'I had two Maltese when I moved in, so the dog park was a big factor when I chose Sun City," said Connie Fisher. "We go just about every day."
Fisher is one of an increasing number of Lowcountry residents to consider a dog park a desirable amenity in a neighborhood. When she moved to Sun City Hilton Head in 2004, she quickly became involved in the community's Dog Lovers Club, and has helped implement improvements at the 2.5-acre dog park.
There, her dogs enjoy socializing and play during times reserved for small dogs, and Fisher has met new friends, too.
Dog parks are becoming more popular in the Lowcountry and throughout the country. They range in size and design, but all share the same purpose: To provide a place where dogs can run freely off-leash and socialize with other dogs.
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And dogs aren't the only ones who enjoy dog parks -- people do, too.
They can exercise their dogs without much effort, socialize with other dog lovers, bond and play with their dogs, practice their off-leash training skills and enjoy the entertaining antics of frolicking dogs.
Dog parks in Beaufort County include the Town of Hilton Head Island's 1-acre public canine park inside Chaplin Park and private, fenced parks in Long Cove and Hilton Head Harbor RV Park on Hilton Head, and at Hampton Lake, Belfair and the Lakes at Myrtle Park apartment community in Bluffton.
Other neighborhoods, including Moss Creek and Rose Hill in Bluffton, have private dog parks without fences or gathering areas where dog owners meet.
National statistics show that about a third of all households have dogs. Wendy Schlegel, who spear-headed the campaign for the dog park that opened in April in Belfair, found that about the same percentage of dogs lived in her neighborhood. Working with a committee of neighbors, she located a site for a half-acre dog park near the amenities center. The project cost $50,000, including park design fencing, bringing water to the site and, Schlegel said, "heavy landscaping."
"From U.S. 278 and from inside Belfair, it looks like a hedge," she said.
Schlegel said some residents who don't have dogs supported the project because they believe a dog park will positively influence the resale values of homes in Belfair.
A dog park can help neighbors get to know each other. Realtor Chris Haro, who specializes in Moss Creek, says pet owners gather at a 2.4-acre unfenced area near the community's dock every morning from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and again at sunset.
"Every morning you see people there holding their coffee cups, talking and watching the dogs," he said.
Some local Realtors have converted their love of dogs into marketing capital.
Linda O'Neill of Premium Properties of Hilton Head, who also has a cat, horse and lovebird, took her dog to work with her when she staffed a real estate kiosk at The Mall at Shelter Cove several years ago. She noticed how people responded to Bogie, a Chinese crested powder puff, and now is pictured on her business card holding him. She specializes in finding pet-friendly villa complexes for clients looking to purchase a vacation property, and tells prospective buyers about the area's dog-friendly beaches, restaurants and stores.
A Realtor who loves and has animals, she said, "inspires trust in other pet owners."