Food & Culture

A New Off-Leash Master Plan Has Dog Owners Snarling

Seattle may have a rep as a city with more dogs than kids, but a new master plan for dog parks is in the works—and it’s not making dog owners happy

By Elaine Porterfield; additional research by Sarah Murphy October 14, 2016

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Seattle Magazine.

On a sunny morning, Cole Eckerman’s dog, a fox hound mix named Winchester, cheerfully loped around the perimeter of the Genesee dog park near Columbia City, stopping to sniff or chase other dogs. Meanwhile, Rue, her small, blond Chihuahua mix, happily waded around a another group of dogs.

“She’s really sassy,” Eckerman says fondly of her small dog. “Rue was a ‘kill dog’ [one scheduled for euthanasia] at a California shelter. At first, she was so reactive to other dogs, to the point she was almost unmanageable. It’s been just the right solution to bring her here—now she’s a really great family dog.” As for Winchester, a hunting dog whom Eckerman also rescued, he needs a lot of exercise to be a good canine citizen, and the park lets him have it.

Eckerman treasures her dogs—and the dog parks—which is why she’s now executive director of the Seattle nonprofit group Citizens for Off Leash Areas, or COLA.

Like Eckerman, Seattle loves its dogs: Statistics indicate that there are 1.5 dogs here for every child in the city. And the city is growing. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Seattle’s estimated population jumped by about 70,000 residents between 2010 and 2016, to about 684,500. The city’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan predicts the population will grow by another 120,000 residents by 2035. It’s very likely that many of those new residents will come with their four-footed friends.

As the city’s population grows, there simply aren’t enough dog parks for all those dogs, advocates say, and the dog parks we do have need a lot more maintenance than they’re getting. As it is, the off-leash areas are largely self-monitored by those using them.
So when the city announced in 2014 that it was developing a new master plan regarding dog parks, it was greeted with enthusiasm by dog owners. That changed in June when a proposed master plan came out that does nothing to add or improve dog parks in the city, say dog advocates like Eckerman.

The primary purpose of the master plan was, at least on paper, to identify long-term plans for the city’s existing dog parks, including their maintenance and the possible acquisition and expansion of off-leash areas.

Eckerman says the city blew it. “There are no milestones in the [proposed] master plan for expanding off-leash areas,” she says. “For every other master plan ever in Seattle history, they had milestones to expand it, whether it be skateboards parks or playfields. The goal is always to add more facilities as our population grows. But there is not a single comment about it. No list of proposed sites. We need to see more commitment from the city.”

An exasperated Eckerman points to Portland, which although smaller than Seattle, boasts 33 dog parks to Seattle’s 14.

Francine Ruley, the owner of Peaches, a 5-year-old golden retriever, is a volunteer dog-park steward working to keep the Genesee park clean by doing weeding and other maintenance. Ruley leads regular work parties to keep dog parks maintained and safe, including weeding and spreading gravel. She also believes the city needs to open dog parks in all areas of the city: “We don’t want people to have to break the law to exercise their dogs.”

Dewey Potter, acting spokesperson for Seattle Parks and Recreation, sighs a bit when she talks about the reaction by COLA and other dog advocates to the proposed master plan.

“We knew they would be upset,” Potter says. “We were asked to do the plan by the City Council. We did this plan with an eye to the future, within the framework of the real world in which we live and the resources we have. We started it out with no additional budget [for existing dog parks] and no budget added for any new off-leash areas.”

Park personnel are aware that Seattle dog parks have been hugely successful, getting plenty of use over the past 20 years, Potter says. But that popularity hasn’t translated into much funding to do improvements. “In 2014, we got some modestly sized funds to make improvements to existing off-leash areas, but for new ones, we’ve gotten virtually no funding.”

That couldn’t be clearer, according to COLA, which maintains that many areas of the city are woefully short of any place to exercise a dog. A 2014–2015 biennial report by COLA states: “All of Queen Anne is served by 0.1 acres tucked in secluded Lower Kinnear Park, down 150 stairs and without nearby parking, rendering it nearly unused. Similarly, both Ballard and Greenlake (each heavily populated by dog owners) each have only one acre on heavily eroding slopes with constant mud issues. Puddles and mud are not only difficult for the human users, but can be disease prone for the pups themselves. These examples are reflective of a lack of City commitment to allocate single use land to dogs in parks during this boom of population in Seattle, and a lack of strategic planning.”

Potter says the parks department would like to offer more, but the best that can be done at present is attempting to incorporate an off-leash area into new parks as they are developed. “We recognize the demand as well. There are a lot of dogs in Seattle.”
Seattle’s growing population means that there is increased demand for every kind of park recreation, from soccer to swimming to skateboarding, Potter says.

Swimming brings up another sore point for Eckerman: There’s only one beach in Seattle—Magnuson Park in the North End–where dogs can legally swim. Let your dog swim elsewhere in Lake Washington or anywhere else and you risk a ticket.

“That leaves us with 145 feet of shoreline for 150,000 dogs,” Eckerman says. “But swimming is something vets prescribe for older dogs or dogs who have amputations. In fact, we were walking around Seward Park recently and saw a woman with a three-legged dog getting ticketed for having her dog swimming on a non-swimming beach. It’s really frustrating.…They are forcing taxpaying citizens into being scofflaws.”

