Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.
Two new books dig into important dog-world issues, but only one stands out
September 7 2012
For years, the most under-reported story in the country has been about the veritable army of dedicated animal lovers who work tirelessly to rescue shelter dogs, and the fact that, despite their work, shelters are still putting down millions of dogs every year. Journalist Kim Kavin’s new book, Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth, takes on that story.
Kavin wrote about this subject after adopting her brindle hound-mix pup, Blue, who had been deemed “non-preferrable [sic] for adoption” by Person County Animal Shelter in North Carolina. Plucked from the shelter by a local rescue group just days before he was scheduled to die, Blue was one of the lucky ones. Like many other U.S. shelters, the Person County shelter kills dogs in gas chambers. After being saved, Blue was posted on Petfinder.com, fostered, transported north, and, shortly thereafter, he joined Kavin in New Jersey.
Her investigation kicked into high gear when she took Blue to her vet to find out what was behind his skin lesions. He didn’t come with much in the way of paperwork, and what little there was offered few clues as to what had really happened to him, both at the shelter and while he was being fostered. So Kavin, the intrepid reporter, went to North Carolina to find out for herself. As part of her quest, she interviewed shelter managers, rescuers and fosterers as well as the vet who neutered the pup. She learned how dogs (and cats) are treated in these rural areas, where it can seem that the shelters are busier killing animals than trying to get them adopted.
Her investigations expanded, and she includes uplifting interviews with those who manage successful shelter operations and spay/neuter programs, and a vast network of independent animal activists. But she also examines the underlying reasons why there still are gas chambers — here’s a hint: powerful factory-farm lobbyists play a role — and why seemingly pro-animal groups still oppose spay-and-neuter laws. This book is not a polemic, but it is definitely messagedriven; its main points focus on the need for people to become aware of the plight of shelter animals, and how grassroots support can fix this societal problem. She’s convinced that everyone can help by adopting dogs from shelters, fostering dogs and putting pressure on policymakers to improve shelter conditions and practices.
Kavin masterfully weaves her life with Blue into the storyline, and does a great job presenting all of this information in an engrossing and inspirational narrative that reads like a page-turner police procedural. This is a compelling, important book that should be read by everyone who loves dogs. Personally, I’m thrilled that someone with Kavin’s passion and skill took on this tough assignment.
In his first book, What’s a Dog For? magazine editor John Homans follows a slightly similar track, covering some of the same ground as Kavin. Stella, his southern rescue dog, is the springboard for his investigation. The book is subtitled The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend, which is a lot of worthy ground to cover. However, there will be few surprises for Bark readers. While on the whole this book is well written, it seems to have been haphazardly researched and fact-checked. Homans invested a lot of time traveling to the sources of much of what is happening in the field of canine research, but there are also serious, and telling, omissions.
The book was inspired by a 2010 article he wrote for New York magazine, where he is the editorial director; perhaps that’s why it seems dated. It doesn’t reference the more current findings in some fields, which could’ve easily been identified by a review of books and articles written by researchers and experts such as John Bradshaw, Pat Shipman and Mark Derr, to whom he gives short shrift.
Homans a l so procla ims Ray Coppinger’s hypothesis — that dogs self-domesticated by scavenging from early human garbage heaps — to be the “most widely accepted ‘first dog’ theory.” And that, despite evidence to the contrary, wolves follow the human “point” as well as dogs when they are allowed to do it unfettered by fence bars. Then he gets into the important subject of no-kill shelters, and the origination of this movement in San Francisco. However, he doesn’t mention that SF/ SPCA was able to make the shift to a no-kill facility because neighboring SF/ Animal Care & Control handled euthanization duty for the city. Sadly, this transition didn’t mean that “healthy animals that were euthanized in San Francisco dropped to zero,” as he notes.
