Dog park at Sutter's Landing brings hounds and people for fun, companionship

It would be easy to dismiss as an afterthought the 2.5-acre strip of land at Sutter’s Landing Park where the city built a dog park.

After all, the landscape, north of C Street and south of the American River, is largely forgettable. Here dusty decomposed granite and cinder chips define the ground. The only grass to be found is what the city used to cap off a landfill nearby.

However, the Sutter’s Landing dog park is an elegant example of how people, not landscape, make an environment.

On most midweek evenings a dedicated group, usually numbering more than 20 people, bring their dogs to this off-leash park with its separate areas for large and small canines.

The crowd that gathers in the small-dog area is a portrait of human and canine diversity. Here can be found full breeds and mixes of Chihuahuas, huskies, French bulldogs and schnauzers. On the human side lawyers, students and state workers look after them.

At the core, or so it seems for the humans, is a desire to belong. So having a dog is not necessary.

“I actually don’t even have a dog,” said midtown resident Donny Daniels, 27. “I’m just checking it out.”

A respiratory technician at Mercy General Hospital, Daniels tracked the dogplay from behind his sunglasses. It was his first time at the park, having been invited by a friend. Daniels said he will return, despite feeling slightly uncomfortable about coming solo.

“I like the energy here. I’m a dog lover, so I’ll come and pet the dogs and talk to the owners,” Daniels said. “I’m going to recommend it to people I know that have dogs.”

Many regular visitors attend solo, said Chris Nelson, a French teacher at Rosemont High School, and single.

“I wouldn’t call this a singles scene – but it is an optimal place to meet someone,” Nelson said. “It’s a nice social outlet to meet people from all walks of life.”

Nelson lives in south Sacramento, passing by two closer dog parks: Partner Park off South Land Park Drive and Jacinto Creek Park on West Stockton Boulevard, to get to Sutter’s Landing, where he prefers the small-dog scene. He likes to get to the park around 6:30 p.m. and stay late – often until 10 p.m. If the social scene is really coming together, he’ll stay later.

“For me, how long I stay depends on if someone brings a light,” Nelson said.

One of the most colorful attendees, and most committed to the park, is east Sacramento resident Bill Nilva, 64. Easy to spot, he’s the one holding and lovingly stroking his 12-year-old long-haired Chihuahua, Chandra Levy. Two of his other dogs – Hymie and Moishe – frolic nearby.

“They’re all Jewish, my dogs. I name them after people I’ve known – including Chandra Levy,” said Nilva. Hymie was named after his father, Moishe after an uncle. Chandra was an acquaintance.

Chandra Levy was an intern at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., who disappeared in that city’s Rock Creek Park in 2001. Her body was found a year later.

“I named her Chandra a couple of months before that happened,” said Nilva. “I did it because I thought it was the worst Jewish name I’d ever heard.”

Nilva has been coming to the park for a year.

“One of the things I really liked about the people here is that they didn’t talk about their dogs,” said Nilva. “We all socialize, but it is not any of this dog-fanatic stuff.”

Nonetheless, he considers himself somewhat of a fanatic about dogs and the point person for all things dog. Nilva used to show big and small dogs at such high-watt shows as the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

“I started showing a poodle that won Westminster before I owned it and won Westminster when I had it,” he said. A Dalmatian and German short-haired pointer that he owned were also winners, he said.

“Everyone in my neighborhood now has a dog because of me. I ask them to name the dog they want and I get one for them,” Nilva said.

The Sutter’s Landing dog park opened in 2009 and cost $1.2 million. It remains one of the costliest dog parks the city has built. The price tag was twice that of a typical dog park due to the fact it is built in a landfill area where there are concerns about methane gas, said Gary Hyden, supervising landscape architect for Sacramento’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

As is the standard with landfills, methane that builds within must be vented to avoid an explosion.

At the dog park there are two large, black tubes that periodically vent methane. No one seemed bothered by the venting that was under way one recent day.

“It’s a hard place to find,” said Alana Perez. “Before I came here I thought ‘What else can be back here but a dump?’”

But one man’s dump is another’s treasure. Perez had heard about the park and Googled the location. Once there she found a best friend: 27-year-old Ally Yada, also a longtime park visitor, and one so devoted to her terrier that his likeness adorns a panel of her handbag.

“Ally and I, we were the only people here one night, so we were forced to have a conversation,” said Perez. “We found out we had a lot in common – like our religious views. We even cook similar food.”

The two now see each other four times a week.

“The only person I see more than Ally is my husband,” Perez said.

For others at Sutter’s Landing dog park, attending has become a form of therapy. That’s how 63-year-old Tina Powers sees it.

In 1999, Powers was stabbed at a gas station outside Vacaville. It was a random incident. Soon she became wheelchair-reliant. She suffered from post-traumatic stress, which led to her becoming a recluse. The only time she left her downtown home was for doctor appointments.

Then she got a dog.

“When you have dogs you have to walk them – and that’s what helped me get back into society,” said Powers.

She calls her rat terrier Bosco her “therapy dog.” Powers said she is grateful Bosco led her to the Sutter’s Landing dog park, where she says she belongs.

“For me this park has been a blessing,” she said.

GALLERY: For more photos of dog owners and their furry friends, go to Sutter's Landing dog park.

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.