Shellie Rush stood across the swimming area along the lake shore in Shawnee Mission Park’s off-leash dog area and watched her 11 Chihuahuas. Almost 2-year-old Harlee snuggled on her shoulder. She wore a baby carrier with 8 1/2 -year-old Lilly Jo huddled tight.
“She has arthritis,” Rush said of Lilly Jo. “It is easier to carry her this way.”
Her other nine Chihuahuas scampered near the water’s edge.
A few times a month, Rush and her partner, Angel Sinnott, trek south from St. Joseph to Shawnee with their brood of Chihuahuas to enjoy Shawnee Mission Park’s off-leash dog area.
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“We bring the dogs to the park to let them run. They get so hyper,” Rush said.
On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, dogs of all shapes, sizes and colors cavorted along the shoreline of the small lake. It was a typical Sunday in the early fall with people and their pooches enjoying Mother Nature at one of Johnson County’s five public parks — and about 100 acres — dedicated to man’s best friend. Johnson County Park and Recreation District runs four off-leash dog parks in Johnson County, and the city of Leawood runs the most recent addition.
With almost 80 million dogs registered as pets in the U.S. — and surely a proportionate number in Johnson County — there is plenty of demand.
In fact, about 20 percent of the visitors heading to Shawnee Mission Park, the largest off-leash park at 53 acres, are going to the off-leash area, said Bill Maasen, superintendent of parks and golf courses.
With so much traffic by people and pooches, overseeing the maintenance is no easy task. Until recently, the county relegated maintenance to Tuesday mornings, but it added Thursday mornings to keep up with the wear and tear.
“They get so much traffic that it’s tough in the fall and winter,” Maasen said. “Frost kills the grass and weeds and then you’re down to dirt. … That is one of the hardest things of our job, and it’s hard to get that message to people.”
And then there is all that pet waste and getting owners to clean up after their dogs. The county spent $5,061 just on dog waste bags this year. That’s 42 cases with 6,000 bags in each case, Maasen said.
Most owners follow the posted rules. For the most part, there are few problems.
The county continually works to make improvements to its off-leash areas. A new style of fencing is going up at the Shawnee Mission Park area. The round wood rail fencing there is being replaced by chain-link that is much more durable to all elements including dog urine. There will also be some parking lot improvements and a restroom addition. At Thomas S. Stoll Memorial Park in Overland Park, a dedicated parking lot is being added “so the dogs and visitors don’t have to walk across the street,” Maasen said. The park will also get a new paved trail.
Even though it’s only a year old, Leawood’s dog park has already been improved, too. The city works to make sure things run smoothly for dogs and owners alike.
Paul Atzenweiler is one of three Leawood animal control officers who help patrol Leawoof Dog Park, while the city parks department oversees the maintenance. Officers usually drop by Leawoof about once a shift to patrol the park, Atzenweiler said.
While the dogs run without a care, the canines — and their owners — have rules. The park has a code of conduct for both human and dog behavior — everything from picking up your pet’s waste to having current vaccinations for the pet. Visitors are not allowed to bring in more than three dogs per visit, and they must be under the owner’s control at all times.
“One rule people tend to forget is that their dogs cannot be off leash on the way into the park,” he said. “Our rules and regulations are not necessarily ordinances that are punishable by fine or tickets … (but) if someone keeps breaking the park rules, we will them not to come back.”
Since it opened a year ago this month, Atzenweiler said Leawoof has only had two dog bite reports, and those owners were asked not to return with the canines.
“The dog park really is self-regulating,” he said. “We want everyone to come and enjoy the park.”
Each of the five off-leash dog parks in the county has a distinct culture. For the dogs, of course, all that matters is that they are free to run.
Ollie, a beagle-Jack Russell terrier mix of advancing age, was in doggie time out.
On a leash — horrors! — sitting under a bench at Shawnee Mission Park. He growled with displeasure as the other dogs ran by.
“He ran off around the lake’s shoreline and I had to run after him,” his disciplinarian, Hannah Beam, explained.