The locations of the city’s dog parks also point to a social equity issue, she says. Some of the most racially mixed areas in the city have no dog parks, such as Rainier Beach and South Park.

That’s gotten the attention of City Council president Bruce Harrell, a Seward Park resident who represents Council District 2 and who is also a member of the council’s parks committee. He’d like to see a dog park for southeast Seattle dog owners.

“District 2 has two of the 14 off-leash areas in Seattle [Dr. Jose Rizal Park in the northwest part of District 2 and Genesee Park and Playfield in the central part of District 2],” Harrell says. “While I understand Parks and Recreation’s position in regards to limited funding to plan and construct new off-leash areas, I would ask Parks and Recreation to prioritize an off-leash area in Rainier Beach. None currently exist in the southernmost part of District 2. I would strongly advise Parks to use the Race and Social Justice toolkit as part of the off-leash area analysis process.”

So, what’s the answer?

One solution some dog groups here would like to see is similar to that of New York City’s famous Central Park, where certain unfenced areas are open to off-leash dogs in the early morning or late at night, typically 6–9 a.m. and 9 p.m.–1 a.m. During other hours, dogs must be leashed.

Mark Ahlness of the Seattle Nature Alliance wants to preserve natural areas like this one in Lincoln Park. These natural spaces aren’t a good place for off-leash dog areas, he says. Photo by John Vicory

Robert Pregulman, who runs the website Seattle DogSpot, says he’d love to see some similar efforts here. “Those are the types of innovative solutions we hoped parks would come up with,” says Pregulman, a Queen Anne resident and owner of two dogs.
The Central Park areas are being used as off-leash areas when they’re not otherwise being used by the rest of the public, he says. “I’m not suggesting it for parks with lots of shrubs and trees. The best example I could give you is the Queen Anne playfield. It’s a huge soccer field, almost fenced in. In the winter, it’s hardly ever used. I don’t understand why the city can’t look at places like that.” The existing Queen Anne off-leash park is just too tiny, he says.

Potter, who is familiar with this suggestion, says that such a notion won’t work here. “In New York City, they have 400 enforcement officers; we have one,” she says bluntly. “Other cities that have tried this have had very mixed results and are edging back from them. Portland had several, but are now moving to fencing them in. We think that would require a lot of enforcement capacity we don’t have.”
That’s a sentiment that Mark Ahlness agrees with. The West Seattle resident is a volunteer with the Seattle Nature Alliance, a nonprofit that works to preserve Seattle’s natural areas and parks for passive recreation, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty. He endorses the proposed dog park master plan wholeheartedly.

It’s not that he and others don’t love dogs—they do, very much, he says. But there is just not enough space in the city for additional off-leash areas of any sort.

“The issue is that the amount of land we have left for natural parkland is really small…compared to Portland and San Francisco,” says Ahlness, a retired third-grade teacher. “With all this talk of density, and its push on our few remaining green spaces and natural areas, it’s getting really tough. We’ve got to fight to hang on to what little we have and make it accessible to all citizens of Seattle.”

The Nature Alliance is especially opposed to allowing off-leash dogs in unfenced areas of regular parks, or in parks at certain times of the day, he says. Doing so isn’t fair to other park users—especially seniors, children and disabled people, who might be jumped on or knocked over by roaming dogs. Allowing dogs to run off leash would negatively affect other dogs, wildlife, plants, soils, and water and beaches.

Potter says her department is encouraging COLA to work with private developers and other city departments that may have surplus land to identify possible off-leash sites. Another potential solution is for COLA or other groups to apply for neighborhood matching funds to develop dog parks. This program provides matching dollars for projects that are initiated, planned and implemented by communities to enhance and strengthen their neighborhoods. They can range from $1,000 for a simple project, such as a neighborhood disaster preparedness workshop, to $100,000, larger-scale projects, such as rain gardens or community club renovations.

It’s not a suggestion that sits well with Eckerman, who notes that the city never asks parents to find sites for playgrounds or for volunteers to maintain them. She believes that providing adequate dog parks is a win-win. In New York City, dog bites declined by 90 percent, from 40,000 to 4,000, when sufficient off-leash areas were opened. “If you don’t give dogs the chance to exercise and play, they go bananas,” she says. “It’s like asking a kindergartner to sit still in a chair all day.”

The decision about the master plan sits with the parks department, although more public comment was scheduled at a
hearing on September 22, after this issue went to press, and written comment  is being accepted through October 14 (and can be sent
to The draft plan is expected to be  finalized in November by Seattle Parks and Recreation superintendent Jesús Aguirre.

Estimated number of dogs in Seattle

Number of animal complaints
(Complaints are not broken down per animal species)
10,000 per year

Most common animal complaints
> Animal cruelty
> Bites and menacing by animals
> Injured animals
> Stray animals
> Leash law, noise and scoop violations
> Violations in city parks
> Deceased animals
> Requests to assist with animal rescue

New enforcement
Beginning last March, a new two-person team began patrolling Seattle parks to enforce leash, scoop and licensing laws. This team provides additional support to Seattle Animal Shelter enforcement officers who enforce all laws involving animals throughout the city, including in parks.

Seattle’s basic dog laws
(More information is at
> Dogs must have a current City of Seattle pet license
> Dogs must be on-leash except in designated
off-leash areas
> Owners must obey
scoop laws (i.e. pick up after their dogs)
> Dogs must have a current rabies vaccine

Source: Seattle Animal Shelter

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