Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Dogs of Wheeler Park
By Karen Edwards
June 2009 Issue
“Man is troubled by what might be called the Dog Wish, a strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.” – James Thurber
© Photos by Darren Carlson
Call it therapy or a tonic – it’s hard to be depressed around a park full of happy dogs!
It really doesn’t get much better than this – room to roam, hills to climb, water to drink, trees casting lacy shadows over green grass and packed earth as a warm sun peeks through their branches. There are even new friends to meet.
Welcome to Wheeler Dog Park, one of Central Ohio’s newest dog parks and the closest one to the Short North. Its location, in fact, couldn’t be more fitting. The park’s official address is 725 Thurber Drive West, and if dogs had a patron saint, they’d surely eschew St. Francis in favor of Columbus native James Thurber, the humorist and cartoonist who loved dogs and drew them constantly. Wheeler Park – all 1.5 acres of it – nestles close to the Westminster-Thurber retirement community and is almost directly behind the Giant Eagle store near the Neil/Buttles intersection in the Harrison West neighborhood. It’s also the only dog park located close to Columbus’ downtown.
Not that location matters all that much. Dog owners are a certain brand of fanatic whose motto seems to be “Have dog, will travel.” If that means giving their best friend a chance to romp in nature, with friends, and off leash at some far-away park, so be it. On one recent Sunday afternoon, Wheeler Dog Park included visitors from Grandview, German Village and Upper Arlington, although a couple of girls from neighborhood apartments were there as well.
“I’m here about every day,” says Sarah Weaver, one of the girls, who comes with her Keeshound Kierra. “It’s a good place for dogs to run,” she says.
Although the dog park had its official opening in mid-May, dog lovers spotted it several months earlier. “Maybe three months ago?” suggests Weaver hesitantly. She’s been coming ever since – but then, she and friend Selina Malejovic, visited Wheeler Park while it was little more than a green space in Columbus’ Recreation and Parks Department.
The dog park, however, looks different now thanks to several new features. The park’s existing lights, for example, were replaced with an acorn-lamp design, and quality benches were added along with new tables and trash receptacles. A water-pump fountain with a catch bowl low enough for even the smallest pup to take a sip is surely one of the new park’s highlights. After all, what group of canines (or people for that matter) doesn’t love to congregate around a water cooler?
“I love that it’s fenced,” says Christopher Stankovich, a clinical counselor who, when he isn’t escorting his brindle-coated Boston Terrier pup Mugsy to dog parks, serves as “The Sports Doc” for the Ohio News Network.
Stankovich isn’t alone in admiring the fence. It’s a clever wrought-iron construction that not only looks handsome but serves a practical purpose as well. Close-set bars near the fence bottom prevent small dogs from escaping, bars set a little wider and higher keep medium-sized dogs corralled, and medium-sized circles at the fence top keeps large dogs from breaking into a chorus of “Born Free” and sailing through.
It serves another purpose as well. The fence keeps out loose, unescorted dogs as well as people who fail to see the charm in canines off leash. Such folk are unlikely to wander into this park by mistake. Their first clue would be the “Dog Park Rules” signs posted prominently throughout Wheeler Park. Their second clue would be the double gate they’d enter to get in. The double gate is a safety precaution. Dogs are happy to follow two-legged friends – whether or not they are their owners – outside of the park. The area between the two gates keeps wandering dogs nicely penned until their owners come to claim them.
The hills are alive
Abby Nave, Chris Stankovich and Mugsy pose at the entrance of Wheeler Park
where two gates keep wandering dogs nicely penned in.
Stankovich, from the Grandview area, takes Mugsy to different parks around the city about four or five times a month, although not all of them are dog parks. “I like Antrim Park because of the pond. Dogs can jump in and splash around,” he says. (True, but dog owners should know the pond is stocked with fish, and people do fish there, so check your dog’s paws for any errant fish hooks if they decide to take a dip.) Stankovich adds he likes Wheeler Park’s close proximity to Downtown and that it has hills. “It’s not flat and boring,” he says.
As if to prove his point, Mugsy zooms up a hill, after what looks like a Golden Retriever puppy. Mugsy is six months old and the Golden Retriever doesn’t look much older. They’re matched closely in terms of energy and exuberance, so the two wrestle each other to the ground then come up grinning like a couple of kids.
It’s all too much activity for the lovely Lily, a nine-year-old Chow who belongs to Joan Gordon. Lily resembles nothing so much as a stuffed and fluffy teddy bear. “She’s a rescue dog from a puppy mill,” says Joan. “She came to me as a three-year old – she had already had two litters by the time I got her. But she was already housebroken so I didn’t have to do the hard stuff.” Gordon and Lily had traveled to Wheeler Park from German Village, and, like Stankovich, Gordon travels to other parks as well, favoring Antrim and Alum Creek dog park on the city’s east side.