She had brought Ollie and Missy, her 6-month-old black Labrador retriever, to the park from her home in Kansas City, Kan. Beam, who works for the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s Office, tries to come out to the dog park every Sunday with the mischievous Ollie and Missy. She got Ollie from a shelter in Stover, Mo., and added Missy, a rescue dog, to the family two years later.
“I was buying dog food for Ollie when I saw Missy and I fell in love with her,” she said. “I call her Kissy Missy Monster. She is very affectionate and a lap dog.”
While Missy ran along the lake’s edge, the dog shied from entering the water.
“I have to get in the water with her or she won’t swim,” Beam said. “I have the only Lab on the planet that won’t swim on her own,” she said with a laugh.
Most dogs, both large and small, love the waterfront. Shawnee Mission Park’s off-leash area is the county’s oldest and largest with open fields, woods and the lake. It draws visitors from near and far.
The lake is a draw for Mya and her owner, Jim Knehans of Shawnee. Mya, an 8 1/2 -year-old black goldendoodle, gently nudged Knehans’ hand with a tennis ball in it until he threw it into the water. Mya jumped eagerly into the dark green lake and paddled toward the ball, bringing it right back to her owner for another go-around.
“The only time she barks is when the doorbell rings or when she’s on the back of our boat,” said Knehans, who often takes Mya with the family to Clinton Lake near Lawrence. Mya loves going to the lake; she even has her own life jacket and goes tubing.
“I’ll toss the ball from the back of the boat and she dives in and swims out for it,” said Knehans, who bought Mya from a breeder near Pleasant Hill, Mo.
Knehans, who works in the construction industry, often takes Mya in his truck. She’ll accompany him into a store and behaves well, he said.
“She’s very humanlike,” Knehans said. “The first thing she does when she sees someone is wiggle her tail and then sits on your foot patiently waiting for more attention.”
Mya is part of most family activities, including the celebration of holidays.
“She loves Halloween — we dress her up as Bat Dog and she hangs out at our spook house,” Knehans said.
Nearby, 9-year-old Bluto, a chocolate brown Labrador retriever, tugged on an orange buoy with Mr. Qwiggly, a 3-year-old French bulldog that is less than half his size.
David Firestone bought Bluto through a newspaper ad while Greg Thornhill found Mr. Qwiggly through a breeder.
Firestone, an Olathe resident, and Thornhill, of Kansas City, Kan., have become fast friends because of their canine companions. The men come at least twice a week, and the dogs play together nonstop.
“As soon as Mr. Qwiggly sees Bluto they’re off and we talk,” Firestone said.
The seven-acre off-leash area in Stoll Park in Overland Park is an open oval space fenced in with a small patch of woods on its west side. There is a dirt path worn around its circumference by the scores of pooches that frequent it. Several benches dot the park as well as a water station for both dog and human use. Construction under way on a new parking lot adjacent to the dog park to accommodate the scores of people who visit.
A group of humans was gathered in the center of the grassy area as several dogs of various sizes and shapes zipped by in a pack. It was an hour before dusk and the regular group was all in attendance.
For this is a park where friendships have formed.
Page Burris and Austen Harbour got the group of regulars started. Burris initially met Harbour while they were taking a puppy training class.
“We just recognized each other’s dogs at the park,” Burris said. “We were the initial groupies. We just had things in common.”
With his wife working nights as a nurse, Austen Harbour takes his pet pooch to the park nightly.
“It’s a great socialization thing,” said Harbour, a graphic designer for Garmin who lives in Olathe. “You get to meet a lot of people who like the same things. It’s great to come out and have great conversation while the dogs play with each other.”
Austen and Hannah Harbour have 7-month old Timber, a goldendoodle Austen described as goofy and laid back. A big dog, Timber suddenly jumped back as a smaller dog barked at him. “He loves humans,” Harbour said.
The Harbours fell in love with the goldendoodles during visits to an area ski supply shop.
“They have a goldendoodle there and we fell in love,” he said. “So we contacted their breeder.”
