Ever since the city’s dog park opened near White Rock Lake, the park department’s Caroline Bray had been receiving “overwhelming” positive comments. But it was during a drive home one night that she saw the true measure of its success.

“As I was approaching the dog park, I looked over and saw about 15 cars and people with flashlights and dogs running. I thought: This is unbelievable.”

While this scenario might sound surreptitious, it was, of course, completely legal. Several years earlier, however, pet owners were forced to resort to stealthy measures.

Take the case of neighborhood residents Melissa Tinning and Andie Comini, who (along with many other dog owners) used Winstead Park as an informal “dog” park, hoping they wouldn’t be fined for letting their animals run off-leash.

The two women eventually tired of the situation and began doing Internet research on dog parks and talking to others at Winstead, encouraging supporters to attend meetings about the issue.

It took some time, but a growing number of people started to get behind the idea.

Still, when first approached about setting aside a place where dogs could run-off leash without violating any laws, park department representatives were skeptical, Comini admits.

The women and their supporters pressed on, showing city officials a nationwide trend – San Francisco has 18 dog parks and Austin has 12, to name just a couple.

A turning point came when some city officials traveled to Austin to visit the dog parks there.

“We saw what had and had not been done there,” Bray says, “and learned how to go about establishing a better park in Dallas.”

The city decided to donate the land and changed city ordinance to allow dog to run off-leash. Funding, however, wasn’t available in the city budget, so the organizers had to put money ($45,000) where their mouths were.

Eric Nadel, radio announcer for the Texas Rangers, was instrumental in raising $25,000 from the Muenster Milling Company, a donation Nadel says is only the second corporate sponsorship of a dog park in the country.

Bray says that even with such generous donations, the dog park wouldn’t exist without the dedication of Comini and Tinning.

“Those two women were instrumental in helping get T-shirts and bricks sold (to raise funds), and just advertising and creating awareness,” says Bray.

“We just knew this was a good idea,” Tinning says, “and we got really lucky to get that site.”

The dog park’s day finally came last June. And Bray says the response has been an education for everyone.

“We didn’t realize how overwhelming the need was for these people living in lofts,” Bray says. “Pets are better behaved and healthier when they are able to run and exercise.”

Statistics show that with 3,000 visitors a week, the 1.9-acre park is the most used acre in the Dallas Parks System.

Even people without dogs are going, Comini says, “mostly senior citizens who just want to watch the dogs.

“So it has been good for dogs and good for people, too. A healing place,” she calls it.

After the money was raised and the park opened, the venture became city property. The city budget now accommodates the park’s operations and management costs, approximately $5,000 per year.

But improvements or additions must still be funded privately. The “small dog” park adjacent to the original site was completed with a grant from the Communities Foundations of Texas.

Tinning and Comini post updated information on their website, www.dallasdogparks.org, and hope to broaden the network of people involved with the park. First-timers can read tips about how to best introduce their dogs to this new experience and about how the neighborhood can help make Dallas’ first dog park even better.

But what Comini and Tinning really want is to see people step up and take responsibility for bringing to fruition the five other parcels of land throughout Dallas designated by the city as future dog parks.

“We donated a year-and-a-half to this,” Comini says. “The next park will be easier to start up because they’ll have a blueprint.”

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