After years on the end of a leash, Vienna, a 7-year-old golden retriever, wasn't quite sure what to make of the new Dominguez Park Dog Run in Redondo Beach.
"When she first got here, she didn't understand that it was all free," said her owner, Janice Logan of Redondo Beach. "I had to walk her around the perimeter to let her know it was open to her. She just didn't get it at first."
Half an hour later, Vienna was chasing old tennis balls and playing with other dogs with the vigor of a toddler in a sandbox. Vienna had clearly gotten it.
The dog park, located at 190th Street and Flagler Avenue in the center of Redondo Beach, is the first of its kind in the South Bay. With most cities either banning dogs from parks or requiring that they be leashed, the dog run is one of the few places countywide where urban dog lovers can unshackle their pets and let them run free.
The two-acre park opened Sept. 11, two years after dog owners first started lobbying reluctant City Council members to support the idea. After a six-month trial period, the council will decide whether to make the dog run a permanent fixture at Dominguez Park.
With no trees, little grass and the insistent buzz from Southern California Edison power lines overhead, the park seems little more than a barren dust bowl. But to dog owners who have waited for years to have a special place to run their animals, it is a godsend.
"This is dog heaven," declared Pat Ramsey, as she watched her 4-year-old Siberian husky, Ginny, and 12-year-old German shepherd, Annie, mix it up with other canines. "It's amazing to get this many different breeds together. Basically, all they want to do is run and play with each other."
The park, however, isn't designed solely for the four-legged set. It also offers dog owners a place to mingle. Earlier this week, the pet owners seemed like a group of proud parents ogling each others' infants. Except that the talk revolved around puppy chow and leashes rather than baby formula and diapers.
"Everybody talks about their dogs and how cute they are," said Tracy Arbaugh of Redondo Beach, the owner of a 1-year-old golden retriever named Wrecker. "It's like having a baby."
Said Carol Steinkamp: "You'll come down and say 'Oh, Spreckels is here.' Or 'There's Bear.' You get to know people by their dogs."
While owners swapped puppy stories, their pets--including a springer spaniel, an Alaskan Eskimo and several akitas--amused themselves.
The Eskimo, a small white-furred puff of an animal, caused a commotion when she appeared to taunt the much larger akitas into chasing her around the park. When they nipped at her, she yelped and then nipped back.
The biggest spectacle, however, was Barrette, a domesticated, 18-month-old wolf.
"That's beautiful. Look at her run," one admirer called out as Barrette loped after a group of dogs running across the park.
Although Barrette chased after balls along with her other canine friends, she showed little interest in bringing them back to her master.
"They don't have that kind of subservience bred into them," said her owner, David Wosicki. "She would just as soon eat it as bring it back to me."
Citing concerns about everything from injuries to dog droppings, city leaders were initially uncomfortable with the idea of opening a dog park. The City Council last year rejected a proposal to put a dog run in Dominguez Park.
But when a group of dog owners agreed to pay for the insurance policy and to supervise and maintain the park, city officials decided to take a chance.
The group, called the Friends of the Redondo Beach Dog Park, spent months seeking donations to make good on their promise. They raised $4,500, mostly in $5 and $10 donations, to pay for the insurance policy and signs listing park regulations. The money will also pay for a doggie water fountain that is expected to be installed at the park in the next couple of weeks.
Eventually, the group hopes to plant trees and grass and install benches and a watering system.
"We'd like to make it a nice parklike atmosphere for man and beast alike," said Donald Szerlip, chairman of the committee.
Councilman Stevan Colin, who was the park's staunchest opponent, said he was surprised by the group's willingness to assume responsibility for the park's maintenance and operations.
"It's more successful than I thought it was going to be," Colin admitted Friday. In his three visits to the park since it opened, he said, he has seen "a lot of people having a good time and a lot of dogs having fun."
That isn't to say everybody loves the park.
Dan Kroll, who lives nearby, called the city recently to express his skepticism that dog owners would keep the park clean.
"It's not that I don't want people to have a place to run their dogs or anything, but I know just from where I live that people are always walking their dogs and not cleaning up after them," he said. "I thought if there were no voice of opposition, the owners would let the dog run become a stinking dog-mess run."
City officials, however, point out that owners can be cited if they are not responsible for their pets' messes.
To make it easier for dog owners to comply with the rules, a box containing plastic bags is kept at the front gate, and trash cans are placed strategically around the park.
Owners are also asked to close the outside gate before unleashing their dogs. Female dogs in heat are not permitted in the park, nor are dogs that have not been licensed or vaccinated against rabies.
Dogs displaying aggressive behavior--prolonged growling or mounting other dogs, for instance--must be leashed and removed from the park immediately. Owners are held liable for any injuries caused by their pets.
Dog owners seemed particularly conscientious during a visit to the park last week. On the rare occasion that someone failed to clean up after his dog, other dog owners made it their business to do it themselves.
And while some of the dogs occasionally growled at each other, most appeared content to chase after other dogs' tennis balls or run around the park in packs.
"She's loving it," said Logan, Vienna's owner. "There's no more wonderful feeling than seeing your dog run free, the way they were meant to."