By Annie Norling ’12
Photos and video by Annie Norling
A sense of excitement hangs in the air as the car pulls into the parking lot. A chorus of whining begins in the back seat. The dogs know the location: Fort Steilacoom off-leash dog park.
The Fort Steilacoom dog park encompasses over 20 acres of grassy fields and towering evergreen trees. The park is well used by Pacific Lutheran University’s Kristin Lentz and her Cairn terrier, Oliver. Lentz learned about the park from a fellow dog walker.
“One day after running into her, Mrs. Graves asked me if I’d ever taken Oliver to Fort Steilacoom. I went later that week and have been going there every so often ever since,” Lentz said.
The dog park consists of two off-leash areas, one for smaller dogs and one for larger dogs.
Lentz appreciates the separation.
“When I took Oliver the first time I was kind of anxious about how he would react, so it was great to be able to introduce him to the park in the smaller, more calm section of the park,” Lentz said.
Lentz remarked proudly that Oliver has graduated to the “big boy” park. Standing on the grassy knoll, one can see an expanse of short and tall grasses and a woodland area near the back of the park. Dogs can explore the entire park at their leisure.
First time park goers may be nervous about letting their dog run. However, studies have shown that dogs keep an eye on their owners too. Lentz is aware of this phenomenon.
“He [Oliver] will check on me every once-in-a-while while he is playing,” Lentz said.
Off-leash park enthusiasts contend that the parks provide countless community benefits. These benefits include socialization and exercise for dogs, promoting responsible pet ownership and enabling dogs to run off-leash.
Fort Steilacoom also provides a social environment for people.
“Every single time I have gone, I have struck up a conversation with another parent about some dog-related topic,” Lentz said.
One is not required to own a dog to visit the dog park. For PLU students, the park is a great place to go when missing a four-legged friend back home. Dogs frequently run up to strangers for a few pats before sprinting after a ball or a fellow dog.
The park provides an ideal place for dog-lovers to meet fellow dog enthusiasts.
“Its fun to go to a place where everyone loves dogs just as much as I do,” Lentz said.
Students can even study while getting their canine fill.
“When the weather is nice, I will take schoolwork and study while Oliver plays. It’s nice that we can both be outside together,” Lentz said.
Another student, Alex Schisel, loves the proximity to PLU.
“When I want to toss the ball for Belle, I like that the park is only twenty minutes away,” Schisel said.
Belle, a miniature Australian shepherd, races after the ball and barks as she chases it down. Her face shows nothing but pure joy as she lopes across the field with the tennis ball in her mouth.
Off-leash parks rose in popularity after the spread of leash laws across the United States in the 1980s. Activists protested the new laws and demanded space to allow dogs to run free.
Pierce County leash laws restrict owners from allowing dogs to roam. According to Pierce County Code Title 6, dogs are not allowed “to leave the premises of the owner, unless the animal is under physical restraint adequate to the size and nature of the animal.”
The city of Tacoma has a similar leash law. According to the city of Tacoma website, “All dogs are required to be on a leash no longer than eight feet.”
The only exception to this law is at designated off-leash areas.
Those who oppose off-leash dog parks are concerned about dog aggression. Studies have suggested that inter-dog aggression is rare at dog parks.
Along with the creation of dog parks came the creation of groups like Citizens for Off-Leash Areas and Protect Our Pets. These organizations maintain dog parks in the Seattle area and Fort Steilacoom, respectively.
According to the website, Protect Our Pets’ mission is “to establish, promote and maintain an off-leash area at Fort Steilacoom Park for both dog owners and their companions to socialize and exercise.”
Fort Steilacoom was constructed in 1849 as part of the Pacific Defense system to protect America. The 640-acre fort and farm closed in 1868.
In the 1980s, interest in the fort grew and the land eventually came to house baseball fields, soccer fields, a museum and the off-leash dog park.
Off-leash parks in Tacoma:
To search for dog parks in your area, visit dogpark.com.