And I really wish he had done a more thorough job investigating Rick Berman’s crusade against the HSUS. Berman is not just a simple “PR guy,” who runs HumaneWatch, but rather, a lobbyist for the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is financed by big ag and the restaurant industry. He got his start with money from Philip Morris, which he used to fight smoking bans in restaurants. The HSUS has been a vocal opponent of cruel factory-farming processes, and Berman has gone after them for it. His lies and half-truths have had a negative impact on that organization as well as on other humane groups.
There is also much to commend in this rather ambitious and entertaining book, and someone new to the dog world may benefit from its roadmap to becoming a well-versed caninelogist. But unlike Kavin’s book, which is more concentrated and focused, Homans’ tries to cover too much ground. Consequently, some important landmarks that deserved a more thorough treatment didn’t get it.
I’m glad the publishing world and writers are excited about the subject of dogs and our relationships with them. Because we’re still learning how much we don’t know about our best friends, the question “What’s a dog for?” remains a worthy subject for future investigation.
Author of The Call of the Mild
September 4 2012
In her thoughtful and provocative new book, Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner, Lily Raff McCaulou— raised as a gun-fearing environmentalist and animal lover—meditates on the ways her perspectives on hunting and her place in the natural world have changed. We talk with her about her experiences, and her non-hunting fishing dog, Sylvia.
Bark: You contributed the endpiece for this issue, and in it, you talk about your dog, Sylvia. What can you tell us about her (besides the fact that she’s a great fishing companion)?
I spent months browsing Petfinder. com, where I eventually came across a photo-less profile of a female Flat- Coated Retriever mix named “Missy.” She was young but not a puppy. She’d been picked up as a stray; a couple of weeks had passed and nobody claimed her, so she was scheduled to be euthanized. Just in time, a group called Oregon Friends of Shelter Animals pulled her, took her to a foster home and listed her online.
Her profile was short but mentioned that she liked cats. It reminded me of Bob’s ad, and made me wonder if they were kindred spirits. (The funny thing is, we don’t even have cats.) The following weekend, we went—with Bob, of course—to an adoption event at a pet store a few hours from our house to meet her. We drove her home that afternoon.
B: What does Sylvia do while you fish?
B: You not only fish, but hunt as well. Was that something your family did? Does your husband hunt or fish with you?
B: What made you want to become a hunter?
Meanwhile, I was spending time with ranchers and loggers, many of whom hunted. I had always considered myself an environmentalist, but these hunters made me question what that really meant. They respected the animals they hunted, a paradox that intrigued me. Although I was more sentimental about my toll on the planet, they seemed to intimately understand that we all need natural resources—water, wood, oil and wildlife—to survive.
Farming—even of vegetables—is rife with death. Fields are tilled with blades that also slice voles. Combines harvest grains, shredding groundhogs along the way. To make our magazines and toilet paper, trees are logged, slaying owls. To charge our iPhones, coal is mined, destroying coyote dens. The roads we drive on, the lawns we play on—all of it used to be wildlife habitat. Hunting offered me a rare chance to come face-to-face with the animal life that sustains my own. I thought it could make me a better, truer environmentalist.
B: And did it?
B: In April, the New York Times ran your op-ed piece, “I Hunt, but the NRA Isn’t for Me.” What kind of reaction did you get?
B: What do you come away with from being outdoors—does the experience vary, depending on what you’re doing?
One challenge of hunting is to achieve this perfect state, a place between calm and alertness. If you’re too alert, you get jumpy. It’s exhausting and you can’t keep it up all day. If you’re too laid back, you miss the signs and can’t find an animal or get a shot off in time. There’s a sweet spot in there, but it takes a lot of practice.
B: I believe the number of hunters is on the decline, at least in California. Do you think the locavore movement is changing attitudes, something like the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s and ’70s?
Some of my own reasons for learning to hunt do align with the locavore movement and its predecessor, the back-to-the-land movement. Hunting isn’t necessarily that different from, say, keeping backyard chickens, planting a garden or taking a butchery class. All are paths toward selfsufficiency, better understanding where our food comes from and procuring meat from animals that weren’t tortured in a factory farm or flown halfway across the world.
B: Did you try to teach Sylvia to hunt with you?
