Calgary: Dog Park Capital of North America

Recently I was cleaning up my file of Calgary Herald articles and came across one I did  on dog parks in 2007.  Since then, while I haven't become a dog owner, I have gained a lot of experience and appreciation for the urban dog culture as a result of dog-sitting for friends - a new form of "friends with benefits!"  In fact, we often house-sit at the same time, which means we get to explore a new part of the city, which is kinda like being a tourist, especially when it is an ultra modern glass-house that looks out to Calgary's River Park - one of our most popular dog parks..  

As a result I have experienced first-hand the socialization that happens not only between the dogs, but with dog owners at dog parks.  In some ways, the urban dog park has become the new patio, plaza or pub, where people gather with their neighbours to share stories and information.  In fact, they are probably even more loyal to visiting the local dog park, than the pub, patio or plaza - at least twice a day in many cases. Who goes to the pub twice a day almost everyday? 

I am amazed at the number of people that are out in the dog parks no matter what the weather and in Calgary that can be -30 degrees.  Sometimes River Park is like a parade with hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds walking the promenade which has been carved from all the walkers over the years.  It is like a playground on the edges of the promenade with dogs running after balls, frisbees, sticks and each other. I love the animation.  I don't think any urban planner or landscape architect designed this wonderful linear park, and I doubt is was originally conceived as dog park.  Good urban planning often just happens?

I have also come to appreciate Calgary has some pretty amazing dog parks - 150 according to the City of Calgary's website.  This led me to do some research on which cities are the most dog-friendly.  

In December 2011, a USA Today feature story "Fastest-growing urban parks are for the dogs" indicated that there were 569 off-leash dog parks in the 100 largest U.S. cities in 2010, a 34 percent jump in 5 years, while overall parks increased only 3 percent.  It also indicated that Portland, Oregon has the highest number of dog parks per captia with 5.7  for every 100,000 residents.  And, that there are more households in the USA with dogs than with kids, 43 million and 38 million. Much of the information was very similar to my 2007 Calgary Herald column, which you can read below. 

In fact, Calgary with 150 designated dog parks has 13.6 dog parks for every 100,000 people - 2.4 times Portland.  Does that make us the dog park capital of North America? I also found out Calgary has 122,325 dogs which is about 1 for every 10 people, or about 815 dogs per dog park.  The Calgary Herald even created a map of where the dogs live in the city.  And while there is a significant population of dogs in the suburbs there are lots living in the downtown area. In the 21st century, people love their dogs!

There is even dog-friendly hotels. I know people who plan their vacations around hotels that will take dog.  High-end hotels now have dogs as part of their amenities, so guest who are missing their dog can take the hotel dog for a walk.  

Since 2007, urban planners have also introduce the concept of walkscore and walkable communities.  I am not sure how the dog parks fit into the walkscore, but I expect it should have a very high priority (higher than grocery store and maybe on par with schools) given there are more dogs than kids in the USA and that many dog owners walk their dog twice a day - who goes to the grocery store twice a day, almost every day of the year?

Perhaps we should be ranking communities based on their Dogscore?  (You can read more on my thoughts on dog parks and urban living, and some of the initiatives in other cities across North America in my 2007 column below).  I have also added some additional Calgary dog park pics at the end.

Learn more about Calgary's parks in my blog: Calgary: City of Parks & Pathways.

This is a picture taken at dusk in the winter at Calgary's River Park one of over 150 city dog parks. There is a parade of people their dogs along the promenade from one end of the park to the other all day long, but especially in the evenings and weekends. 

From Calgary Herald Urban Living Column, March 2007 

Downtown needs to be more dog-friendly! 

It always amazes me who is out walking in the coldest, darkest days of winter.  It is largely people out exercising their dog or dogs. Even in the dark at 6 a.m., when I’m heading to work, there always seems to be someone out walking his or her pet.

As a non-dog owner, the increasing importance of dogs in our contemporary urban culture continues to amaze me.

I think this is especially true for groups like the young professional and empty nester cultures — which, coincidentally, are also the primary markets for urban living.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising then that we are seeing more dogs along our urban side- walks and pathways and in our parks and plazas.