“This park is nice, though,” says Gordon. “It’s close to where I live and it’s large, with hills to run up and down.” Not that the senior Lily cares so much. She wanders off to lie in the shade, no doubt enjoying the antics of all those puppies that are running up and down hills. “I like the water fountain,” Gordon continues, “and the benches.” It is nice for dog lovers to have someplace other than the grass to sit.
Yet atop a bright yellow blanket spread on one of the park’s gentle hill tops sit Andrew and Brie Cheesewright from Upper Arlington. They are there with their two-year old dog Rue, a sand-colored Pomeranian with a collar that bears his name – in rhinestones, no less.
Why the name Rue? “My friend’s favorite restaurant in New York is called Rue 57,” says Brie Cheesewright. “She said, ‘Why don’t you call him Rue?’” The Cheesewrights liked the name and took it. (For non-Francophiles, Rue is French for “street.”)
This is Rue’s second time at Wheeler Park. “We like it because it has hills and water,” says Andrew.
Just then, Mugsy and the Golden Retriever pup make an appearance on the Cheesewright’s yellow blanket, tussling with each other and hoping to engage Rue in the activity. He thinks they’re nuts. Stankovich and the owners of the Golden Retriever pup come to claim their dogs.
That’s another advantage of a dog park, says Gordon. “Dog owners understand the privilege of having such a space, and they take care not to abuse it.” That means they watch their dogs like sharp-eyed parents, making sure their charges mind their manners and don’t get into trouble with their playmates. “We’re all here to enjoy each other and support each other as dog owners,” Gordon continues. They’re also there to provide peer pressure – and probably an extra bag – if your dog chooses to do its business and you don’t move to clean it up. As Gordon points out, Wheeler Park is clean, neat and very well tended. Those who visit the park want to keep it that way.
Besides, it’s a park rule – to pick up after your dog – just as it’s a rule to leave your aggressive or ill-mannered dog at home.
“Owners really need to keep an eye on their dogs,” says Stankovich. “You know your dog and what its temperament is like, but there are certain breeds you really need to keep an eye on in these circumstances.”
That’s because certain large dogs were bred as hunters and, for them, anything small and excitable, like a puppy or an exuberant small dog, looks like prey. Of course anyone with a nodding acquaintance of “The Dog Whisperer” knows Cesar Millan preaches it’s not the breed that creates problems, it’s the owners. Presumably, before coming to a dog park with your dog, you know who you are and what you can handle. If you don’t, you’ll have a park full of dog enthusiasts who will be happy to share that information with you.
The same is true of dogs in heat. Most responsible pet owners have their dogs spayed or neutered, so this rarely becomes a problem – but if you are an owner whose female’s scent is currently as alluring as a Siren’s call – please leave her at home. It’s not fair for all those males who are trying to be good.
If there is one breed whose temperament will never exclude it from dog parks, it’s the lovable, laughable Labrador retriever – like Gus, the four-year old yellow Lab owned by Derek Kolbe who lives in Victorian Village.
Gus is mellow, laid back and happy to be at Wheeler – though he’s too busy sniffing to let you know. “I’m partial to the fence, here,” says Kolbe. That’s because Kolbe’s favorite place to take Gus is Goodale Park. “It has other features that I like,” Kolbe explains – but of course, it lacks the fence.
Dog park vs. non-dog park
There was talk, at one time, of fencing off a portion of Goodale Park for dog owners. Then Wheeler Park was created so those plans are likely to be permanently shelved. But that won’t keep Kolbe and Gus from visiting Goodale. Kolbe does let Gus off leash there. It hasn’t presented a problem because Gus is such a likeable guy. Still, the level of vigilance needed at a park where not everyone may be a dog lover is much higher than it is at a place like Wheeler where those who fear or dislike dogs are kept behind the wrought-iron fence.
Still, not everyone behind that wrought-iron fence dislikes dogs. In fact, a senior or two from the retirement community can sometimes be seen at the fence, observing the happy playground that is Wheeler Park. Call it therapy or a tonic – it’s hard to be depressed around a park full of happy dogs.
Wheeler Park, in fact, creates the world we wished we lived in – a world that’s joyful, filled with nature, fun and friends; a world where everyone gets along (for the most part), whether old or young, purebred or mutt, fit or not-so-fit; a world that’s egalitarian, upbeat and optimistic; a world where people care for and about each other.
“Dogs are obsessed with being happy,” wrote James Thurber.
That’s an obsession worth aspiring to.
The original article referred to the park as a Metro Parks project. This is a project of the City of Columbus Recreation and Parks Department. It was funded by City of Columbus bond funds with the support of City Council. Metro Parks had no involvement in the project.
The original article referred to Chris Stankovich as a psychologist. He is a professioinal clinical counselor.
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