A growing network of dog parks in San Antonio and Bexar County is giving pet owners a pandemic-era refuge to exercise and socialize their unleashed pets in the outdoors.

I visited most of the 15 public parks in the metro area over a 30-day period, traveling in the company of Cacteye, our family’s 18-month-old rescue pup, named after the thorny prickly pear where he was found abandoned on the South Side at a mere five weeks after birth.

The area’s network of dog parks has expanded rapidly in recent years, and more dog parks are on the drawing board. Maverick Park Dog Park, now under construction in the River North neighborhood between Broadway and South Alamo streets, is set to open in spring 2021.

Maverick Park, which will contain a dog park, is currently under construction.
Maverick Park, which will contain a dog park, is currently under construction. Credit: Logan Riely for the San Antonio Report

On my visits, I met dozens of dog lovers and their pets of all sizes, breeds, mixes, sizes, and personalities. In two instances weeks apart at Pearsall Park Dog Park, I witnessed and helped break up dogfights, one started by a pit bull and the other a pit bull mix. In both cases, the animals did not appear to have been trained and socialized by their owners – a necessity for dog park users.

“In my experience it’s been unneutered males coming to to the dog park and starting the fights,” said one owner whose chocolate Labrador was quickly overpowered by a pit bull within feet of us, allowing us to restrain the pit bull before the Labrador was injured.

All but a few dogs I observed in the parks were socialized and eager to interact with other dogs. Aggressive dogs were the rare exception to the rule. Still, a single incident can be unnerving for a pet owner. The expansion of the dog park network has included only limited City-sponsored programming. Weekly dog training and socialization programs would help educate dog owners and hopefully lead to more male dogs being neutered.

“Our Parks and Recreation staff conducted approximately 30 engagement opportunities for outreach and education purposes from late August through December at parks and dog parks citywide,” said Chris Espinoza, with the City’s Parks and Recreation Department. “This allowed for the opportunity to interact with dog park users, address questions while onsite, and provide volunteer information.”

The City’s Dog Park Ambassador program, in which volunteers help ensure safety and proper etiquette at the parks, was suspended due to the pandemic.

“At this time, there are no active Dog Park Ambassadors,” Espinoza said.

To recruit new ambassadors, the Parks and Recreation Department will host hourlong virtual orientation sessions on Jan. 21 at noon and Jan. 22 at 10 a.m. Those interested can sign up by emailing parkvolunteer@sanantonio.gov. Volunteers must be 18 or older, have a friendly and open demeanor, attend the orientation, and pass a background check, Espinoza said.

The City’s Animal Care Services Department handles complaints through its 311 call service, but for dog park users, responding effectively to an overly aggressive dog requires tact.

It isn’t just a Southside problem.

“I’m a trained behavioral specialist, and as soon as I see a non-neutered dog approach I know there’s going to be a problem. I’ve seen such dog incidents escalate into arguments among people,” said Nenita Carrasquilla, who works as a counselor at Tafolla Middle School in the San Antonio Independent School District.

Carrasquilla was enjoying the holiday school break at Woodlawn Lake Park’s pocket dog park, not far from her home, with her small rescue puppy Dela, whom she jokingly described as a “mix of border terrier and kangaroo.”

Cacteye, foreground, hanging with Oaco and owner Ariceli Levet (left) and her friend Nenita Carrasquilla and Dela at Woodlawn Park.
Cacteye (foreground) engages Paco and owner Ariceli Levet (left), with her friend Nenita Carrasquilla and Dela at Woodlawn Lake Park. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

“I named her Dela because she’s de la calle – she’s from the streets – and just showed up on my doorstep one day earlier this year,” said Carrasquilla. “I think she’s about 8 months old.”

Carrasquilla was there with Araceli Levet and her rescue dog Paco, who engaged Cacteye in an endless game of chase and wrestle.

“I’ve had him for six years, got him from the Humane Society. I asked them to give me the oldest dog they had,” said Levet, a librarian at Ball Academy in SAISD. “I wanted a buddy for Chuey, my pet boxer, who was old and going to pass soon. They became good friends.”

Carrasquilla and Levet were the only two people in Woodlawn’s small park last week, but both said a good group of “regulars” show up around 5 p.m. each day.

I found a big group of regulars that meets most mornings at Hardberger Park, where the dog park is divided into “big dog” and “little dog” fenced spaces. Weekends were the most active for all the parks I visited, with parents bringing children along with their dogs and spending longer time periods in the parks.

People and their dogs appeared to know one another. The park also offers ample wooded pathways for leashed dog walks.

Phil Hardberger Dog Park.
Dogs play together in the large dog area at Hardberger Park’s dog park. Credit: Emma Cook for the San Antonio Report

Fifteen dog parks might sound like a lot, but it really isn’t in this sprawling metro area, especially if you consider the mantra cited by place-makers 880 Cities of Toronto: Every urban resident (and their pet) should be able to walk to a public park. The Trust for Public Land, which maintains a national index ranking cities and park systems, reports that 60 percent of people living in San Antonio cannot reach a public park on foot.

San Antonio sprawls over more than 500 square miles. Add in Bexar County and that geographic expanse more than doubles. Planners believe the city will grow by more than one million people over the next three decades, with the metro area continuing to expand with population growth, particularly toward the northwest.

It’s more than 32 miles from Pearsall Park’s dog park on the city’s South Side to Panther Springs Wilderness Area’s dog park on the North Side, and more than 30 miles between the county’s Westcreek Park Dog Park, just outside the city limits on the West Side, to Aina Blake Dog Park in Universal City in the northeast corner of the county.

Madison Square Park and Travis Park are the downtown area’s only public dog parks. Hemisfair Park and the still-abandoned Lone Star Brewery offer the two best opportunities for the City to add a park. Some urban residents hope improvements underway at Brackenridge Park will include a dog park there. San Pedro Springs Park is another underused park that would benefit from a dog park.

McAllister Park would be my pick for best dog park in the system and, along with Hardberger Park’s dog park, the ones that attract the most users.

Alisha Anson and her fiancé, Brad Cunningham, spent part of a Saturday afternoon at McAllister Park with Fiona, her King Charles Spaniel; two rescue Weimaraners, Rocks and Cameron; and Cunningham’s AKC-registered Weimaraner, Scotch. The couple has decided to keep Rocks, while Cunningham, a volunteer with Weimaraner Rescue of Texas, fosters Cameron, whose owner “surrendered” the dog after learning it would need expensive heartworm treatments. In time, Cameron will be cured and available for adoption.

“They are very sweet dogs. Their nickname is Velcro, because they want to be in contact with a human as much as they can,” Anson said. “They love to lean up against you if you’re standing at the kitchen sink or talking to someone. They have a lot of energy and need to be run a lot.”

Alisha Anson with Fiona, a King Charles Spaniel, at McAllister Park.
Alisha Anson with Fiona, a King Charles Spaniel, at McAllister Park. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

Anson, a behavioral analyst who provides in-home care for children with autism, said well-trained male dogs that have not been neutered can behave well in unleashed environments like dog parks if their owners train them properly.

Anson, a Live Oak resident, said she was relatively new to McAllister Park but would be back regularly. She noted the well-mulched expanse, the surrounding parkland, and the friendliness of both the people and the dogs she has encountered there.

“The dog park is a great place to come, especially now,” Anson said. “We probably will visit some of the other ones, too.”

Most dog park users will only experience the pleasure of unleashed dogs running free together. For any doubters, one thing is certain: With few exceptions, your dog wants to go to a dog park.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.