It is extremely important that if such an issue-specific committee is convened, your group is well-represented at its hearings—let it be known that this is your issue! A recent decision to “de-list” some San Francisco parks for off-leash activity came about when opponents outnumbered proponents at the final meeting of that city’s dog task force. Speaking as someone who serves on a commission, it can’t be stressed enough that attendance at these meetings does matter—packing meeting rooms with supporters can sway votes even more than logical and heartfelt arguments. This is especially true with this issue.
It might be difficult to convince dog people to attend numerous meetings—especially if its takes four years, which is about average for most of the successful dog park resolutions—but remind them that the game is theirs to lose. (What can be the most frustrating is that even after you convince people to go to these meetings, to write their letters, to do e-mailing, the effort might only be good for one particular time frame, or one meeting. The next time you go before a committee, its members might have changed and you have to repeat the whole show all over again. Sisyphus and his old rock look like a piece of cake to off-leash advocates.)
If the dog park idea starts with just a handful of supporters, you’ll need to increase your numbers—few politicians are brave enough to turn their backs on a large number of earnest voters (especially in election years). Unfortunately, volunteers often only come flocking to the cause when citations increase or the status in a park changes. The spark that caused the formation of Seattle’s COLA (Citizens for Off-leash Areas, one of the better acronyms; their opponents are called UNCOLA) was an increase in city-wide citations in one year from 300 to 1,200. SFDOG got its push when dogs were banned from Ocean Beach, an area within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, because of unsubstantiated claims that dogs were disturbing Snowy Plover nestings.
But you can also be proactive, like Mary Anne Morrison-Roberts, a founder of Santa Barbara’s Dog PAC (Dog Political Action Committee), who recommends making handbills and brochures and posting them at de facto dog parks, vet offices, pet stores and dog-friendly businesses around town. She also suggests that memberships not be subject to dues; she says it is “more important to get the people enrolled—those wishing to donate, will.” Their organization, a registered 501(c)4 nonprofit performing political action, has 1,000 members and has made remarkable strides in a very short time.
Dr. Paul, a veterinarian from Coral Springs, Florida, set up a table at his community’s annual fair, getting people to sign petitions in support of a dog park. And Bash Dibra, a NYC dog trainer and author, has organized events, including doggie parades, to benefit Van Cortlandt Park, persuading celebrities (whose dogs he trains) to attend and contribute support —impressing both park administrators and park users. His fundraising skills and willingness to work toward consensus led to the building of a Canine Court, a state-of-the-art dog area in that Bronx park. Bash told us that “Henry Stern (Mayor Giulaini’s Park Commissioner) loves it: I bring celebrities in and they are amazed at the response. You have to show that you have a commitment, and that members of the community participate, so we do these annual fundraisers in the parks.”
You should also look for support from veterinarians and humane organizations. Most vets, especially those with behaviorist training, understand the benefits of off-leash exercise to the health and well-being of their patients. Solicit letters of endorsement from them. Dr. Paul, inspired by what he saw during a conference in Boston, came back home and started one of his state’s first dog parks. He tells of seeing “ten or fifteen dog owners having a blast in the Boston Commons, their dogs chasing each other, the people socializing and at the other corner of the park, nobody was talking to anyone else, nobody was doing anything together.” But it took him four years to get the park up and running—with no encouragement from the other vets in his area.