Dog parks reinvented: A joyful spot for dogs and people

Leib Dodell

Leib Dodell is an attorney, entrepreneur and former insurance executive with extensive experience starting and building successful businesses. In 2015, he cofounded Bar K, a creative business combining a fully staffed, state-of-the-art dog park with a bar, restaurant and coffeehouse. Dodell is leading the Bar K expansion, with a St. Louis location scheduled to open in October and an Oklahoma City location opening in early 2022.

Dogs and their owners share a magical relationship. In fact, our connection with dogs is one of the most meaningful relationships in our lives. People can be a bit bashful about saying this out loud, but it's unquestionably true.

Because dogs are such a big part of our personal lives, we also want include them in our social lives. I love sharing my dog, Bear, with other people because he's so joyful and emotionally intelligent. But until about five years ago, my friends and I were constantly frustrated by the lack of opportunity to get together with our dogs in a safe space. My dog and I were not living our best lives.

That's the Bar K origin story. My business partner and I conceptualized Bar K as a space where people could share the joy of dogs. And we've proven without a doubt that people crave this experience.

It's a dog-love-dog world

Dogs long for connection too. They want to run and jump and sniff and engage, but they can't always do that, especially in an urban environment. City dogs might get to take a walk around the block in the morning and again in the evening. Bar K gives dogs the opportunity to simply be dogs in a safe, joyful, thoughtfully designed environment.

"They want to run and jump and sniff and engage, but they can't always do that, especially in an urban environment."

Our canine guests have exceeded expectations for their ability to embrace the Bar K experience. More than 350,000 dogs have visited Bar K's Kansas City location, and I can count on my hands the number of dogs who hadn't yet been properly socialized and weren't quite ready for the environment. The other 99.9 percent of dogs thrive at Bar K.

Hey, doc, relax

I'm not surprised by this, but some people are, including many veterinary professionals. My hunch is that if we surveyed veterinarians, a decent number would say they don't recommend their clients and patients go to public dog parks. I get it. Public dog parks do pose some risks, especially since there's no gatekeeper, no professionally trained intermediator to supervise play and no first aid provider.

When we invite veterinarians to Bar K, we ask them to remain openminded, because Bar K is a whole new animal (pun intended). It's a commercially operated, professionally managed dog park that provides a safe environment for dogs and people. All the skeptical veterinary professionals who've visited Bar K have left amazed by how easily we pull it off.

"My hunch is that if we surveyed veterinarians, a decent number of them would say they recommend against their clients and patients going to public dog parks."

Plan for the best

While it may look easy, we put a great deal of thought into the design and management of Bar K. We consulted with veterinary behaviorists and dog trainers to construct a space that encourages positive interactions between dogs. For example:

  • The entrance gate is separate from the exit gate. Dogs meeting nose to nose can create conflict, especially when amped-up dogs who are entering the park meet tired, grouchy dogs who are exiting.
  • The park has two acres of play space with no square corners to prevent dogs from feeling trapped. There are also no blind spots where the staff might miss the warning signs of potential conflict. We believe dogs prefer to choose flight over fight – give them ample room to spread out in a thoughtfully designed space, and they will thrive.

Staffing is another major safety component. Bar K is staffed 100 percent of the time by team members called "dogtenders." They're trained to watch for dogs' stress signals and gently redirect dogs' attention by using a shaker can or stepping between them. Their interventions are often so subtle that human guests don't even realize they've intervened.

Seeing is believing

While we want to avoid escalating situations, we firmly believe in letting dogs be dogs. That means we need to make sure our human guests understand healthy play. Some people mistake barking and mouthing for aggression and want to intervene. Our dogtenders are there to point out the exhibition of positive signals, like hopping, smiling and play bowing. We work hard to avoid correcting healthy play because it can confuse and frustrate dogs. Of course, supervision is always necessary and sometimes intervention is too. Our team does an excellent job of finding the balance between fun and safety.

We also take a lot of other safety precautions. We require all canine guests to be up to date on parasite prevention and vaccinations. Before people under 13 years old can enter, we give them a quiz with questions about how to approach dogs safely.

This has allowed us to obliterate myths about the need to restrict children or certain breeds from a dog park environment. Our goal is to create a culture of acceptance and education. We want to debunk artificial constructs that hold people back from truly embracing dogs as partners in social settings.

The more the merrier

One way we do this is by partnering with the pet care community. At Bar K Kansas City, we have a deep partnership with a local veterinary practice, as well as with the veterinary community generally.

Our partnerships help us serve as a trusted resource for pet owners. If a veterinarian tells us there's a Bordetella outbreak, for example, we can alert our 45,000-plus social media followers that their dogs may need a vaccination booster.

Because we reach a magnitude of local dog owners, we act as a hub for the area pet industry. We can bring together businesses of all kinds, serving as a Switzerland of sorts so professionals can meet on neutral turf, share a conversation over drinks and experience a joyful environment. By way of example, a group of six or seven local mobile groomers recently organized a mini summit at Bar K. They parked their rigs out front to show each other and our guests. Then they went inside to discuss business success stories and how to solve mutual challenges. We also host Pet Industry Night on the first Wednesday of every month to give pet professionals an opportunity to get together in a relaxed environment.

Park with a greater purpose

We're thankful to be viewed as a platform for dog well-being. After all, we want to be a resource and gathering place for dog lovers of all kinds. We aim to build a strong community and do anything and everything to provide better access to more information.

We're excited to take the joy of Bar K around the country. We're opening our St. Louis location in October and our Oklahoma City location in 2022. We can't wait to bring together dog lovers in those communities and nationwide.

In a society that is increasingly fragmented and polarized, Bar K breaks down barriers in an authentic, almost throwback way. The environment is an antidote to the way we live now. We hope that Bar K acts as an oasis of sanity in an otherwise fractured world.

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