Speedie and Alex, both shepherd mixes, frolic at the Forest Park dog park with Abby the beagle.JEAN LOTUS/Staff

Bluebell is filthy and loving it.

Visiting the Forest Bark Dog Park, Circle and the Eisenhower, at her usual early-evening hour, the 1-year-old yellow Lab is wet, her fur tipped with dirt, her eyes shining with excitement as she races back and forth with a rubber toy clutched in her jaws.

And all that dirt is fine with owner Laura Garcia, of Oak Park, who said, “This is where a dog can be a dog.” Garcia, who has patronized the park since November with Bluebell as well as her young son and daughter, said the Oak Park dog parks “aren’t nearly as fun. One is on Harlem, and it’s just not as pleasant. This is just so much more social. We come in all weather because dogs need to get out — it’s so beautiful in winter seeing the dogs catch snowballs in their mouths.”

Bluebell, who recently hosted a birthday party at which she happily wore a red clown hat and scarfed down a cake made of chicken and pumpkin in about seven seconds, is now play-wrestling with her BFF, a handsome chocolate Lab called Winston. Laura’s daughter, Grace, almost 10 years old, loves the place too and has taken it upon herself to take photos of nearly every dog she has met on their visits.

Krista Hill, another regular to the park, brings German Shepherd Lu — age 18 months, dedicated hole-digger — and Pencil, a mysterious rescue, said to be part Chihuahua, and part who-knows? Pencil makes eye contact with a series of humans, hops up beside them and enjoys as long a massage as the human is willing to provide. It’s about 6:30 p.m., midweek.

“This is prime-time dog happy hour,” Hill noted.

Orvis, a fluffy Golden Retriever brought by Forest Park resident Brian, is right in the mix, wrestling and racing about as the owners chat. Brian knows exactly what the pros and cons of the park consist of: “I like that water is available; it would be nice to have more shade, too. And the parking meters are kind of bull—-.”

Brian also has low regard for bad dog owners: “When your dog is aggressive, put him in his place! When your dog poops, clean up after him! If your dog is obnoxious, take control,” he said.

Brian is still irate over an incident in which Orvis was attacked inside the park by a Rottweiler whose owner did not take responsibility.

“I had to be the one to pull him off,” he said.

It is left to dog owners to police the park and the behavior of dogs — and owners — themselves.

But such events, owners say, are rare. Kathy and Lee, regulars who bring Winston, describe the early evening hours as “big dog” time. Kathy seems untroubled by the mud, but Lee suggests it would be desirable to have more frequent renewal of the wood mulch chips that cover the ground rather thinly in places.

The park contains four benches (for people). There are two fire hydrants, a water fountain and a few small trees. A double gate system provides a measure of safety, as well as a “penalty box” for when dogs get overstimulated and need to calm down.

Kathy says, “We know 20-30 people from coming here, many more than we would just from walking Winston.” Kathy, whose white cardigan may not have been the right choice for today’s post-rain visit, has numerous muddy footprints on her chest, left by enthusiastic canine leaps. That the dogs all knew she was carrying treats — purchased at Urban Mutt in Berwyn — doubtless made her more of a target.

Aware of Berwyn’s newly-opened Karban Dog Park, north of Ogden between East and Gunderson, Kathy and Lee seemed unimpressed, noting, “There were no dogs when we went,” though they admitted they had only visited during the winter. That park officially opened this May.

Another park, at Miller Meadows on Forest Preserve property Maywood, will open in 2015, according to the Forest Preserve District Comprehensive Plan.

Despite the good cheer shown by dogs and humans, things are far from perfect. And for some, it’s just no longer a pleasant place to be.

The land the Circle Avenue dog park occupies is owned by IDOT (Illinois Dept. of Transportation), and stands on land dug up for the expressway, with under-layers of rubble and clay that makes flooding inevitable. Huge muddy swaths form, then dry very slowly, resulting in a messy park and very dirty dogs.

Jennifer Wolfe, chair of the village recreation board and founder of Friends of the Dog Park, said, “We’ve talked about a French drain or some type of system for at least seven years, but it would be quite expensive,” costing anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000. She thinks a second, non-flooding site would be a cheaper solution. “I love the idea of a second dog park at Altenheim.”

One proposal, Wolfe said, was for a very large area at Altenheim surrounded by about $5,000 worth of temporary fencing.

“But a smaller area would be less expensive and still desirable as an alternative, one that would also appeal to River Forest residents,” she added. In spite of posted signs, the Altenheim property is used unofficially as a dog park now by many.

Other ongoing difficulties mar the appeal of the Circle Avenue site — though it is unclear how those might be addressed no matter what the location. These include “border jumpers,” people who simply show up with a dog or dogs with no permit and no proof of the dogs’ vaccination, as well as owners of vicious dogs.

According to Wolfe, a dog was killed by another dog in the park last year, and others have been mauled.

“The only way we can assure the dogs have their shots is to require a license to use the park,” Wolfe said, though that is still no guarantee of safety from aggressive animals.

“It’s not fun to tell people they can’t be in the park if they haven’t paid,” she added. “For example, there’s a woman who’s a dog walker who was very upset when she was told she had to get a permit and was supposed to bring no more than two dogs. She brings three or four at a time.”

As to cleanup and maintenance, Wolfe said, “Some people expect Public Works to do everything and don’t want to help. When the park was started, we had regular cleanup days. But one, two or three bad apples spoil it for everyone else.”

But the drainage issues the Circle Avenue site experiences, Wolfe noted, “need to be addressed because they just keep adding wood chips on top of the mud, turning it into a wood chip swamp. Until we spend some money, it’s going to keep flooding.”

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