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Dogs run free in huge new fenced area in Horner Park; ‘Life-changing’ say owners

Pooches and their two-legged pals flocked to the grand opening of a massive three-quarter-acre dog park on the North Side that’s been years in the making.

“This is going to be life-changing,” said Geri Weinstock, whose nine-month-old pup Oliver was among the dozens of dogs racing around Horner Park’s new dog friendly area Thursday night.

“He loves to run; it’s all he wants to do,” Weinstock said of Oliver. “He just wants to run and be free. On leash, he’s not having as much fun.”

Acknowledging that plenty of owners flout Chicago’s strict leash law, under which dogs are only legally permitted to be off leash in designated areas, Horner Park’s advisory council began pursuing the creation of a dog park six years ago to lessen the potential for conflict among various park users.

Shortly after taking office in 2013, 33rd Ward Ald. Deb Mell toured the prospective dog park site with Erica Beutler, head of Horner Park’s dog friendly area committee, and threw her support behind a vision that went well beyond what the alderman termed the typical postage-stamp-sized concrete pad.

The sight of so many dogs happily frolicking in a space purpose-built for their enjoyment had Mell’s heart bursting, she said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“I picture community,” Mell said of the dog park, “and everyone getting together.”

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It hasn’t been an easy road to get to this point.

Chicago’s rigorous requirements for establishing a dog friendly area put the burden of raising funds for a dog park — the city estimates the price tag at $150,000 — squarely on the people who want one.

Beutler and the members of her committee have been spearheading those efforts on behalf of Horner Park, 2741 W. Montrose Ave., since 2012.

“In my naivete, I thought, ‘How hard can it be to get a fence up?’” Beutler recalled.

Mell and neighboring Ald. Ameya Pawar of the 47th Ward chipped in with contributions totaling $50,000 from their respective aldermanic menu funds, but the rest of the nearly $140,000 collected to date has trickled in dollar by dollar.

Some has come from individual donations, some from special events like an annual Easter doggie egg hunt, some from an online auction and some from a doggie calendar contest, just to name a few of the committee’s efforts.

“It is absolutely exhausting,” said Beutler, who was lauded for her, pardon the pun, dogged leadership.

“If you want something done, go to Erica,” said Mell. “At every step, Erica kept pushing. I think she was here for every single screw that went into this fence.”

And her work isn’t finished.

The grand opening celebrated the completion of Phase One of the dog park, which consisted of erecting fencing around the area. Phase Two will include the addition of a water feature, the creation of separate spaces for large and small dogs and, critically, the installation of “canine grass,” an artificial turf that will replace the dog park’s natural grass.

Beutler pegged the cost of Phase Two at $100,000 on top of the approximately $80,000 the committee still has in the bank.

The Park District typically doesn’t allow dog parks on natural grass, for reasons related to disease transmission and maintenance. Horner Park was granted a temporary exception in order to give community members (ie, potential donors) a tangible sense of what’s at stake.

“To continue fundraising, we need something for people to look at,” said Jason Hernandez, chief of staff for Ald. Mell.

“The Park District is giving us a shot to get this off the ground,” his boss added. “We have a lot more to do.”

That includes educating dog owners about the do’s and dont’s of dog park etiquette.

James Bahr, head trainer at Urban Pooch, was on hand for the grand opening to offer tips and to keep an eye out for potentially troublesome behavior.

His number one piece of advice: “Make sure your dog is already social.”

A dog park, with loads of other pooches running hurly-burly, is not the place for an owner to first let their pet off leash, Bahr said.

He also urged owners to remain engaged with their dogs, not their cellphones, when at a dog park. Owners should be on the lookout for signs of stress, such as a tucked tail and stiff posture, or fatigue, which can make a dog cranky.

“You are responsible,” he said. “You need to know your dog.”

Horner Park’s dog friendly area will be open during park hours, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Occasional closures may occur following heavy rains, officials said.