LEWISTON — In all of her eight months of life, Sky had never been let off the leash to play with other dogs. Her owner, Amanda Therrien, wanted to give the Shih Tzu-sheepdog mix some unrestrained playtime, but she never felt comfortable with it. They live in Lewiston, home to busy streets, dense neighborhoods and almost no good place for a dog to run.
Until this week.
At the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society's new dog park on Tuesday, Therrien unclipped Sky's leash and let her play.
"Love it!" Therrien said as Sky, tongue lolling, barrelled around the fenced-in area, playing chase with a 4-year-old beagle named Katie. "I've been looking forward to it opening for a while."
Located on Strawberry Avenue, between the animal shelter and the Animal Emergency Clinic of Mid-Maine, the 1-acre park is one of the few in the area dedicated to dogs. The humane society agreed to design and oversee the space after an anonymous benefactor donated the money for a dog park in memory of her dog, Robin. The park has been named Robin's Garden and Dog Park.
Surrounded by chain-link fence, the park has been split into two sections: one for small dogs and one for large dogs. Each side has a gazebo, chairs, trees, boulders and a wide-open, grassy space. Each side also has dog bowls, but owners must bring their own water. And each side offers bags and trash cans so owners can clean up after their dogs — a requirement for those who want to use the park.
Half of the park is on land owned by the humane society; the other half is on land owned by the emergency clinic. The humane society has a 10-year lease on the property owned by the clinic. The park was slated to open in the spring, but it took workers longer than expected to get the site ready.
On Tuesday, opening day, dog owners began arriving at 8 a.m. At one point in the morning, 15 dogs and their owners filled the park.
"Everyone's been quite excited," said Steve Dostie, executive director of the humane society. "They don't have to travel to go to a dog park now. Some people were traveling out of the city, going to Portland or to different areas. Now, we have it right here."
Therrien brought Sky to the park in the afternoon. While Therrien sat in a chair and chatted with Katie's owner, Steve Leeman of Lewiston, the two dogs romped. Therrien and Leeman said they'd be back. Often.
"It's something Lewiston's needed for a while," said Leeman, who gives Katie the beagle as much exercise as he can but never before felt comfortable letting her go off leash. "The dogs need it, for sure."
Soon after Sky and Katie arrived at the dog park, mixed-breed Shyla meandered in with owner Alice Crawford. Timid at first, Shyla stuck close to boulders and the fence, nose to the ground, eyes on the other dogs.
"She's usually pretty energetic," said Crawford, who adopted Shyla from the humane society last year and learned of the park's opening through the shelter's Facebook announcement. "Once she warms up, she'll be tearing around."
A few minutes later, Oscar the boxer arrived with owner Lisa Michaud. He'd been to doggy day care. He knew what to do. He dove into the fray, sniffing, running, chasing.
"He loves this stuff, but we didn't have anything around here," Michaud said as Oscar ran up to her, panting and drooling. "Now we do, so it's like, 'Yay!'"
The dog park is free and open to the public from dawn until dusk. Its winter availability will depend on snow.
The park does have rules. Visitors should park in the gravel lot next to the train tracks and across the street from the emergency clinic. Dogs must be at least 4 months old, up to date on shots and not aggressive. Owners must clean up after their dogs and must stay in the park with their dogs. No one under 18 can be in the park unless accompanied by an adult. Food and treats are not allowed.
"Dogs will be dogs," Dostie said, "and we don't want any arguments."