NORTH CHARLESTON — Mary Doran had been waiting several years for the opening of the new dog park at Wannamaker County Park, located less than 2 miles from her home.
Ozzie, her 9-year-old bichon frise, doesn’t get much off-leash time in Doran’s gated community. Doran figured the new space would provide a safe environment for her pup, who works as a service dog, to run freely.
But when Doran recently attended the park’s special opening event Thursday, 11-pound Ozzie was met at the dog park gate by three Great Danes. The portion of the park initially reserved for small dogs was made available to all canines, providing more space for guests to be socially distanced.
It was a deterrent for Doran, who left out of concern her tiny pup could be accidentally run over or otherwise harmed by much larger pets.
“I was upset because for three years we’ve looked forward to this park,” Doran said.
There are a handful of dog parks across the Lowcountry that use the segregation of big dogs and small dogs as a way to keep the peace among canines. Much of the onus, however, lies on pet owners to make wise decisions based on knowledge of their dog’s ability to play well with others.
John Johnson-Wolf, owner of training company Charleston Dog Wizard, said dog parks are only good if owners maintain control of their pets and can properly pair dogs with those with similar play styles. Many people live in denial about their dog’s aggressiveness, he said, and don’t intervene before play escalates to fights.
At parks, owners should periodically call on their dogs as a way to allow energy levels to deescalate, Johnson-Wolf said. They should also avoid bringing their dog’s favorite toy, which could spark confrontation if the item is taken by another pup.
“Ninety-percent of parents don’t have control of their dog,” he said. “Other owners shouldn’t have to ask you to get your dog.”
Wannamaker knows well the potential dangers posed to smaller animals.
Several years ago, a 6- to 10-week-old puppy was killed by a larger dog that saw the younger canine as a “fluffy-looking toy,” said Wannamaker County Park General Manager Edmunds Brown.
After that, the park created a designated area for smaller pets. It’s new facility, located in a different area of the park, has a 2-acre big dog section and a 1-acre small dog area.
Around 400 dogs attended the initial Oct. 8 Yappy Hour event, a fall-themed celebration, Brown said.
The park sought to improve social distancing at Thursday’s follow-up event, and made the entire dog park open to larger canines, while still making the old small dog space available to tiny canines. Workers told guests upon entry the entire park was open to large dogs.
Doran said she was not informed of the change. She also said the smaller park is more difficult to navigate with her wheelchair.
Brown apologized to Doran for the inconveniences.
“We want her to come back,” Brown said. “We provided as much safety as we possible could for the entire group.”
The cities of Charleston, North Charleston and Summerville each have at least one off-leash areas where dogs are separated based on size.
They include Governor’s Park on Daniel Island; Bees Landing Recreation Center in West Ashley; Wescott Community Park, Riverfront Park and Mixson Avenue Dog Park in North Charleston; and Wassamassaw Community Park in Summerville.
Rules are in place that limit attendance to pups who’ve been vaccinated, and require pet owners to closely monitor dogs and pick up pet waste. Small dogs are usually considered those under 20 or 25 pounds.