I did save the wings from some birds that I shot and used them to try to teach Sylvia to track a bird’s scent. I would drag a wing around the backyard and hide it behind a shrub. Then I’d let her into the yard and tell her to find the bird. This sounds odd, but she was very reluctant to use her sense of smell. Excited by the tone of my voice, she would just look all over the place. I gave up pretty quickly.
B: At some point, would you like to hunt with a dog?
My next dog will be a hunting dog. I have so much fun with Sylvia, just hanging out and playing. Fishing with her is pure, endless entertainment. But unlike a hunting dog, she isn’t making the activity any easier for me. I suspect that if we worked together as partners, as in hunting, our relationship would be even deeper. I look forward to experiencing that with my next dog. For now, though, I couldn’t be happier with my fishing dog. Not many people can say they have a dog who shares their hobby.
B: What made you decide to write The Call of the Mild?
September 3 2012
Update 9/7/2012: Good news! Dexter has been adopted. Thanks for all your interest, hope you too find that perfect dog.
Dexter is one great dog—a Jack Russell Terrier, active, super intelligent and loving. He is two and a half years old, neutered, and weighs around 18 lbs. My friend, Carol, his human mom, died of a heart attack recently and he needs a new forever home. Another friend of his mom’s is now fostering him. She has three other dogs so it is difficult for her to provide him the amount of exercise he needs. He loves playing ball and she does take him to Pt. Isabel to play chuck-it, but only once a day. He needs two good exercise sessions a day (as most young dogs do).
Dexter was raised with two Huskies, and is getting along great in his foster home with two larger old dogs, positively loving the Keeshond. He has no problems with dogs at the dog park or while walking on leash and is fine with all adult humans he has met. He might be too active for young children but he hasn’t been tested yet with a child.
For a JRT, he is an obedient, happy little pup who just needs a lot more activity than his foster person can give him. He is housetrained, sits and walks like a prince on leash. He’s not destructive, travels well in cars and likes to give loads of kisses. But he is also a typical Terrier, so it is important that he goes to a home with someone familiar with this breed type.
If you like Terriers with their tenacious, loyal hearts and want a young and active happy dog to share your life, please email us. Dexter currently lives near Berkeley. Help us find him a great home!
Husky Puppy Practices His Howl
August 29 2012
The other day a panda-loving friend shared this link with me of the San Diego’s newest panda baby. Besides being incredibly adorable, it does make one wonder how the panda evolved its distinctive circled-eyed appearance, and then I saw this video of a Husky pup learning to howl and found the resemblance sweetly surprising.
Rep. Jackie Speier calls for an investigation
August 28 2012
Rep Jackie Speier (D-Calif) did something today that deserves a Bark call-out for a job well-done. It was reported in the SF Chronicle that she “ripped” into the National Park Service for using a Taser on a man who was running with his small dogs off-leash. When he was confronted by a ranger about the leash policy (which had been newly created in that area), he, allegedly, was uncooperative and would not provide her with his name. This happened back in January in a park within the Golden Gate Recreation Area in Northern California. When the man refused to give the ranger his information, she Tasered him in his back and arrested him! Speier noted that “Many of my constituents are understandably angered by what appears to be an excessive use of force by a park ranger.” She added, “From the information I have to date, it does not appear that the use of a taser was warranted.” Speier also requested information about training in taser usage for park rangers, including the appropriate utilization and risks of tasers. She also asked how the public was informed about dog policy changes at Rancho Corral de Tierra which now require all dogs to be leashed.
Speier suggested the appointment of an independent investigator to evaluate whether park regulations were violated and excessive force was utilized in the January 29 incident. You can read more about this. We certainly think the ranger used excessive force, do you agree?
