In the beginning there was a dog, a ball and a piece of green…
Many of you already come together at your favorite de facto dog park daily to do what every responsible dog person knows must be done—exercise and socialize your dogs. We all strive to give our dogs a happy life and enough stimulation so they poop out (in more ways than one). But strictly enforced leash laws can really zap the fun out of this innocent activity, turning many of us into lawbreakers. We aren’t deterred, because we care more about our dog’s recreational needs than we do about our legal standing, but we are forced into playing hide-and-seek games with the authorities.
Many of us no doubt feel like Kevin Kraus of Washington DC: “I have a very well-trained dog so I leave him off leash and he responds and stays with me and it isn’t a problem, but I still wound up getting fined. I said this is ridiculous. I know that I’m breaking the law, but at the same time I feel as if this offense is not a problem.” Kevin’s experience is being repeated in parks everywhere, and so dog people are organizing and forming activist groups, as he did in his Dupont Circle park. No matter how vigilant the authorities are—in New York they’re equipping citizen-snitches with cell phones!—dog people are united in their desire to get a piece of green!
Off-leash recreation is turning into one of the biggest imbroglios in park management, and one of the most politically challenging and hotly debated items for local legislators. It’s inspiring participatory democracy at its finest, with off-leash advocates, many political novices, pulling out all stops to earn the right to exercise their dogs—and it also has local politicians running for the hills. According to the March issue of Governing, most of these fights have much in common, and it cautions local legislators that “if you thought that taxes were the only issue that made voters’ blood boil, then you haven’t had a dog issue appear on the public agenda lately.”
Such off-leash activism gave birth to The Bark, so we thought it was time that we respond to your requests and offer tips on how to get and keep a dog park. The information we present here has been gleaned through discussions with off-leash advocates and park administrators, from studies and reports, and from working in the trenches in this struggle for the past five years. This report will run in two issues of The Bark, beginning with the following discussion on “taking up the banner”—including development of political action plans and position papers. In the next Bark we’ll focus on the nuts and bolts of the issues involved with implementation; topics will include planning, designing and operating dog areas. Both segments will be supplemented with accounts by experts that you can use to guide your efforts. But we won’t stop there. Dog parks have been, and will continue to be, an ongoing feature in The Bark—we would love to hear your frontline stories so we can learn from your examples too.
So What’s the Beef?
De facto off-leash parks have been around for a long time, and in the past, this has worked out fairly well. What schoolyard doesn’t have its doggie regulars playing fetch long after the kids’ soccer game has ended? But lately a lot has changed. Now it seems that “being anti-dog is the socially permissible prejudice,” says Pam Ferguson, who spearheaded the first dog park campaign in Berkeley in 1985. In her insightful Washington Post article, Mary Battiata points out that leash laws were mostly enacted in the 1980s by “local governments with no intention of strict enforcement. Rather, there still was a tacit understanding that if dog owners wanted to run their dogs off leash, they would do so in out-of-the-way places where they wouldn’t disturb anyone.”