you might not have been able to that day.”

Frances Gentile, a fido aficionado and owner of Frances Walks Your Dog, a local dog walking and pet sitting service, takes her Boston Terrier, Jackie, to the park often. “It’s such a marvelous resource for us to have this free dog park,” Gentile said. “The people are very, very friendly there. I feel confident taking my dog there because I know that the other owners are looking out for her.”

As for Jackie, she’s a small dog, but she doesn’t know it. “She’s just as happy in the large dog area as she is in the small dog area. The big dogs don’t intimidate her at all.” After a visit to the park, Jackie “heads for the sofa and conks out for the rest of the day.”

Gentile is a member of Pet Sitters Associates, LLC, and turned her love for dog walking and pet sitting into a business last January. She works with all types and sizes of dogs, and knows the energy levels of many different breeds.

“For some bigger dogs, a leash walk just won’t do it,” she said. “They really need a place to blow off steam.”

Dog Park 101
Since the reason for going to the dog park is for everyone to have fun, it’s important to remember that not every dog and owner are suited for the off-leash experience. Dr. Ropko has some suggestions for determining if the park is a good fit for you and your pet:

  • Before you go, leash up your pooch and take them around other dogs. If they act overly timid or aggressive, the dog park may not be fun for them—or you.
  • At the park, keep your pet leashed at first. Spend time together in a quieter area of the yard until you’re both ready for the next step.
  • When your dog is ready to go off-leash, keep the leash in-hand so you can quickly clip up your pet, if needed.
  • Be careful with doggie treats and toys; you don’t want to start a fight.
  • Make sure vaccinations, flea protection, and worming are up to date—to protect them and the other pets.
  • Do do clean up the doo-doo.
  • Remember to take water and a bowl. Your pet will be thirsty after all that play.

The park occupies land owned by the City of Grand Rapids. In 2002, the Parks and Recreation Department was hit with budget cuts, forcing the city to abandon plans for the park. Dog lovers throughout the city responded by forming the Grand Rapids Dog Park Enthusiasts. They raised the funds needed to put the dog park on the map, and celebrated with a Grand Opening in spring of 2005.

So far, the park has been successfully self-governed by its users. Rules are posted on the outside of each fenced area. Dog-waste bags are provided. Visitors can post information about pet shows, dog-grooming services, and other pet-centric activities on a bulletin board at the main gate. There’s plenty of parking, a public restroom, and you can even watch a ball game at the nearby diamond.

Best of all, this park has really gone to the dogs.

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All rights reserved

Photograph descriptions top to bottom:

Ziggy drives the lane

Pet Supplies Plus signage at the park

Angel Willems and Lee Sprague with Cup-of-Soup

Dog Jackie and Frances Gentile, owner of Frances Walks Your Dog

Ziggy takes it to the hole

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