August 17 2012
Recently we got the sad news that a friend from the dog park had passed away suddenly. She was on a backpacking trip in the Sierra mountains with a group of friends when she had a heart attack, a few hours later she died at a friend’s home. It is all so horribly sad! Luckily her two dogs were not with her; they were being cared for by another friend/dogsitter back in Berkeley. Unfortunately Carol did not leave a will, she was a single woman who adored her dogs but there were no instructions about what to do if something like this would happen. I know that few of us, especially those as healthy and as robust like Carol was (even at the age of 69), think of doing such things. I don’t think we like to ponder our own mortality. The welfare of Carol’s two dogs was now in the hands of her dog sitter, a challenging assignment for anyone. Other friends at the park offered what they could by the way of advice and assistance. Luckily a woman, who had the littermate, took the Husky in, and the dog sitter kept the young Jack Russell for a while until another of the dog park pals, took him in too. All that was a great relief to everyone who knew Carol and who loved her dogs. No matter what age you are, and especially if you are a single person with dogs, it is really important to consider doing a living will or setting up a pet trust. This was a lesson to me that we simply can’t leave such important matters in the hands of others.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
August 16 2012
Humans aren’t the only ones to suffer from eating disorders, heart disease, addictions and many other ailments. In Zoobiquity, cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and journalist Kathryn Bowers examine the range of diseases and conditions that commonly afflict both people and other animals, including dogs.
Horowitz’s revelation that species-spanning commonalities exist was sparked when she was called to the LA Zoo to help a female Emperor tamarin (an adorable South American monkey) who was experiencing heart failure. She thought that making eye contact and cooing to her tiny patient was the best way to comfort her. Then a vet stepped in and warned her against doing that, telling her she might inadvertently kill the small primate by inducing “capture myopathy.”
Horowitz wasn’t familiar with the term, but quickly learned that this fatal condition can develop when an animal is caught by a predator and experiences a sudden surge of a stress hormone. Unfortunately, this reaction can also be triggered when an animal is held, stared and cooed at by a heart specialist! The eureka moment came when she recognized a connection between capture myopathy and a human cardiac condition, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken-heart syndrome), which can be brought on by a variety of “intense, painful emotions … [that] set off life-threatening physical changes in the heart.” She was surprised to realize that a phenomenon veterinarians had known about for decades hadn’t been identified in humans until 2000. So she set out to see if other human diseases had counterparts in the animal kingdom. She began her inquiry by posing the simple question: “Do animals get [fill in the disease]?”
In each chapter, a human disease or disorder is described and then the animal counterpart is presented. They start by looking at fainting, something that one-third of adults have done at least once in their lives. By questioning vets, they found that dogs also experience “vasovagal syncope”—i.e., faint—in response to everyday activities “like barking and jumping … some canines faint when they’re aroused to sudden activity after being at rest.” And like us, some dogs faint when faced with a needle. In both cases, the reason has to do with a “fight or flight” response in which blood pressure rapidly decreases. In turn, the brain “shuts the system down by fainting.”
In the chapter “Grooming Gone Wild,” they look at human self-injurers (including Princess Diana and Colin Farrell) and compare them with dogs who obsessively lick and gnaw at their bodies in almost in trancelike state. It has been found that some compulsive behaviors in dogs, like this one, are genetically based. Whether OCD in humans and the canine equivalent (CCD) are the same disorder is something that has yet to be determined, but Horowitz puts forth a compelling case for a connection.
This book also gave me many insights, including why dogs thrive on reward-based training. It all has to do with neurocircuitry, which, we learn, is similar in most species, including our own. Basically, this system rewards fitness-promoting behaviors, such as foraging, hunting, “interacting with kin and peers,” mating, escape—behaviors that increase species survival. The authors characterize the rewards as a “chemical-dispensing apparatus stocked with tiny capsules of natural narcotics” such as opioids, cannabinoids, dopamine, oxytocin, and many others. As the authors note, accessing these chemicals is one of the most “potent motivators in animals, including us.” Even slugs have a dopaminergic system that controls the search and consumption of food. As animal expert Gary Wilson explains, “External treats in the form of food and congratulatory sounds are, in effect, bridges to the animal’s brain.” Simply put, good dog training is “driven by pleasure circuits.” Positive, reward-based learning is more effective than dominance- or coercive-based methods because it’s in tune with the way we and our dogs are wired.