Burris comes to the park with her 12-year-old son, Elijah, and their dog, Kane. Elijah got Kane, a caramel-colored vizsla, for a birthday present in March.
“I told him for years I was allergic to dogs,” she said. “At least once a week he would sit us down saying, ‘We really needed a dog.’ Then we surprised him in March.”
Burris arranged with a breeder to meet in a nearby park without Elijah’s knowledge. When the Burris family stopped for a picnic and saw a puppy in the distance, Elijah went to pet it. “And we told him this is your dog,” she said. “He couldn’t believe it.”
“Technically he’s mine, but he belongs to the whole family,” Elijah said.
Seven-month-old Kane is an active dog, so Burris and her son started coming to Stoll dog park to let him run. Now mother and son are there almost nightly.
“This is our social hour,” said Burris, who lives in Olathe.
Jennifer and Bob Selvaggi of Overland Park are also part of the tight-knit Stoll group. Their 1-year-old Tinkerbell is, incongruously, a German shepherd-Rottweiler mix.
“We were actually looking for a piano on Craigslist and I saw an ad for a puppy, and I had to click on it,” said Jennifer Selvaggi, who is a banker. Once they saw her, the Selvaggis were smitten. “We thought it would (cost) much less than moving a piano.”
The Selvaggis already had two cats and a lizard, but adding the dog was a step in a new direction.
“We want to have kids, but this is our experiment before kids,” Jennifer Selvaggi said. “When we first got her she was three pounds and had everything in the book.”
Now Tinkerbell is healthy and runs around the park as the Selvaggis chat with their newfound friends.
“We seriously had no social life until the dog park,” she said with a chuckle.
Burris said the bonding has been an amazing outcome of the nightly visits to Stoll.
“We are all on Facebook now,” Burris said. “We knew each others’ dogs’ names before we knew the people’s names.”
The group even got together recently for a Chiefs game.
“The puppies played together and had a grand time,” Burris said.
While Stoll Park has its regulars, Leawoof is still building its regular clientele, for the park is the newest one in the county. It opened a year ago this month.
Many patrons come from nearby neighborhoods on both sides of the state line. There’s Barkley and Roscoe, two black-and-white Portuguese water dogs owned by John Ritter. These two personable pooches come to Leawoof twice a day, often riding in the backseat of Ritter’s fire engine red convertible.
“They just sit in the back and they know where we’re going,” said Ritter, a former Johnson County resident who now lives nearby in south Kansas City.
Barkley, who is 4, came first. Ritter bought him from a breeder in northwest Indiana based on recommendations that came through work.
“Two of my clients had them and so does our president, so I figured if it was good enough for the president it was good enough for me,” said Ritter, an employee benefits consultant. “I wanted a dog that didn’t shed a lot — that was sweet.”
Roscoe came along two years later from Nebraska, “to keep Barkley company because he had separation anxiety,” Ritter said. “I got the second dog because it was too expensive to keep taking the other one to doggie day care.”
Ritter works in downtown Kansas City so he has a neighbor let Barkley and Roscoe outside during the day. Then after work, it’s off to Leawoof “unless it rains,” Ritter said. “It’s close to my house and my dogs like to get out there.”
Ritter came to his passion for dogs as an adult and now serves on the board of Great Plains SPCA.
“Being single, they are great companions,” said Ritter of his dogs. “If I didn’t have these dogs with me I would go stir crazy.”
No matter how busy Ritter is, he always finds time to go to Leawoof with his “boys.”
“I’ve met a lot of people there,” he said. “There is always someone there that I know.”
Leawoof is seven acres at the east end of Leawood City Park near Interstate 435. The idea for the dog park came about five years ago through the parks and recreation advisory board, said Chris Claxton, Leawood’s director of parks and recreation.
The next big decision was where to put the pooch park.
The city thought that land next to the boundary of City Park west of Mission Road might be an option. Staffers approached Hallbrook Office LLC, and after several meetings and discussions, the company agreed to donate the land to the city for the dog park, Claxton said.
