Worries, Concerns, and Questions about OLAs

Addressing Concerns
About an Off-Leash Area

We will never be able to answer every possible concern or address every theoretical incident that might happen in an off-leash area. But, based on reports gathered from the many parks (over 500!) already operating successfully in other cities around the country, we hope we can address your general concerns and answer most of your questions. Here is what we’ve learned so far.

The reality, as reported by park groups and city officials in areas with developed parks, is this: while it’s important to remember that all recreational activities have some level of risk (e.g., you never know at the playground if the child playing next to yours will turn out to be a bully who pushes yours off the monkey bars), off-leash areas offer no greater threat to dogs or people than other recreational areas do to their users.

Dogs attacking small children in the area

Most off-leash areas have signs suggesting that children under 12 do not enter the park without an adult. Children younger than six, even when accompanied by an adult, are not encouraged and are the responsibility of the adult. Adults with kids should consider bringing only one dog to the park. This way, they can focus their attention on their children: children should not run around, approach unknown dogs, chase or in other ways harass other dogs in the park, encouraging the dogs to roughhouse with them, hence possibly hurting them inadvertently. Inadvertent injuries to humans (including kids) at parks might be caused when children are accidentally knocked over by dogs in play. This is why toddlers and young children are not encouraged in an off-leash area unless they are very familiar with dog-human interactions and are close to their parents at all times.

Having said that, we have not been able to find a documented case of an attack in an off-leash park, so it’s our opinion that these attacks must be rare to non-existent; there have been no liability claims in established parks. The City of Cedar Rapids is self-insured and would be covered in the same way it is currently covered in other City parks, for swimming pools, on playgrounds, etc. but would not be liable for dog-dog or dog-human injuries. The dog’s owner is responsible for its behavior and for any damage; the owner’s homeowner’s or renter’s insurance should cover claims. Obviously, after such an incident, the owner would be expected to keep the offending dog out of the Park. Owners sign a waiver and understand that by entering an off-leash park they accept liability for what might happen to their dog or themselves.

K9COLA Dogs attacking other dogs in an aggressive way

This is a primary fear of dog owners who love their dogs and don’t want them traumatized by an attack from another dog. We understand that as we all have dogs, and consider them members of our family. But, according to our park resources around the country, fights between dogs are unusual. * Each owner will have to make their own choice about using the Park, but we feel it’s worth the small risk for the greater advantages to our dogs. With this in mind, we’re doing our best to insure the safest possible environment for your dog!

There is often a vision of off-leash areas as a place where the humans stand by a fence and watch their dogs in a big pack in center of a field. While some dogs do run 20 to 40 feet away from their owners to play with other dogs, our park encourages owners to actively interact with their dogs and stay close to them. We have posted suggestions about how to break up safely any dog-dog encounters that are not going well, just in case the unexpected happens. However, these are passed on from other dog trainers, behaviorists and parks: we do not guarantee results.

Owners are supposed to be close to and in control of their dogs, dogs are required to be under voice control, and there will be little territory guarding in this neutral area. Most dog experts (vets and behaviorists) feel that dogs on neutral territory, contrary to our beliefs, are not inherently aggressive animals. Instead, whenever possible, they avoid confrontation. They use body language (a good resource on this is Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas) to signal submission, quickly and painlessly establish which is the stronger dog, or leave the situation by running away. Being off-leash allows dogs these options in communication and usually frees dogs up from feeling cornered and having to display aggressive tendencies. Dogs are social animals that want to fit in and be accepted in the playgroup or pack. There are the exceptions, dogs that do not know how to establish this pack play appropriately. They are out-numbered by the dogs that do: however they are the ones that are most often brought to our attention in newspapers, TV reports or training classes. National averages show that 36.5% of households own an average of 1.5 dogs each. Most of those dogs, whether they have been formally trained and socialized or not, are going to have the basic instincts to fit comfortably into a dog-dog play situation should they find themselves face to face with new dogs.

We do have a fenced training area that is available on a first-come, first-serve basis for 20 minutes, for those adult dogs who have not had the opportunity to socialize with other dogs in the past. This area allows an owner some off-leash time with their pet without disturbing other dogs and they can evaluate their dog’s reaction to other dogs to see if it is safe for them to enter the main Park. The City offers a reduced permit fee for dogs who have passed K9COLA’s off-leash recall test. Additionally, we encourage owners to have their dogs pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. Other parks have used this as a means to evaluate dogs, and while a dog can pass the test and still have an off day, it does encourage people to train their dog and gives them a chance to see their own dogs’ strengths and weaknesses. No park has shared a test that guarantees dogs are ready to use an off-leash area, but common sense and peer pressure has usually worked with most dog owners. This test does not help with the overly friendly dog that gets in the face of other dogs. These dogs pass the CGC test with flying colors but might still be passive instigators in poor communication between dogs.

The first few years of our Park’s existence will be the most challenging, as many of our City’s dogs have not had opportunities to practice their dog-dog communication skills in the past. But many have, and most others will fall into it naturally if owners give them appropriate introductions to the Park. Dogs raised with exposure to the Park in the future will be excellent ambassadors and will help under-socialized adult dogs into the group. Your well-behaved dog already has the chance to run into an under-socialized dog running loose as you walk down the street or in a City park. There is no reason to believe your dog will be at any greater risk in this Park, a park filled by folks who care as much about their dogs’ welfare as you do!

