Were it not for the ingenuity of a few Arlingtonians and a couple hundred feet of chain link fencing, Sandy might still be on Prozac.
That was before she found her peace in Utah Park.
The enclosed, volunteer-created dog run in Fairlington is an oasis for suburban canines who need more exercise than a walk on the leash, and a model for such dog parks elsewhere. Sandy, a whippet-shepherd mix given to high anxiety, is one of those overactive canines who needs a Utah Park, badly.
"When we left the house, she had separation anxiety," said owner Joni Oppasser, recalling Sandy leaping from the second-story window and her destruction of the couch, the comforter and the molding. "She was on Prozac for a while because she had so much energy." Now her daily park romps have helped make Sandy drug-free, Oppasser said.
As suburban jurisdictions across the country grow more crowded, open spaces where pooches can run grow ever scarcer. And when dogs do bust loose of leash laws, they increasingly come face to face with angry neighbors and animal control officers.
Fair Dogs, an Arlington County citizens group, thinks it has a solution. And Utah Park--a patch of dusty land overlooking Interstate 395--is fast setting a national standard for how committed volunteers can create a place that lets canines run free while giving their owners a vital, if pet-centered, community.
That's no small biscuits when the topic of dog parks is all the rage, according to Mike Corwin, spokesman for the National Recreation and Park Association. "This is really becoming a hot topic," he said. "We applaud [Utah Park's organizers], and we wish everyone could do that."
Fair Dogs was formed three years ago, when a half-dozen Arlington dog-lovers asked the county to help create a dog park. The group raised $10,000 to buy benches and garbage cans, and to erect a six-foot fence around an oblong chunk of county land.
Today, the place is succeeding beyond expectations. Plus, it has a few frills that most mere dog-runs lack.
There's the monthly book club, for instance, in which the half dozen dog-owning members dig mostly into topical tomes. Last month it was "The Hidden Life of Dogs." This week the group tackled "Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs."
A cookbook is in progress. Working title: "Hot Dogs and Other Recipes," with culinary ideas for humans and hounds. The group also has a newsletter and an e-mail list that includes owners along with their dogs, given that most people know each other as so-and-so's owner.
The place is so successful that all seven other Arlington dog runs are under conversion to the Fair Dogs model.
County Board Chairman Paul F. Ferguson (D) waxes poetic about citizens taking the initiative on the idea, which he so liked from the start that he put it on the "fast track" for County Board approval in 1996. Ferguson lives nearby and occasionally escorts Buddy the Beagle there.
Even Republican Mike Lane, the lone GOP board member and a cat owner, joined the park's clean-up day recently by scrubbing the fragrant garbage can.
"It was a campaign stop," he explained.
Fair Dogs got many of their ideas from a similar dog park in the city of Greenbelt, which opened in 1996, and since has raised funds with bake sales.
To keep its park supplied with pricey biodegradable poop bags and sturdy fencing, Fair Dogs sells $20 membership cards, which entitle holders to 10 percent discounts at 15 area businesses.
On a recent day, 96 dogs pawed through Utah Park, many of them hailing from Alexandria, Fairfax and even the District, as evidenced by the sign-in sheet at the gate. Unlike Greenbelt, Arlington does not close its dog park to outsiders, and recent leash law crackdowns in Alexandria are driving dogs across the border, testing Arlington's good neighbor policy.
"We would like it if Alexandria would initiate one themselves," Ferguson said.
Actually, Alexandria already has two fenced areas and is pushing for more, though neither has a sponsoring group nor boasts as many amenities. (Utah Park has water, shade, double entrance gates to thwart escapes, and a covered bulletin board with photos and information.)
Fairfax County also hopes to open a similar park this year. And both the Reston Dog Park Coalition and the Bowie Dog Park Association are tapping Arlington for tips, angling for one in their backyard. Gaithersburg dog advocates visited both Arlington and Greenbelt before opening a trial park eight months ago.
Brad Smith and Denise Gubich know the value of such parks. The Fairlington duo adopted Ross, a Labrador retriever mix, 10 months ago after he was hit by a car. They paid for the necessary leg amputation and watched him hobble. Regular trips to Utah Park were like physical therapy for Ross, who now runs around, "as happy as can be," according to Smith.
Murphy, a golden retriever, made his maiden trip to the park this week, fresh off the red-eye from Seattle. Owner Dave Follett said he and his wife scoured the Virginia suburbs for a place to rent, touring Vienna, Park Fairfax, and some Fairfax County neighborhoods. Utah Park made the decision for the now-Fairlington residents.
"This is one of the reasons we moved here," Follett said, who then turned to coo at Murphy. "You like it here, don't you?"
CAPTION: Utah Park, established near I-395 by a group called Fair Dogs, has become a model for how volunteers can create a thriving park for canines and their owners.