If 2000 was the Summer of the Buffalo, 2001 could well become the Year of the Dog.
Buffalo and Town of Tonawanda officials are considering building dog parks -- fenced areas where dogs can be let off their leashes to have unfettered fun.
The parks would be the first of their kind in Erie County, officials said, though the dog-friendly venues have been established in New York City, California and Florida.
"I think we need it," said Jim Nowicki, the city's deputy parks commissioner.
"From what I've heard, the dogs actually love it," added Daniel J. Wiles, the Town of Tonawanda director of youth, parks and recreation, who refers to the areas as "bark parks."
And with 28,000 dogs in Buffalo and another 8,000 in Kenmore and the Town of Tonawanda, there's no shortage of customers.
People walking their dogs in Delaware Park recently agreed that dog parks would be a good idea.
"Sure. I think if it were a designated area, I think that would be better for everyone in the park," said Jill Powell, a Buffalo resident who was walking her Labrador mix, Janey. Powell said she thinks a dog park would work as long as the dogs who use it are well-behaved.
Joe Cane, who also lives in the city, said he never lets his beagle, Momma, off her leash because when she picks up a scent, she bolts after it.
He said he would like to be able to take her to a fenced-in dog park.
"They don't get any exercise," Cane said. "She's never been able to just run."
Buffalo is in the very early stages of planning its dog park.
City parks officials are studying where in the city's park system a dog park would best fit, said Nowicki, who has been leafing through catalogs that sell playground equipment for dogs.
The city has built running tracks for joggers and courts for tennis players, Nowicki said, so it's only fair the Parks Department consider building something for animal lovers.
He said he wants to publicize the idea and receive feedback from the public.
"Hopefully the community will say this is something we want," Nowicki said.
The city this spring also plans to install waste bins and plastic bag dispensers at strategic points in Delaware Park, to encourage dog owners to clean up after their pets.
Tonawanda is farther ahead than Buffalo, though its plan depends on getting state aid.
Building a dog park would help keep the town's other parks clean of dog waste, Wiles said, but he admitted some in the town find the idea strange.
Wiles said he got the idea from two Parks Department employees who were familiar with dog parks built in communities in California and Florida.
The town's dog park would be built in the northwest corner of Kenney Field, at Brighton Road and Colvin Boulevard.
The 2- or 3-acre bark park would be fenced in and surfaced with grass and dirt, Wiles said.
The town would set up tables for the dog owners and little hoops or other obstacles for the dogs. The town also would pipe running water into the park for thirsty dogs.
"We can do this for not an exorbitant amount of money," Wiles said, estimating the construction cost to be $40,000.
Dog park users would be urged to clean up after their pets, and the town would provide scoopers and waste containers, Wiles said.
The town would send a parks employee once a day to clean up the park.
Town officials last month asked State Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, and Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, to try to obtain a state grant for the dog park.
The town won't build the park unless it receives the state money, said E. William Miller, a Town Board member.
The town likely would operate the park as a regional facility open to all dogs, Wiles said, with access controlled by use of a swipe card.
If the dog park is built, the town would bar dogs from all other town parks, Miller said.
This would eliminate, or at least reduce, the problem of dog waste soiling the town's parks, athletic fields and golf courses, he said.
But if you throw a lot of unleashed dogs together in a dog park, would they get along?
Most dogs aren't aggressive toward other dogs, but fights occasionally break out when dogs are in groups, said Marilyn Westphal, training director for Western Lakes Training Club of Buffalo, a dog-training business.
"They're like kids -- there's a bully in every crowd," she said.
Wiles said his research has shown that dogs don't usually fight each other at dog parks because they view the parks as neutral territory.
He said he believes dog owners will use peer pressure to dissuade owners of problem dogs from returning to the park.
Only spayed or neutered dogs should be brought to a dog park, or male dogs will viciously attack each other over a female dog in heat, said Gina Browning, public relations manager for the SPCA serving Erie County.
"If you get an unspayed female in there and a lot of unneutered males, there's going to be trouble," she said.
But it's healthy for dogs to get exercise off-leash in an enclosed area, Browning said.
"I think with proper supervision it's an excellent idea," she said.