Dogs of all sizes gather daily around Eric Barlipp, sniffing and watching him as he screws on a drain lid or makes sure a water fountain is running properly.
Baltimore's first dog park coordinator, Barlipp spends his days making sure the city's canines have places to run and play, unhampered by leashes.
The job began three years ago, when the city assigned him to help develop a dog park in Patterson Park to join two others, one created by residents in Canton and another in Locust Point. Now he's working to create more, including one for Mount Vernon.
"Dog parks are very important," Barlipp said. Dogs are "social creatures, pack animals that have to be socialized. They need interaction with their owner and with their own species."
Dog parks are important for dog owners as well as dogs, said Barlipp, who points out they can help build a sense of community, attract people to the area and help owners make friends while their dogs do the same.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake supports the parks as part of making the city a better place for residents.
"I am committed to ensuring that Baltimore maintains its reputation for being a great city for pet owners, where pets are considered cherished members of our families," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "Dog parks provide safe and friendly places for our four-legged family members to play in peace."
To Barlipp, a 31-year old Baltimore native, this is a dog-loving city. He saw the need for dog parks after adopting a dog himself.
"There [was] no place to take them off the leash," he said.
Kim Smeltzer, 26, walks over to the Patterson Dog Park in Southeast Baltimore almost every day with her black Lab, Riley.
"She likes to go say hi to other dogs," Smeltzer said. "People are always complaining about dogs being off-leash, but she's a big dog; she needs to run around."
Dog parks are in demand outside the city as well, with each of the surrounding counties having at least one and some planning to build more. Baltimore County has four, Howard has two and Carroll has one. Anne Arundel has two areas in parks that allow dogs off-leash. Harford County has a dog park in Bel Air and is building another in Abingdon; and the city of Aberdeen was offered land last month to build another.
In Baltimore, many residents use parts of local parks as de facto dog parks, Barlipp said, but dogs running free can intimidate other visitors.
Some city employees even hesitate to enter the dog parks, so Barlipp tries to put them at ease by playing with the dogs and acting "goofy," so the dogs can see he and the workers aren't a threat.
"Sometimes I have to get on my knees and break the ice," Barlipp said. "It's important to let them come up and sniff you so they don't feel threatened."
Barlipp splits his time about 50-50 between dog parks and his other responsibilities as the city's utilities coordinator, working with the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to manage accounts.
He recently got a 67 percent pay increase when starting his third year as dog park coordinator, and receives $50,000 a year for his two jobs. Besides maintaining the city's existing dog parks, Barlipp scouts locations for new ones and helps with designs.
He oversaw Patterson Dog Park, the city's busiest, from its inception, when it was a tennis court. Now Barlipp is working on a new one in Howards Park in Mount Vernon, off North Howard Street and Druid Hill Avenue.
Patterson Dog Park, which cost the city about $200,000 to build, offers plastic kiddie pools so dogs can splash around or roll in the water, built-in hills and rocks, dog-sized fountains and shady areas for hot days.
On a recent morning, dogs ran around in packs, taking turns chasing one another as their owners looked on.
The park gets about 75 to 100 dogs on the weekend and at least 50 during a weekday, Barlipp said.
With that many dogs in one place, problems can arise.
When Barlipp gets to work each morning, he checks his email. His inbox may contain all sorts of problems, including complaints of too much trash, dog poop not being picked up and landscaping issues.
Dog fights also are brought to Barlipp's attention.
"It's important for people to accept who their dog is," said Barlipp, who sometimes has to talk to dog owners and remind them of the rules.
"At the first sign of aggression, [they're] supposed to leash the dog and take it out of the park," Barlipp said.
Barlipp follows this advice with his own dogs. While his Rottweiler mix named Forest has been to every dog park in the city, he says his other dog, an Italian mastiff named Meadow, just isn't a "dog park dog" — she doesn't play well with others.
Dog park associations help serve as Barlipp's eyes and ears, as members visit the parks frequently.
Beth Christman, chair of the Friends of Canton Dog Park, which helps maintain the park, said Barlipp's been a "terrific asset" since he began working with her committee.
Christman said she thinks Barlipp has an important role in the city because a dog park is a "quality of life" issue.
Finding places for dogs to roam leash-free is challenging in Baltimore, Barlipp said.
"We have very limited green space in Baltimore," he said. "And many people who want to use it."
The city lags behind other major cities in embracing dog parks, Barlipp said.
To get ideas on design and placement of dog parks, he went west — where, he said, dog parks are "big."
For Barlipp to consider placing a dog park in a community, residents have to come to him, he said. He then starts talking to people in the community to gauge opposition. The city Department of Recreation and Parks decides whether to open a dog park.
Barlipp would like to see a dog park in every major area of the city and hopes to increase the number of dog parks to 10.
"It's important we provide a place for [dogs] just as much as we provide a place for people who want to play tennis, soccer and football," he said.
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