Terry Showers opens up a small sandwich bag filled with brown pellets and is instantly surrounded by three dogs, anxiously wagging their tails for a treat.
That was the scene at the Garth Nature Area’s recently opened off-leash dog park, which is quickly becoming a hot spot for Columbia’s furry friends and their owners.
The 3.6-acre park is on the east side of the nature area, near the parking lot off Garth Avenue. A round, treated lumber fence lined with wire mesh creates a safe grassy field and a water spot where dogs of all sizes can play. White boxes posted on wooden poles offer Mutt Mitts plastic bags, making it easy for owners to clean up after their pets.
The park is one of five off-leash areas in Columbia and the second dog park; the other is at Twin Lakes Recreation Center.
An off-leash area is a place where owners can let their dogs roam free, while a dog park is a fenced-in civic area for dogs and their owners to congregate.
Mike Griggs, park services manager for the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, said there was a great need for a dog park on the north side of Columbia.
“With so many non-yard properties in Columbia, a place like this is needed,” Griggs said. “A young woman told me she used to go all the way to Twin Lakes with her dog, but with gas prices being so high, she stopped going. Now she has a place that is convenient and close to home, and she can go every day.”
The dog park cost $14,400 and was funded from the city’s park sales tax.
“All we had to pay for was the fence, so it was relatively cheap,” Griggs said.
The Parks and Recreation Department viewed presentations on dog parks in cities such as Indianapolis for ideas on the design of the park
as well as for suggested rules and regulations. Griggs said features such as a drinking area and a rinse area will be added to address dog owner’s concerns.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback but also a lot of suggestions,” Griggs said. “We want to make it more of a decent little park area.”
Dog owner Nicole Volkert said she enjoys having a place she can bring both her two dogs and her two young daughters to play.
“I used to live in Chicago, and they didn’t have anything like this,” Volkert said. “(In Chicago), it was basically just a parking lot where dogs had urinated, and I would have never taken a child there. My daughters love dogs, and this is a real nature setting. It’s pretty, and the dog owners pick up after their dogs and have them under control.”
While many dog owners view the park as a rare place for their pets to roam free and get exercise, Showers, the owner of a Cairn terrier and a chocolate lab, said the park provides an opportunity for his dogs to meet other dogs.
“We live in the country, so they have plenty of places to run around and exercise, but there is more socialization here,” Showers said. “It’s also a good place to train them because if you can get them to stay and sit around the distraction of other dogs, it is better than in a field alone.”
Beyond a place of freedom and socialization for dogs, the Garth Nature Area dog park is also building community among Columbia’s human residents.
“I find the dog owners can be more friendly and talkative than the parents when I take my kids to the playground,” Volkert said. “I definitely think Columbia is a good place for dog owners. The people who take their dogs to dog parks really enjoy their dogs.”
Griggs said even non-dog owners are benefiting from the dog park.
“Previously, the whole area was leash-free,” Griggs said. “If someone was walking on the trail, a dog could come right up to them. People who are uncomfortable with dogs are happy because there is a fenced-in area now, and they don’t have to worry.”