NOTE TO SMALL DOG OWNERS: We have a special area for small dogs to be off-leash, fenced off from dogs over 15″ in height. This allows the smaller, sometimes more fragile breeds to exercise without worry than an overly friendly larger breed might accidentally hurt it. Small dogs are allowed in main Park as well at the owner’s discretion and as his or her responsibility.

People intentionally bringing a dog with known dog-dog aggressive tendencies (dogs trained to fight, etc.) to an off-leash area are subject to confrontation, removal and possible legal action.

K9COLA Feces being left behind by irresponsible owners

The park operates for the most part on an honor system and peer pressure; there are always a few people who do not clean up after their dogs. Responsible Park users need to cal attention to the messes, possibly by offering to offering a bag. Bags are provided throughout the park, so clean up is convenient. K9COLA arranges occasional clean-up days to spruce up the Park, but the bulk of the responsibility falls to and is usually handled well by Park users who care about the future of the Park. An abused off-leash area will be taken away. This is another reason to keep your dog staying within relatively close proximity — you need to be able to keep and eye on you dog and pick up its messes.

There is some concern about the possible spread of disease. Annual permits show that visiting dogs have appropriate vaccinations, and City park staff or K9COLA volunteers do spot checks occasionally. Additionally, the large size of the park minimizes the risk of contamination by spreading the concentration of dogs. A vet consulted locally pointed out that as long as your dog is vaccinated, there is little to no chance of your dog becoming ill at the park.

Dogs in park without necessary shots/vaccinations

See above paragraph.

What if owners can’t control their dogs?

People are expected to follow the rules about having their dogs under voice control. The main enforcements are the honor system and peer pressure. Any one person may only have two dogs off-leash in the park at one time. There are no guarantees that every dog will behave as reliably as it has at home and that an owner won’t be caught off-guard and be unable to call their dog back to them. But knowing that the average dog will not cause trouble while off-leash, and that owners can eventually walk down their loose dogs since the Park is fenced, we think owners will quickly assess whether their own dogs’ are capable of playing in the Park. If they’re concerned, they might consider using the training area on their next trip.

Couldn’t this area be used for something more people could enjoy?

Many people enjoy dogs. Dog owners are just another user group, similar to skateboarders in the Skate Park, swimmers, tennis players, baseball players, soccer players, kids using the playgrounds, golfers, etc., and they deserve a special place in the same way. In one city, it was found that 10% of all park users were dog owners doing “something” with their dogs in the park. That’s a sizable chunk of the park user population. Additionally, Cedar Rapids has an estimated 27,900 dogs in 51,000 (1999) households. (National averages show that 36.5% of households own an average of 1.5 dogs each). Even if one in five dogs visits the off-leash area in a year, that’s over 5,000 dogs! Usually owners and dogs come to the park in a trickle, sprinkled throughout the day, so the number of users at any one time may not look large, but when gate checkers have monitored parks, they find the numbers are much greater than they appeared. The land chosen for the park in Cedar Rapids was land that was unused because it was not ideal for other park uses.

What about barking, digging, and other nuisance behavior?

Hours for the Park are similar to those for other City parks. Dogs naturally bark when they are in the midst of playing and joyous expression, however the size of the Park should minimize the impact of this on neighbors, and the numbers of dogs at any one time probably do not make this a problem in any case. This barking differs from the annoying barking of a bored dog in a backyard, and off-leash areas have actually been shown to reduce this type of barking, so the overall effect of the Park should be beneficial to those who are frustrated by barking dogs. Owners are responsible for damage done in the Park by their dogs and all holes dug MUST be filled. One future option might be a special sandbox for dogs where owners can bring favorite toys to be buried and “dug up” by their dogs if their dogs are avid diggers.

I don’t even HAVE a dog! Why should my tax money go for this area?

An off-leash recreation area provides opportunities for people to meet and socialize with other dog owners, to meet new people and make new friends. It’s a great chance for dog owners to bond with their pets. No one person enjoys and takes advantage of ALL the amenities and offerings available throughout the City’s parks; this is just one more choice. Diversity of activities available in Cedar Rapids will make the City a more appealing place.

Moreover, K9COLA does do fundraising. We raised nearly $25,000 to help open the Park (over half the original costs). The permit fees collected to use the Park help pay for Park maintenance and ongoing improvements made by the City. Many other park areas are not financially self-sufficient; we hope that ours will continue to be an example in this way.

K9COLA If I live near the off-leash area, will the value of my property go down?

While we can’t make any guarantees, reports from other cities have shown just the opposite to be true. The demand to live CLOSE to the park was so high that they had to add additional off-leash areas. So we expect your property value might increase, or at the very least, remain the same.

* The experience of 20 years with off-leash areas throughout the U.S. and abroad is addressed in an extensive report issued by the National Recreation and Park Association. The report states that “…in not one of the dog parks from this study has a park experienced any incidence resulting in a … [law]suit. While one or two cases of a dog biting another dog have occurred, the skin was not broken and the incident ended there. Part of the reason suggested for why dogfights have not occurred, even in dog parks that have been functioning for over twenty years, is that the dogs consider the park to be neutral territory. Furthermore, dog owners are responsible for leashing and removing their animal from the park at the first hint of aggression.”