Sandy Schwalb: Build it – They will bark

Sandy Schwalb

I don’t like dogs. Oh, sorry that’s not exactly what I meant to say. I don’t just like dogs; I love dogs! This admission is from a woman who, 20 years ago, recoiled at a sniff, much less a touch, of any canine. Fortunately I discovered the error of my ways in 1997 when my husband Steve introduced me to Bert (1996-2007) a big, but very gentle, German shepherd. I became a “dog lady” almost overnight.

In 2011, not long after we moved to this area with our two very different but lovable German shepherds, Buddy and Bo, we became aware of the effort to build a dog park in Warren County. Steve met Kelly Walker, an artist and (to put it mildly) dog lover in Front Royal. We quickly discovered she was a “force of nature” in her quest for a safe place where dogs could enjoy nature and each other. We were happy to join the bandwagon! After years of fundraising and planning, the Warren County Dog Park opened in August 2012 with Kelly’s dogs, Jed and Lincoln, acting as she says, “beta testers for the park.” Located along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in Eastham Park, the dog park has two separate fenced enclosures, a .75-acre pen for small dogs and 1.90 acres for large dogs.

I recently chatted with Kelly, who said her work on the dog park began in 2007-2008. There were many hoops to jump through along the way. Kelly said, however, there “lessons learned,” which can help others in the Shenandoah Valley looking to build their own dog parks. Currently, a group of volunteers and dog lovers (surely they are one in the same!) in Strasburg is working to secure funding for its own dog park. Kelly has assisted them with the paperwork they needed to secure their 501(c)(3) status.

The Warren County Parks and Recreation Department maintains the dog park in Front Royal. Kelly said the department donated labor work during the park’s construction. The Warren County Dog Park Association, a 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization, did the heavy lifting of raising funds to get the dog park built. The association’s mission is to contribute to the health and well being of people and domestic dogs by advocating and building off-leash dog parks. Or as Kelly says, “a place for dogs to run off some energy, because a tired dog is a good dog!”

I learned from Kelly (Breaking news? Well, at least for me.) that Warren County is planning a second dog park, which will be located on Rockland Road, formerly known as the Fishnet Property. The park includes walking trails, a playground, two large picnic shelters, and parking areas. A parcel of land has been set aside for a dog park.

Since 2009, Winchester has had a safe place for canines to run and play in its dog park, located in Jim Barrett Park. Operated by the Winchester Parks and Recreation Department, it sells memberships on a yearly basis. A grassroots effort, a majority of the funding for the dog park was raised by volunteers through the Winchester Parks Foundation.

But wait, there’s more! Our neighbors in Clarke County have access to two dog parks. The first, in Chet Hobert Park, was opened in 2012 and is operated by the county Parks & Recreation Department. In 2015, a fenced-in dog park play area was added to the Clarke County Animal Shelter. This dog park is open to the public, but only during the shelter’s operating hours.

Dog parks are, shall we say, “in.” A report from the Trust for Public Land, released in 2016, says so! It states that “off-leash dog parks led the pack in new urban parks, growing by 4 percent in 2015 and 89 percent since 2007,” according to data on the nation’s 100 biggest city park systems across the country. In fact, nearly every big city, in the U.S, now has at least one dedicated dog park.

So the dog lady, the alpha (Steve) and our loyal pack, now composed of Rocky, a German shepherd and Gem, a 15 pound  Lhasa-poo, know that there are a number of great spaces in the valley for pups to meet and greet (translate to dog language – bark and sniff). Let’s hope there are more to come, with some help and donations from us humans.

For close to 40 years Sandy Schwalb worked in the U.S. Senate, for a library association and two U.S. federal agencies. She has been a writer, editor, and public affairs officer. She is now happily retired, lives in Front Royal, and spends much of her time volunteering for a number of animal rescue organizations in the area.