Release the Hounds!

Dog parks are booming across the U.S. as more and more people consider Fido a member of the family. REUTERS/Mike Segar

While declining tax revenues and increasing costs mean that many municipalities have slashed spending on quality-of-life programs for people, domesticated canines fared quite well: The number of dog parks in the country’s 100 most populous cities surged from 353 in 2008 to 617 in 2013, according to new data provided to Newsweek.

“It’s just growing by leaps and bounds,” Peter Harnik, who directs the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence and compiled these statistics, told Newsweek.

There has been a steady increase in these recreation areas since Berkeley, California’s Ohlone Dog Park (billed as the world’s first) opened in 1979, but this recent surge reflects a shift in American attitudes about canines, who are often perceived as members of the family rather than mere pets.

The latest U.S. Census figures indicate that more households have dogs than kids – 43 million compared to 38 million, respectively– and the American Pet Products Association estimates that spending on pets hit at least $55 billion in 2013, a 4.1 percent increase from 2012.

Says Harnick: “It’s becoming like France.”

This summer, Portland, Ore., one of America’s most canine-friendly cities, hired a full-time “dog off-leash administrator” to manage the town’s dog parks.

The $34,000-per-year position is still “provisional,” meaning the city will assess whether it’s effective before permanently writing it into the budget. But Portland Parks & Recreation security manager Art Hendricks tells Newsweek that the level of activity in his city’s 33 dog parks, including education, enforcement and even networking between park-goer groups, “required us to have a staffer with a dedicated full-time focus.”

Mark Ross, Portland Parks & Recreations spokesman, explains that this allocation of resources to dogs lines up with regional values. “The Northwest ethos is just a compassionate, quality-of-life-driven frame of mind,” he tells Newsweek. “People want their four-legged friends to enjoy the same quality-of-life as they do.”

Luckily for pups and their putative parents, dog parks have some inherent financial advantages over people-centric parks, especially in tough times. Compared to facilities like public pools or ice rinks, the fencing and turf required to build a dog park can be purchased and maintained at a fraction of the cost. Plus, boosters have proved themselves willing to adopt public-private fundraising models, insulating dog parks from governmental belt-tightening.

In Norfolk, Va., for example, the majority of the city’s 12 dog areas are supported by some type of public-private partnership. Civic organizations have also built some dog parks, Darrel Crittendon, director of Norfolk’s Department of Recreation, Parks & Open Space, tells Newsweek. Though the department will post signs with dog park rules and regulations, volunteers and park-goers handle enforcement, he adds.

Dog parks do come with detractors, who traditionally tend to worry about barking and pooping. Harnik admits that canines are louder than cats, with the caveat that dog parks are probably no louder than busy playgrounds. Alas, “people probably have more tolerance for squealing children than barking dogs,” he says. And they rarely have to worry about stepping in a soiled diaper.