The city spent $244,995 on construction costs for the park, with most of the funding coming from the city’s Special Park Fund made up of a city and county liquor-by-the-drink tax. Much of the work, such as clearing dead or diseased trees and constructing the fence, was done by the city parks maintenance staff, saving thousands of dollars, Claxton said.
The park sits in a flood plain and because of that, heavy rains have occasionally forced its temporary closure. Nonetheless, Leawoof is a busy place. There are fenced areas for both small and large dogs, with three covered benches for owners to sit back and watch, funded by the Leawood Foundation, the mission of which is to fund cultural and educational amenities outside of tax dollars. The city recently added concrete sidewalks leading to the benches to help visitors avoid all the mud on a rainy day. Another recent enhancement is an agility course — paid for with private funds — and canine-only water fountains within both the small and large dog areas.
Jon and Sarah Dubin, both physicians, strolled along the new sidewalk in Leawoof Park with 3 1/2 -month-old daughter Ellie sleeping in a baby carrier. Hobbes, a black and white mutt, trotted closely by.
“We wanted a dog for a really long time,” Sarah Dubin said. “I’d been looking on Petfinder.com since I got out of college and it was never the right time.”
Hobbes was being fostered when Sarah Dubin found him online and decided to adopt him.
“The day we took our pregnancy test was the day we picked him up,” she said.
The couple tries to come to Leawoof as often as they can to let Hobbes run free.
“She has so much energy,” Jon Dubin said. That’s when you notice that one of his shoes is chewed up at the top.
“Now we put shoes in the closet,” he said with a smile.
While a bundle of energy, Hobbes is very gentle with baby Ellie.
“He likes to lick her,” Jon Dubin said. “If she starts to cry, he runs over to where she is and sits down and cries until we pick her up.”
Across the open field a whistle blew. It was David Richardson running the paces with his golden retriever Boomer and new pup Jack. Richardson is a recreational hunter and was trying to put the pup through the paces. Boomer, age 7, knows the drill, but Jack, who’s a puppy, was still learning commands.
“With three blasts they are supposed to come back,” Richardson explained. “One whistle is to stop, sit and look at you so they know which way to go. Jack is a challenge.”
Boomer and Jack are golden retrievers Nos. 5 and 6 in the Richardson family.
“They’re great pets and they’re working dogs,” Richardson said. “Boomer is definitely a duck dog. They are great companions and part of the family.”
Boomer came through a breeder and was a Mother’s Day present from Richardson and his three sons to wife Anna, “but he imprinted on me,” he said.
Jack is a rescue dog from Wayside Waifs, where the Richardsons regularly volunteer.
“He was an anniversary present this summer,” he said.
Boomer is docile but Jack is another story. “He’s very ornery,” Richardson said. “He requires a lot of exercise.”
Since Jack’s arrival, Richardson has been going to Leawoof more frequently.
“I have had to dedicate more time to Jack,” Richardson said. “Besides, it’s a great way to unwind after work. On some days I’m the one being walked.”
Ruth Baum Bigus: email@example.com and @ruthbb
Johnson County area public off-leash dog parks
Four are run by Johnson County Park and Recreation District:
Thomas S. Stoll Park Memorial Park: 12500 W. 119th St., Overland Park. Seven acres with new parking lot under construction. Several benches and a water fountain for both people and their pets.
Shawnee Mission Park: West 79th and Renner Road in Shawnee. Fifty-three acre off-leash area features a swim area in the lake along with wood-chip and natural surface trails through grassland and wooded areas.
Heritage Park: 16240 Lackman Road, Olathe. Thirty-acre area with a fenced open space and a small pond. The off-leash area is accessible from all entrances of the park but is closest to the main entrance. Water fountain inside for pets.
Kill Creek Streamway Park Dog Off-Leash Area: Access point at 33460 W. 95th St. in De Soto. The 16-acre off-leash area is located at the Kill Creek Streamway Park access point.
One is run by the city of Leawood:
Leawoof Dog Park: Located next to Leawood City Park at 106th Street and Lee Boulevard, east of the Leawood Aquatics Center, the seven-acre area is fenced in with an area for small and large dogs.