Dane County was one of the first park systems with an off-leash dog exercise area. Its Pet Exercise Areas Program and Development Guide—now known as Dog Exercise Areas—led to many other states developing their own dog parks. The first Dane County dog park was established in 1993 with 5 more opening over the course of 4 years. We now have 19 in the Dane County Park System and 3 in nearby towns. Half are quite large and the others are smaller neighborhood parks.
It was fun to visit the parks for this article, although doing so during a wet spring made it challenging for me and my dog, Scout. Who wants to wash a muddy collie? Scout and I were accompanied to many of the parks by Leo, a young golden retriever, and his owner. Scout mainly likes to see other dog owners who will pet him and tell him how handsome he is while Leo prefers mud, swimming, chasing balls, and playing with other dogs. I was glad Leo didn’t ride home in my car!
The majority of the parks have double-gated entrances, which allow you time to get your dog under control before exiting to a busy parking lot. The parks with a single gate entrance weren’t a problem, except for Yahara, whose lot is next to busy Highway 113. Be sure your dog is leashed before you open a gate at any dog park.
The large parks have a porta potty, which is nice when you’ve driven a long way, and all the parks have poop bags and trash cans at their entrances. It’s also nice to have a trash can halfway around the park, but that is uncommon. Most of the parks are clean with little or no poop to be seen. The McFarland park is the only one where we found quite a bit of dog poop, especially by the bag dispensers and trash cans. Ironically, it’s the only park with signs asking to pick up the poop. Thanks to all visitors for keeping the parks clean!
To determine what may be the best dog parks, I conducted a poll on my clinic’s Facebook page as well as on Nextdoor. Capital Springs was the top vote getter for east Madison, while Badger Prairie was the favorite for west Madison. Prairie Moraine was cited numerous times as well.
Scout wholeheartedly agrees with the voters. The first time we pulled into the parking lot at Capital Springs, Scout was whining and carrying on. He loved seeing all the people with dogs since dog people are most likely to pet and talk to him. He enjoyed exploring the green space and found a few dogs to chase. I found it to be very scenic with groomed paths. I would definitely go back there.
Scout also loves Badger Prairie. There are lots of dogs and people, and it’s a big oval about a half mile around, so I like it for a little exercise. You can see the whole park once you get to the main area, which allows you to assess the best place to go. It also has its own Facebook page and holds an annual Bark for Parks! Fundraiser in August.
Prairie Moraine is the place to go if you want a good hike—it’s 1.85 miles around. It’s very scenic, with many trees and groomed paths, and has hills and undergrowth for dogs to run through. There were even poems on signs scattered around the park and benches for resting. While Scout enjoyed the walk, there weren’t a lot of people to greet or open spaces to play with other dogs.
We also enjoyed Token Creek. It was about two-thirds mile around, so a couple of laps and you have your day’s exercise. The only odd thing was that the agility equipment was located in the small-dogs-only area.
Sycamore and Quann are large parks worth checking out. Neither have shade, but there are a lot of open spaces for chasing balls, and the terrain of each park is flat, which is good for walking. Both parks also have a lot of parking spaces.
Leo loves any park with a lot of dogs, water, mud, and carrion. He enjoys Badger Prairie, but his best visits were to Indian Lake, Viking, and Warner Parks. Indian Lake Park is adjacent to Indian Lake, so your dog can go swimming. It isn’t fenced, so you need to watch your dog more closely, and wild animals do have access. The day we went, the park ranger was removing a deer carcass. Leo got hold of a bone and proudly carried it around the rest of the walk.
Leo’s trip to Viking Park was a huge success with a lot of water access! This was the very first dog park in Dane County, selected because three sides of the land were bordered by water and only one side required fencing. Scout enjoyed seeing the people here but just didn’t understand the attraction to water.
Warner Park is smaller with access to water. But the water had a lot of algae, even in the spring, which made Leo’s mom unhappy. Leo didn’t get to go to Yahara Heights, but it has nice water access too. When Scout and I visited, there was a family having a picnic in the middle of the park, and Scout enjoyed spending time with them.
There are quite a few smaller neighborhood dog parks in Madison worth checking out. Odana School was just enlarged, and Leo enjoys the bigger area to run and play. Walnut Grove, Monona, and Demetral are all small, but perfect for “Chuck It” or a quick stop to get the zoomies out. Brittingham and McCormick are quite small, but their isthmus location allows downtown dogs a place to stretch their legs.
The Metropolitan Refuse District has a nice-sized park off Highway Q, and there are always dogs around when Scout and I visit. There is a very small park near Morey Airplane Company too—Penni Klein. I was impressed with McFarland’s Urso Dog Park, especially now that it has a boardwalk over the swampy area. It kept Leo from jumping in the water, and it was bigger than I expected, with both open areas and shade. This park isn’t part of the Dane County system, so you do need a separate permit. DeForest’s Schweers Dog Park and Oregon’s Blanchard also require a separate permit, but both are nice to visit.
The newest park in Fitchburg, Sunnyside, was nice and will have a lot of shade when the trees grow. A good size if you live in Fitchburg, but small if you’re looking for a destination park. Sun Prairie has a nice-sized park, but when we visited, there were a lot of swampy, muddy areas and standing water. Leo loved it, but the rest of us weren’t as enamored. I think it would be perfect in the drier summer months. Apart from Brittingham, which is getting artificial turf this summer, all the parks will be muddy, at least in spots, after rain.
All in all, there are a lot of great places to let your dog off leash in Dane County. I recommend visiting all the large parks when you can spend an hour or two outside with your dog, then stop by smaller ones close to your house when you have less time. And don’t forget your annual dog park permit—it’s only $35 per year. What else can you get for your dog for just a penny a day? And your dog will love you for it!
Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .