Head to Sunken Gardens Park
any weekday evening and you’re likely to see the wagging tails and hear the excited barks of dogs playing together, bounding up and down the west side of the park along Elati Street.
After Lucas Myers moved from Tennessee to Denver last year, he took his dog to the city's official dog parks, but he soon discovered the unofficial community at Sunken Gardens, which is right in his neighborhood.
“The city-sanctioned dog parks are all kind of sad, for lack of a better term,” Myers says. “They're usually gravel…and fenced in and kind of small relative to the surrounding area. I've got a big dog; she can chase the ball quite far.”
Taylor Latour has been taking his dogs, Mr. Scraggles and Edwina, to Sunken Gardens for nearly a decade. For a long time, they had little company there. But in the last few years, Sunken Gardens has become an unofficial off-leash oasis. “Sometimes there’s like twenty dogs, and it’s wonderful,” Latour says.
“There's no excuse for breaking the leash law, which we're all obviously doing,” admits Myers. “It just seemed very organic...it became a community thing.”
Dog owners say the grass at Sunken Gardens is a perk they don't find at city dog parks.
But Denver Parks and Recreation
doesn't like to see this park going to the dogs when the city already has a dozen official off-leash parks.
Myers was at Sunken Gardens recently when a park ranger came by. He asked the ranger if he was there because an incident had been reported, and the ranger said no, then added that the off-leash dogs and their owners had to disperse, because they were breaking park rules. Myers says it seems like Parks and Rec has been cracking down on off-leash dog gatherings lately.
“One hundred percent, that's accurate,” says Jodie Marozas, the downtown operations park ranger supervisor with Parks and Rec, who notes that the department is hitting up off-leash dog gatherings all over the city. "The big problem with this is, even though you're meeting with a group of like-minded people, the parks are there for everybody to enjoy safely and comfortably.”
Marozas calls such gatherings "dog parties," and says that they occur in almost every park district, though Sunken Gardens is a particularly popular party spot. Off-leash dogs can cause anxiety for people who have a negative history with dogs or young children playing in the area, she notes, and unrestrained dogs are also at greater risk of hurting wildlife or running into the road and being injured themselves.
Seeing off-leash dogs can make dogs on leashes more aggressive, Marozas adds; she’s seen a dog break its leash to attack another dog that's already off-leash. If that happens and any party is injured, the person with the off-leash dog would be responsible, which Marozas doesn’t think many people realize.
But even as the city cracks down, Marozas says the goal is to educate and correct behavior rather than issue tickets, which start at $100 and can go up to $999 for repeat offenders.
So far in 2022, rangers have issued
over 3,000 verbal warnings for off-leash dogs, given over 130 written warnings and handed out at least 100 citations. Department data also shows that about 700 people have evaded park authorities when approached about their off-leash dogs.
“It's no fun to have to go to the park and always be looking over your shoulder to see if a ranger is coming to write you a ticket,” Marozas says. “It just seems a lot more enjoyable to have a longer leash when you're in that grassy area so that your dog can run around a little bit. You can run with your dog; you could also exercise yourself.”
It can be hard to maintain grass in dog parks, she notes, especially when people aren’t good about picking up after their dogs. That problem extends to the unofficial off-leash dog parties, where Marozas says people get distracted and forget to clean up after their pets.
Rollins Johnson's dog, Ruby, can't stay away from Hirshorn Park.
Rollins Johnson takes her dog, Ruby, to Hirshorn Park, a well-known off-leash dog party place
in LoHi, before she works night shifts at her job. She says other pet owners are careful to clean up after their pets and make sure their dogs are not aggressive, and that Ruby appreciates the company. “If I try to take her on a regular walk, she immediately starts dragging me here,” Johnson says.
Of the city's twelve dog parks
, Marozas supervises two: Railyard Dog Park and Little Box Car, both downtown. Many people who take their dogs to off-leash parties say that official dog parks are either too far to walk to or too crowded, which can make dogs more aggressive.
Marozas notes that the city can cite aggressive dogs in official dog parks, too.
Denver Animal Protection
is in charge of responding to instances of dog aggression. Tammy Vigil, marketing and communications specialist for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, where DAP is housed, says the department doesn’t have reliable data on how many dog-on-dog incidents happen in dog parks as opposed to other parks, since DAP’s calls are labeled by addresses, not names of parks.
“For example, Wash Park has an address of 701 South Franklin, but the park is several blocks long and several blocks wide,” Vigil explains. “So if someone calls at 1200 East Virginia, that’s still Wash Park, so we’d miss it if we’re only searching the park address.” In addition, the department only started tracking in-depth data on dog-on-dog attacks in May because of a lack of software and staffing. In the past, it just tracked cases where dogs have attacked humans.
Marozas says that people who want grass in dog parks, or more dog parks in general, should reach out to Denver City Council.
Hirshorn Park has a sign reminding people to keep their dogs on a leash.
“It's one of those things where, if you want something, then do the research and the work,” she says. “If you bring a solution instead of just problems, potentially they could find a way to have a dog park.”
In fact, the city is now looking for locations for additional dog parks in accord with the Dog Park Master Plan
, which was updated in 2019. But Sunken Gardens is not on the department’s radar at this point. “I want to make sure we aren’t giving people false hope on something that is not happening,” Marozas says.
In the meantime, she adds, “you can arrange to have the dog parties at a dog park. That sounds like super fun to me.”