The two labs are pretty charged up just seeing the scene before them: a pair of speedy Gordon setters racing through the trees. But when Laura Nelson Schneck wraps up her cellphone call and opens her door to head back and release them, they come uncorked, circling one another in the back of the truck.
“They get excited, really, just even turning off the road,” she said as the dogs ran to the front gate of the new off-leash dog park in Prior Lake.
For lots of reasons, Scott County has taken forever to join the rest of the metro area in creating multiple spaces for dogs to run freely and in spontaneous groups, as nature intended.
But suddenly dog parks are springing up all over. In addition to the one that Nelson Schneck has grown to love at Spring Lake Regional Park, which opened last year:
• In April, Belle Plaine opened a seasonal dog park in cooperation with its school district, in a hockey rink a block or two off Main Street.
• Savage’s City Council this month agreed to support plans to create a dog zone at Murphy Hanrehan Park, perhaps by the end of this year.
• After eight years of failed attempts, Shakopee appears to be nearing the creation of an off-leash facility along Southbridge Parkway, in the newer part of town.
“I think we’ll have one in place by this fall or next spring,” said Shakopee Mayor Brad Tabke, a dog owner who, as a parks commissioner years ago, had a front-row seat for the city’s frustrations in creating one. “We’d like to make it even bigger by leasing some state-owned land, and we’re working to get a response from them on that.”
In Dakota County, meanwhile, Eagan reports that it has sold 556 passes for a dog park that opened last year.
“I can tell you from personal experience that after heavy rain, some of the area can get muddy and dogs love to run through puddles,” said the city’s communications director, Tom Garrison.
One reason it has taken so long to make these things happen is that there can be plenty of objections. Fencing off existing parkland for another use, for instance, can yank it out of the hands of existing users. And dogs can be hard on turf, creating an ugly, muddy mess displeasing to passersby.
“We even ran into objections that barking would affect rare birds in one site,” Tabke recalled.
Nevertheless, officials north of the river have opened dozens of the parks, enough so that Minneapolis finishes in 15th place out of nearly 100 big cities in a 2011 survey by the Trust for Public Land.
It’s the fastest-growing parks segment, at a time when there’s a growing number of empty-nest households — that is, when dogs in a certain sense “become the kids.” The Trust reports a 34 percent leap in their numbers in the nation’s big cities between 2005 and 2010, to a total of 569.
Sizes range widely, from 28 acres at Cleary Lake Regional Park in Scott County — “awesome,” said one dog owner from Lakeville — down to just small slivers of land. Amenities vary as well.
Nelson Schneck of Prior Lake pronounced the new dog park at Spring Lake Park “newer and clean,” noting that Cleary “gets mucky and dirty, especially when it’s wet out.”
The “amenities here are fantastic,” she added, including restrooms, a plastic bag dispenser not far from a sign announcing there’s no such thing as a “poop fairy,” a dog’s-level water fountain, and a hose for mud removal before the dog returns to the car. “Not all of them have hoses,” she said.
Although there is a fee, which doesn’t exist everywhere, “it’s money well spent,” she said, “considering they do things like pouring more mulch on the ground in certain places when it’s wet.”
Sue and Wayne Welke of Prior Lake were first-timers at the same park one recent afternoon and said they loved it.
“I can see the dogs from most everywhere,” Sue said, “and restrooms — not always the case.” Although she seldom visits dog parks, she added, she knows of folks who use them practically every day.
“It becomes a real social thing. People get to know each other, and so do the dogs.”