Aubrey, a cute light brown golden retriever, ran rambunctiously around her owner, Steve Boyle, of Saunderstown. He watched the nine-month-old jump and play as he chatted with Kristin Quinn of Cranston. Her Anatolian shepherd was playing as well on this cool and overcast day at the South Kingstown Dog Park.
Yet, dreariness did not deter them and many others who visited that afternoon. Quinn goes there about once a week, while Boyle goes more frequently. Both go regardless of cold or heat or even snow. Pouring rain may be the only deterrent for these park enthusiasts bringing their dogs for exercise and bringing themselves to meet up with friends.
“Everybody here has something in common. We’re dog lovers and we’re pet lovers,” Boyle said about the common bond at the park for people and their pooches. All of them have something else in common, too. Owners like to socialize as much as their dogs at this park.
“I like watching him play, but I also like the people here. I am disabled and I get just as much out of it as he does,” said Boyle, grinning, and giving a nodding glance to others nearby.
Terry Murphy, the South Kingstown director of Leisure Services who oversees the park for the town, said, “The park is as much a social network for the dog owners as it is for the dogs. This is a tight-knit group because of that.”
Elsewhere in the country it’s the same -- dog parks are socializing stops for dogs and their owners. For many people, these parks replace coffee shops, supermarkets, local drug stores or other gathering places where gossip and news are traded. They are also hotspots for a young generation of owners who like kibbitzing, looking for job leads and making friends. In addition, dog parks give everyone an alternative to dealing with leash laws that prohibit free-range roaming on town streets and roads.
Off-leash dog parks are one of the fastest growing type of parks across the nation, according to the National Recreation and Park Association. The Trust for Public Land reported in a recent annual survey of the 100 largest U.S. cities that the number of dog parks has grown by more than 40 percent since 2009. NRPA 2018 data show that 55 percent of parks and recreation agencies now have established dog parks and that many others are either building or planning one.
The reason: more people are acquiring dogs. The American Pet Products Association reports a 30 percent increase in dog ownership when comparing 2017-18 figures to 2011-12. In South Kingstown alone, the town has nearly 1,280 licensed dogs.
The drive behind wanting a dog park stems from seeing other municipalities with them, said various pet owners. It is like a child’s playgroup where parents get together with their children to share the experience and make friends, they explained. At the South Kingstown Dog Park, this enjoyment even extends to having solar lighting to meet at dusk and to accommodate a variety of owners’ work shifts.
Byron Cahoone, president of the South Kingstown Dog Park Association, put it this way.
“We have tables, places to stand and chairs. Dogs socialize and people are not on their cell phones. They are talking to each other,” he said about South Kingstown’s common cause of pets, park and partnership.
In May, South Kingstown’s Dog Park, located at 55 St. Dominic Road (off Broad Rock Road), celebrated its ninth anniversary. It has three dedicated fenced-in areas. One is for large dogs, another for small dogs and the third is reserve space needed when any of the other areas need sod treatment or more romp and play space. It sits among other town recreational facilities in a complex that includes ample parking, three ball fields, a recreation center, senior center and the nearby middle school’s athletic fields and tennis courts.
This dog park and its four-footed furry friends first had a voice in the late Norman “Bud” McLeod, who died last year. He energized efforts to plan the park as the association’s founder and first president. He worked with town officials and helped to raise about $40,000 to build it. Association members helped to clear brush and do various other kinds of work to prepare the grounds. The town also contributed funds and staff time to transform an unused land, with overgrown brush, into today’s 1.6-acre spacious park.
From this planning and later work, sprung members’ sense of comradeship in a bond around their pets and a common cause, Cahoone said. Among dog-park connoisseurs, it became a go-to destination for dog owners who can number 50 a day or more, according to some estimates.
A gate with a metal lift-up handle gives entry to these boxed-off tracts with parallel fencing that runs from one long distance point to another. The usual green grass area is blanketed in blond straw during the spring months. It helps to prevent owners and dogs from having to trudge through brown, syrupy mud that can come after snow or heavy rain. In warmer months, these elements don’t escape the sun’s evaporating power to quickly restore solid land.
“This is always more crowded, and for the dog and me, it (offers) better socialization,” said Kevin McCarthy of North Kingstown, who was there recently with Tad, his two-year-old mixed breed. It has so much to offer, he added, pointing to the silver solar lights towering in strategic spots over the park. Cahoone said the lights are an attractive part for many visitors.
“You would see people rushing down there before dark, just after they got out of work, to give the dog a quick walk and then they would have to leave. It wasn’t fair to them or the dogs,” said Cahoone. So, the association, through various fundraisers, pulled together $21,000 about three years ago for eight solar lights under which the pooches could play day or night.
Cahoone also credited the solar project as showing the continued community commitment to the park. Help with the lights came from volunteers, including town workers who dug the foundation and footings and put up the light poles. Local businesses, such as Cullion Concrete Corp., poured the anchor cement, Joe Viele of Liberty Rentals provided a boom lift for putting lights on top of the poles and Eric Sher of Jedi Enterprises Electrical Services wired the lights.
The association, which can draw as many as 20 regular volunteers for a project, also has scores of Facebook friends. Some joined nearly 10 years ago. The association meets bi-monthly and plans more special improvements, including a concrete walkway to help avoid rain-soaked mud that can cover owners and pets. The association also has fundraising programs in the works, including a spring sale of T-shirts, a June pasta dinner and September ice cream social.
During some recent conversations with visitors to the park, many said another added benefit of the park is a welcome relief from leash laws. Communities have enacted them to combat loose dogs and aggressive dog packs, which were part of the bygone era that allowed unmonitored roaming, often all day. Owners would let out dogs with no supervision and that brought any number of problems, such as animals biting humans or other wildlife infected with rabies, as well as injury or death from vehicles hitting them.
It’s a good idea to have this supervised area where they romp and play off a leash, said Danielle Winter of Narragansett. She brings Lucy, her lab-beagle mix to the park for an hour-or-so workout frequently.
“She cannot run around at home, so we were in search of where to bring her. We heard about the park from a neighbor. We brought her here one Sunday and she just loves it. She knows (where she is) when we get here. It’s just great,” she said, adding she likes that the park provides clean-up bags, too.
Of course, with all dogs playing, comes pooping and peeing, remarked Cahoon.
“The dogs come in, they love to run and then they love to poop. They’ll usually head right for a corner and we keep the poop bags there for the owners,” he said, as well as elsewhere in the park area. But, there are some owners who don’t clean up, he added.
“Usually someone will remark to them that their dog just pooped. If they don’t pick it up, one of the others here does. We’re a team,” he said.
Town Leisure Director Murphy praised the community of dog activists for their dedication and team work.
“It’s a very good atmosphere between the town and the group that enjoys it,” she said, adding, “They know that giving back is important to maintaining the park.”
And they know, too, that dedication to the park brings them together in a special way for their own socializing -- just like their dogs need.