Nala, a 5-month old golden retriever, leaps for a ball at the White Rock Dog Park. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Nala, a 5-month old golden retriever, leaps for a ball at the White Rock Dog Park. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

“The dog is a gentleman,” Mark Twain once mused. “I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s.”

No doubt about it, we love our dogs. We spoil them with squeaky toys and bacon treats, surrender precious bed space, and, in recent years, take them to their very own parks. East Dallas dogs and four-legged visitors enjoy White Rock Lake Dog Park, with its wide-open spaces and a “dog launch,” where Fido and Fifi can bound into the lake to practice their dogpaddle.

Time has revealed, though, that the park is as beneficial for people as it is for canines. It has evolved as a place for heeling and healing.

As such a popular and well-loved park, it’s difficult to remember when it wasn’t part of the neighborhood. But co-founders Andie Comini and Melissa Tinning can tell you all about the early days. They met when they (and others) were taking their pups to an “illegal off-leash,” an open field off Winsted Drive. “One day,” recalls Comini, “signage went up saying ‘No Dogs Off Leash.’ ” Within hours, they and their dog-loving friends commenced to calling “every city official we could think of, demanding a park for our pups.”

Then-City Councilman Gary Griffith stepped forward.

One of the last major cities to embrace the idea of dog parks, Dallas initially pushed back. Comini and Tinning remember a solid year of hard work convincing the city, neighborhood associations, the parks department and others of the need for a play area for pooches. Fortunately, they had done their homework.

“We had data,” says Tinning, “from other parks and municipalities to support the development. And For the Love of the Lake were tremendous in their support.”

The White Rock Dog Park serves as an active social setting for East Dallas residents and patrons. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

The White Rock Dog Park serves as an active social setting for East Dallas residents and patrons. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

They also had private donations, including $5,000 from the Texas Rangers, for initial development. Eric Nadel, voice of the Texas Rangers and fellow dog lover, brought them in and eventually arranged for baseball legend Nolan Ryan to be present at the ribbon cutting of the White Rock Lake Dog Park in July 2001. More than 1,000 showed up for the ceremony — the dog park was a perfect fit in East Dallas.

The dogs of Dallas were overjoyed with their new space to run, romp and socialize. And though co-founders Comini and Tinning knew the human benefits of the park — a base for additional community and a proven asset for real estate values — they could not have imagined just how deeply healing the park would be. They would make that sad but comforting discovery a mere two months later.

September 11, 2001 brought the country to its knees. “When 9/11 hit, the dog park was flooded with people desperate to connect with others and just cuddle a loving dog,” Comini remembers. “People with and without dogs just walked around in a daze, often crying. The dogs sensed people were upset and would go up to them offering unconditional love.”

Tinning agrees. “For about two weeks after that horrible day, people just came to the dog park. People who didn’t have dogs. Folks from retirement communities, parents with young children and apartment dwellers all seemed to congregate there. They’d ask us, ‘Is it okay if we pet the dogs?’ or ‘May I just sit in the park for a while?’ ”

Comini and Tinning went to the park every evening, standing close to the gate, pointing weary, dazed folks to the more docile dogs for pats and hugs.

Over the years, the dog park would prove time and again to be a place of healing. Peggy Compton, another early supporter of the park and frequent visitor with dogs Brently and Clifford, remembers “an influx of people and dogs during non-peak hours” during the recession in 2008 when many lost their jobs. “The dog park was a networking center for job seekers with their dogs. Job interviews took place at the park for a local retail pet supply company. Many people were able to make job connections from the other parkers and have fun with their dogs at the same time.”

Tragedy again struck in July when Dallas police officers were ambushed during a peaceful protest downtown. “In the aftermath of that Thursday night, the dog park was again visited by such quiet, sad people who were looking for the comfort that is uniquely and lovingly given by dogs,” says Tinning. Nods Comini, “The dog park offered a place to go, to connect with others and to help start the healing process. In a split second, our lives forever changed, but our pups, so innocent, continued to happily play, oblivious to the news. That alone helped bring some smiles to mask our pain.”

Day to day, White Rock Lake Dog Park is therapeutic. Compton has many a time seen busloads of seniors from retirement centers smiling and petting dogs. Comini has witnessed grieving widows/widowers left with a pet, finding comfort and company at the park. Susan Abrahamson, who frequents the park with her dogs Kindle and Grover, recalls a conversation with a group home caregiver who had brought a small group of autistic young men to the park. He explained to Abrahamson that simply watching the dogs was helpful to them emotionally.

“When we started the dog park,” reflects Comini, “we had no idea the benefits would extend to include us as well as the dogs. I feel as lucky as the pups when I go to the park.”

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