In its 13th annual housing survey conducted by Ipsos Reid, RBC Royal Bank said last year that 56 per cent of Canadians have pets in their homes. Experts say that probably works out to about five million dogs and seven million cats. The total market size of the Canadian pet industry was estimated at $3.8 billion in 2001.

City officials have estimated there are as many as 100,000 dogs in Calgary. As many as 2,000 may use the Southland Natural Park area alone on busy days.

“Pets are the new children. It’s the bottom line,” said Michael Bateman, of Chasin' Tails, a Calgary doggie day-care centre, in a recent Herald story.  Such centers offer everything from overnight boarding to boutique areas.

In some ways, dogs are to urban living what children are to suburban living.

I appreciate that owning a dog in an urban centre presents a unique set of challenges.

How is housebreaking accomplished in a high-rise building?  Where and how can a large, energetic dog be exercised?  How can a dog be taught to ignore distractions such as traffic congestion and noise, crowded sidewalks, bicycles, roller bladers, interesting trash, back alleys, roadways — and, of course, other dogs?

One solution occurring in places such as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix (who knew these were hot spots for urban living?) is the creation of “bark parks.” These differ from “off-leash” areas in that they are parks solely for the use of dogs and their owners. They are often small parcels of land that are too small for development. They are fenced off and self-governed by a set of rules, much like a daycare (for example, dogs must behave, dogs must be accompanied by an owner, dogs must be healthy and owners must clean up after their dogs).  Some bark parks also have playground-like equipment for dogs to jump over, climb up and so on.

Though Calgary has over 300 “off leash” areas — which may be the most of any major city in Canada— it, to my knowledge, has no “bark parks.”  But you have to think someone is working on a “bark park” in Calgary!

Current policy in Calgary is “if there are no signs indicating it is an “off leash” area, assume it is strictly an on-leash only park.”  It is also surprising that I haven’t yet seen a Calgary condo listing that promotes dog- friendly amenities.

I have seen it many times in Vancouver listings, including one, which read, “just steps to George Wainborne Dog Park, Seawall and Granville Island.” It was amazing to me that not only did the dog park have a name, but that it was listed ahead of two of Vancouver’s biggest urban living attractions.

I am wondering when the first Calgary condo will be built with its own mini “bark park” on site — maybe already one exists?  While “bark parks” and “off leash” areas are great, there is still a need for both dog owners and non-dog owners to learn to share our public spaces including sidewalks. As a non-dog owner, I didn’t appreciate the importance of off leash activities until I started to do a little digging (no pun intended).

I didn’t know “off leash” time is important for dogs to learn to socialize with humans and other dogs. I didn’t know it makes dogs less aggressive and helps reduce neurotic activities such as barking, two benefits which are in the best interests of non-dog owners.

I also discovered dogs are part of urban socialization for humans, especially those who are single or new to the area — as having a dog helps people make friends

There is also research that says dog owners are more physically active than non-dog owners as they are more motivated to get out every day and take their dog (or dogs) for a walk.

I learned there are now “woof and hoof ” outings where dog owners get together on a regular basis to walk their dogs and chat about life (sounds like the Running Room’s programs for joggers and walkers).

It used to be that urban planners were primarily interested in making urban areas more pedestrian-friendly places, but now they also have to ensure they are also dog-friendly.  As a Calgary urbanite for 20 years, I have certainly seen this evolution happening on my street, in the park across from my house and at the “off leash” area a few blocks away.

Entrance to Parkdale dog park which is along the bluff on the north side of the Bow River.  This bluff facing south provides a sunny warm place to walk your dog year-round. It has small aspen woods, grasslands and lots of trails.  At the top is a spectacular view of the river valley and the downtown skyline.  These are significant parks - this one is about 2 kilometres long.  

A group of dog walkers in Upper Edworthy dog park.  This is a very large regional dog park where people from the entire west side of the city come to walk their dog and enjoy spectacular views. 

Along the north bank of the Bow River are a series of bluffs that have become urban dog parks.  At the top is a promenade which offers spectacular views of the City skyline and river valley.    

Calgary's Dog Parks offer some of the spectacular views of the city's skyline.