For the love of a dog

caption: Jim Davidson with his much-loved Harley. Through Harley's love of exploring the outdoors, Davidson realized the need for an off-leash area that would appeal to a dog's natural instincts. The $600,000 Jim Davidson Bark and Play park in southeast Calgary is expected to open next spring. Photo courtesy of Jim Davidson

caption: Jim Davidson with his much-loved Harley. Through Harley’s love of exploring the outdoors, Davidson realized the need for an off-leash area that would appeal to a dog’s natural instincts. The $600,000 Jim Davidson Bark and Play park in southeast Calgary is expected to open next spring.
Photo courtesy of Jim Davidson

By Wendy Dudley

Jim Davidson loves his Harley. And we’re not talking motorcycles. Harley Davidson is a flat-coated retriever that has brought much joy to Jim and his wife Patricia. And through his love for his active, tail-wagging friend, Jim has come to understand the need for open spaces where a high-energy dog can run free, interact with other Fidos, and take part in such natural canine activities as exploring, sniffing, and digging.

With development now underway, the Jim Davidson Bark and Play park will open next spring as an enhancement to the already existing Auburn Bay off-leash park. It will be a 10-acre plus doggie Disneyland, replete with agility weave poles, natural jumps such as logs, enclosed training areas, a water fountain for dogs, and interpretive signs to help educate dog owners about their four-footed friend’s body language. The park is a unique concept, one that may not have been unleashed if it were not for Harley.

“I was initially hesitant to get a dog. I had not grown up with dogs and our lifestyle did not seem conducive to ownership. We led busy lives and worked long hours,” said Davidson, CEO and chairman of FirstEnergy Capital Corp. “It was Patricia who wanted the dog, I resisted, and she persisted, and eventually insisted, and finally did it. The next thing I knew, I owned a flat-coated retriever. Within three hours of Harley arriving, my hesitation disappeared and was replaced with a new emotion; I was hopelessly in love. Harley Davidson has brought so much to our lives.”

The liver-coloured dog sparked a passion for animals, with Davidson co-chairing a drive that raised $10.5 million for the new Calgary Humane Society facility. He is now funding  the $600,000 enhancement of the southeast Calgary dog park that will bear his name.

“Harley helped me understand some of the issues of pet ownership faced by Calgarians. Just like their human owners, dogs should be exposed to a healthy and active lifestyle as well as an opportunity to socialize,” Davidson said. “The exposure for dogs that is enabled through planned open space helps facilitate socialization and learning opportunities which, in turn, results in content dogs who demonstrate proper behaviour.”

The Auburn Bay off-leash park was chosen for re-development because of the expected growth of surrounding communities. “By enhancing Auburn Park we felt it would complement and support some of the perceived needs for surrounding residents and ensure there was a dedicated space for dogs to play and engage,” said Davidson. The off-leash park is part of the Calgary Greenway Project, a 138-kilometre network of pathways and green spaces that will circle the city.

“The activities within the dedicated areas allow dogs the ability to learn while at the same time getting some exercise and blowing off some steam. Not only is this mentally stimulating and likely fun for the dog, it also helps the dog to be healthier and better behaved in other environments,” said Davidson.

The purpose behind the park’s features, such as mounds, digging sand pits, a boardwalk and climbing hills, is to appeal to a dog’s natural senses and behaviour, said Barb Walmer, head of the Calgary Humane Society’s (CHS) department of behaviour.

Parks Foundation Calgary consulted with the CHS as to what should go in the park. “We looked at it from a dog’s perspective, rather than a person’s,” Walmer said. For example, people may wish to congregate around entrances but this is where dog altercations often occur, she noted. “It could be overwhelming for a dog to be bombarded by 20 other dogs, so we’ve kept the stations back from the gates so that the people and dogs can disperse and have space. There are also multiple paths to keep people moving.”

The various elements include different substrates, a nod to the dog’s natural behaviour to scent. The mounds will provide visual barriers and also allow a dog to move around curves. “Dogs don’t live in a linear world,” Walmer said. The agility will be “organic”, with natural tunnels, logs to jump and wooden surfaces to walk across.

“The dedicated activity area also ensures both owners and their dogs can relax and enjoy their time at the park without the fear of disturbing others as can sometimes occur in non-dedicated recreation areas,” Davidson added. “Dogs will hopefully experience a sense of freedom and owners will feel they are in a safe place to watch their dog thrive. The setting is intended to be both fun and educational for their dog.”

Interpretive signs will explain canine body language, such as calming signals which will aid owners in recognizing nervous or aggressive behaviour. Certain signs — such as yawning, sniffing, and licking its lips — can signal whether a dog is feeling anxious. “There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what dogs are saying through their posture and expressions,” said Walmer.

Davidson hopes the park bearing his name will set a new standard for enhancement of other off-leash areas. “I work in a competitive environment, we like to be first with innovation, it raises the bar and changes the landscape, and this is no different.”