Momentum growing for indoor-outdoor dog park and bar in Columbia

The usual quips about Missouri weather — if you don’t like it, wait 5 minutes, et al. — sometimes fall flat with dog lovers.

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Summer swelter, the coldest days of winter, and the unpredictable elements between, can leave pups with pent-up energy, and their humans feeling a bit stranded for both their sakes.

The owner of two pit bulls, River and Forest, Rebecca Welly knows the feeling. During the pandemic’s earliest, most isolating moments, Welly spent time beside the dogs daydreaming about being anywhere else. Questions of where to take them became questions about where Welly wanted to go in life.

Those daydreams became a tangible vision for Dog Wild, an indoor-outdoor, membership-driven dog park with a bar. Cultivating the idea at every step with her partner and co-owner Lesley Harris, Welly is gathering momentum to move the project forward and Dog Wild will host a first fundraiser the evening of June 27 at Cafe Berlin.

“It sounds like this monumental picture and vision to bring to Columbia, but you know what? I think I can do it,” Welly said of the way the thought process unfolded.

Improving Columbia’s dog park culture

Columbia is home to a number of dog parks, which are good for the free options they are, Welly said. But fellow dog owners sometimes express concern over upkeep and safety. Keeping the parks litter-free and stocked with clean water is a challenge. As is the weather, which can turn free room to roam into fields of mud.

And these dog parks operate on a sort of “honor system” in the way human visitors interact, Welly said.

Welly envisions a space that is temperate and clean, encouraging the comfort of both dogs and people. The ideal venue for Dog Wild would be a 10,000-square-foot, warehouse-style building, she said. The indoor portion would offer plenty of wide-open space as well as a bar and other amenities for dog owners and their friends.

Outside, a turfed lawn would represent a major investment but a lasting one, Welly said. The ability to keep the surface clean and dry would be a major plus.

Sealing the whole space: a sense of community and common buy-in. Dog Wild would not only cater to dog owners. The park could welcome a number of populations, Welly said, like people hanging out with their dog-owning friends or college students who miss their dogs back home and simply want to watch other canines run free.

Lesley Harris, Welly's partner and Dog Wild co-owner, with River

Welly arrived in Columbia after graduating high school and never felt the desire to leave. She wants Dog Wild to harness what makes our community special.

“It feels like a small town, but you have the amenities of a fairly large town,” Welly said. “I want that to be reflected when you walk in. We know who you are. You walk in, and you feel like this is your backyard almost.”

The Columbia community deserves a space like this, Welly added.

A future Columbia success story

Similar spaces are cropping up — and thriving — around Missouri and the lower Midwest. Welly pointed to the success of Bar K, which began in Kansas City before expanding to St. Louis and Oklahoma City.

The Kansas City location now encompasses a two-acre dog park with a bar, restaurant and full staff including trained dog handlers. That space became an anchor on Kansas City’s riverfront, encouraging the city to revitalize the area, Welly said.

Welly believes Dog Wild can be a similar success story in Columbia. In March, the idea earned third place and a $3,000 prize at Missouri Startup Weekend, an entrepreneurship event that has boosted the signal of significant Columbia businesses like EquipmentShare.

“That gave me my own little boost of confidence to be like, ‘Alright, quit sitting on this thing. And quit talking about it with your dogs at home. … It’s not going to start unless you talk to people,’ ” Welly said with a laugh.

Rebecca Welly with River

Stretching herself to make Dog Wild a reality, Welly returns to River, Forest and what they share. She identifies with their pit bull breed, which is so commonly misunderstood, she said. The Dog Wild website describes Welly as “stubborn” and her story reveals a quick learner too.

The majority of Welly’s career has been spent in labs and on campuses, dedicated to research. Navigating the pandemic, she took a job in the kitchen at Cafe Berlin. Learning the pace — and constant re-calibrating — of a small business, and picking the brain of co-owner Sam Johnson, Welly learns something every day that applies to Dog Wild.

“I’m one of those people, you show me once I’ll never forget it. … And I love it over there,” Welly said.

The June 27 Petite Patio Pup Social takes place from 4 to 6 p.m. and will include food, beverages, Dog Wild merch, a raffle and more. The event is listed online as “Perfect for: Breeds 30 lbs or smaller, Leash required.”

Welly wants to connect with potential investors and donors, of course, but also with other dog lovers willing to apply their ideas and skills to move Dog Wild ahead.

“Be honest,” she said, of what she wants from people at this stage. Knowing it’s impossible to see every aspect of a project with just two eyes, Welly values other perspectives.

Welly also will speak at the next meeting of Columbia’s 1 Million Cups chapter, which takes place at the REDI hub on Walnut Street at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Visit for more information or email

Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at or by calling 573-815-1731. He’s on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.

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