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In the last 15 years, hundreds of dog-owner groups have risen up across America to defend their need to exercise their dogs off-leash. As a result, the number of dog parks nationwide has soared from two dozen 10 years ago to more than 1,600 today.
This is a significant achievement, given the lack of a national organization that could provide intellectual and financial support, writes Julie Walsh, associate professor of political science at American International College in Springfield, Mass., and the author of a groundbreaking book, Unleashed Fury: The Political Struggle for Dog-Friendly Parks (Purdue University Press).
But dog parks are not the whole story. The focus of Walsh’s well-written and well-researched book is the much tougher struggle to maintain access to parklands. This fight is important, writes Walsh, because dog parks alone cannot fulfill the rising need for off-leash space. Moreover, these multi-use areas — often, places in which dog owners have congregated for years — are responsible for building stable, diverse communities at a time when communal structures in America have broken down.
Given that the struggle for access to public parklands is essentially a political issue, Walsh’s background as a political scientist enables her to provide valuable insights into off-leash disputes. Like gun control, off-leash access to parklands is “a classic cross-cutting issue”: people will cross party lines to vote on it. That means that dog owners can potentially have “significant political clout,” while elected officials have a major incentive to contain the issue.
Walsh also uses her skills as a political scientist to innovate when analyzing off-leash disputes — the degree to which key democratic values such as popular sovereignty, civil liberties and equality are upheld. These values provide powerful standards to which government officials can and should be held. Moreover, the democratic framework Walsh has devised can provide a strong foundation for resolving these disputes.
Much of Walsh’s book is devoted to an analysis of off-leash disputes in three venues: Avon, Conn.; Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), in and around San Francisco; and the city of San Francisco itself. Only the latter has done a reasonable job of upholding democratic values by incorporating the concerns of dog owners into its park policies, she asserts. In Avon, Conn., and at GGNRA, officials began the off-leash dispute with a final decision — they banned off-leash dog walking. In so doing, they gave off-leash opponents a significant advantage.
Government officials have done a good job of upholding democratic values in a number of other locations, including Portland, Seattle and New York City. It would have been valuable for Walsh to have delved further into these positive case studies, especially New York City’s successful 2006 defense of its off-leash-hours program. The policy, which allows dogs to be off-leash before 9 am and after 9 pm in parks citywide, is believed to have led to a decrease in dog-bite incidents and to have made the parks safer, according to NYC officials.
There are valuable lessons in the book. When it comes to politics, writes Walsh, “the importance of organization simply cannot be overstated.” Walsh counsels dog owners to organize permanent, local groups that can both protect their interests and negotiate with government entities. In so doing, they gain legitimacy for the activity itself, she notes.
Walsh also urges the creation of a national organization that could counter the resources of groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, which have fought dog owners’ interests at GGNRA and other areas, and help local groups in their early stages by sharing strategies and information.
When it comes to government involvement, Walsh counsels an equitable approach. Off-leash areas do not involve “ethically inviolable principles,” she writes, but rather, competing uses of recreational space. It is not government’s role to judge those preferences, but to firmly and consistently seek compromise among them.
By using democratic theory to analyze off-leash disputes, Walsh has written a groundbreaking book that should be read by anyone interested in off-leash issues. While definitely for people, if the book helps people resolve off-leash issues more democratically, many dogs will benefit, too.