By Erika Webb
If you want to study human nature, visit a dog park.
There are eight off-leash dog parks in Volusia County -- Keysville, Deltona; Waggin' Trails, Orange City; Gemini Springs Dog Park, DeBary; Barkley Square, DeLand; Michael Crotty Bicentennial Park, Ormond Beach; Riviera Oaks Dog Park, Holly Hill; Daytona Beach Dog Park at Manatee Island; Seamore Memorial Dog Park, Port Orange.
Waggin' Trails is one of the few city-owned and operated dog parks in the county.
Orange City Parks and Recreation Superintendent John Davis said residents love the park.
"I honestly think it's one of the best things we've done," he said. "It was amazing how many people came to the grand opening. It's almost like it's a meetin' place for people."
DeLand's Barkley Square is situated on more than 14 acres, providing areas for large dogs, small dogs, training events and time-out spaces.
Park regular Chelsea Whalley is a senior at Stetson University. At home in Canada, she'd likely be bundled up outside in early April but not here. Clad in shorts and a tank top, Ms. Whalley enjoyed the warm Florida sun while her Catahoula, Lucy, ran and played with the other dogs.
Ms. Whalley attends Stetson on a full softball scholarship. Her boyfriend plays baseball and she said their hectic schedules make it difficult to get Lucy out for the exercise she craves. Busy or not, they make sure to get Lucy to the dog park at least three times a week.
"We come here and I know she's pooped for the rest of the day," Ms. Whalley said.
The integrative science major tends to study human behaviors while at the park.
She's discovered there is a sense of community that forms among owners.
"People know you as, 'oh, that's Lucy's mom,' she said.
When Lucy was younger and "more hyper" Ms. Whalley said she couldn't help feeling defensive when other dog owners seemed offended by the Catahoula's friendly advances.
"When people are here they need to know you're gonna get dirty, you're gonna get jumped on, there's gonna be a kerfluffle," she said. "I like to assume if you're gonna bring your dog here, you're likely to be responsible and make sure they're good dogs.
"They're all good dogs. It's whether or not they're trained well," she added. "I find it humorous to expect them to act like we do. (Owners) say, 'Go say you're sorry,' if there's an issue. I just usually laugh," she said.
Ted, a stern-looking Rottweiler who frequents Barkley Square, is misunderstood by some visitors there. If a tussle breaks out and he's nearby, judgments have been passed. But Ted is gentle, playful and comical. He's been known to sneak up on his owner, nip his backside and rocket the man off of the bench, all in good fun. As with people, appearances can be misleading.
Ms. Whalley is one who has taken the time to get to know Ted and his owner. They are among her favorites at Barkley Square.
"Just like in any social setting you might go ... ugghhh, he's here," she said, referring to no one in particular. "Not all dogs are going to get along, not all people are going to get along."
The Animal Humane Society recommends socializing puppies through supervised play groups or "play dates" with friends' puppies "to ensure their first several interactions are pleasant ones."
"Dogs that display aggression toward people or dogs are not candidates for the dog park," according to animalhumanesociety.org and, of course, common sense.
Most parks have separate areas for large and small dogs. At the owners' discretion, they often intermingle.
But, the AHS warned, "Not all owners who attend dog parks show good judgment about their own dogs' behavior. Many people have difficulty distinguishing normal play behavior from bullying, and may not realize their dog is being rude. Others may mistake arousal for playfulness, allowing a potentially dangerous situation to develop."
Teaching dogs to come when called is an imperative safety measure, according to the society.
"What if play gets too rough or a fight breaks out? What if you simply would like to leave and can't get your dog to follow you? Wait until your dog will come to you most of the time before introducing her to off-leash play," it cautioned.
And young puppies who have not yet received a rabies vaccination should not be taken to dog parks for two reasons: "disease prevention and the risk of being frightened by large older dogs," the AHS advised.
While exercising their dogs is the common goal among human dog park goers, Ms. Whalley said she's found canine inspired discussions veer to a wide variety of topics. She enjoys the conversations.
"You can talk about anything," she said. "All in all it's a really nice community."
Volusia County's Community Services Community Information Director, Dave Byron, said Volusia County's dog parks have become "very, very popular."
"We have a very large dog area at Bicentennial Park in Ormond Beach. We opened that a few years ago. The demand and use of that park has been astounding, so much so that we can't keep turf in the large dog area," Mr. Byron said.
The county has gone as far as switching the areas for small and large dogs to replace the turf and give it time to reestablish under smaller paws, but Mr. Byron said attempts to permanently restore the turf have been unsuccessful.
"There are just so many dogs there," he said.
Two on-leash beach parks for Volusia dogs are Smyrna Dunes in New Smyrna Beach and Lighthouse Point Park in Ponce Inlet.
Mr. Byron said there's been a debate for years about dogs on the beach, but the county has no plans to open beaches up to dogs.
"It's too problematic," Mr. Byron said. "(It poses) a health issue and a safety issue."