This is a truly fascinating look at the similarities between us and other animals. We are not alone in our experience of a spectrum of physical and emotional disorders—among them, chlamydia, depression, bullying and risk-taking among adolescents. The list is long, and exploring it makes for engrossing and enlightening reading.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
An examination of the nation’s dog parks and gives tips on how to create a park of one’s own
August 9 2012
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?
But in the ’90s we are going through one of those horrid “paradigm shifts,” with a number of factors affecting how far the shift will go. There is increased competition for scarce green space from a number of other public park users—inline skaters, picnickers and exercise-driven adults wanting to play “ball” sports. There are more people living in “planned” developments (many in the Sun Belt states or in exurbs) that didn’t put dog parks into their master plans. And, as Battiata suggests, urban areas’ “in-fill development” is taking away green space, and “the ‘echo’ baby boomers are filling parks with strollers and toddlers once again,” setting up the overplayed “children vs. dog” conflict. There is criticism leveled in NYC that people are favoring bigger dogs (Labs are the most popular dog today, while in the ’50s, it was the Cocker Spaniel). Add to all this a society that is becoming increasingly less tolerant in general, with road rage spilling over into dogs-in-park rage, and your de facto dog park can vanish in the wink of an eye.
There is truth in the adage “don’t fix what ain’t broke.” Perhaps this isn’t the time for you to venture into the dog park minefield—you might want to hang back to see what happens. But leash law enforcement is usually complaint-driven, so it only takes one irate citizen’s angry complaining and that schoolyard-doubling-as-dog-park can come to a screeching halt—as dog lovers in Sacramento recently found out. In Berkeley a scat-obsessed citizen with a penchant for high drama dials 911 to report dogs in “his” public park, pooping on “his” grass. This staunch dog-hater gave a slide presentation at a Task Force meeting showing offending poop piles with little white flags he’d stuck in them, neatly dated, to demonstrate how uncivil dog people can be … umph. But as unreasonable as a 911 call for dogs pooping may be, this man’s complaints were answered by swift police action and he managed to make life miserable for that park’s dog people.
And the Wheel Keeps Turning, Turning, Turning …
A Doggedly Determined Political Action Plan
Identify the procedures needed to get your proposal heard by the legislative body. Battiata describes the scene well: “Finally, late into the evening, only one item remained on the docket. And in the well-established tradition of local government, it was the really controversial one.” That final one will undoubtedly be yours, so rest assured, you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about legislative procedures.
If policy advisory commissions are involved, find out which ones recommend policy regarding parks, when they meet and, most importantly, how to get your item on an agenda. Policy can be shaped by a chairperson controlling agendas, so this might be more difficult than you think.
In Berkeley, a process-rich city, attendance at numerous monthly meetings of four separate commissions, plus a Dog Task Force, was needed before we even got close to our first city council hearing. Note that most public meetings reserve time for public comment unrelated to any specific item; take advantage of these opportunities to introduce your proposal. Go as often as you can—hounding them isn’t a bad idea; sometimes just showing an interest in their dull proceedings and becoming a familiar, (and hopefully friendly) face, can earn you bonus points.
Determine what public agencies are concerned with parks and dogs: Parks, Recreation, Animal Services, Public Safety and Health departments. Meet with the managers to assess their positions—offer to help with some park maintenance, like organizing a poop clean-up campaign. Let them know that you are there not just to ask for something but to provide a service as well. In New York City, individual directors of parks, such as Central and Riverside Parks in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, can act quite independently. So Jane Cameron’s FIDO (Fellowship for the Interest of Dogs and their Owners) group in Brooklyn found the director of Prospect Park more responsive to their demands and thankful for the assistance they were proffering, whereas Jeff Zahn’s FLORAL (Friends and Lovers of Riverside Area Life) had their adopt-a-park space taken away from them by a director with a renovation plan that didn’t allow for their good stewardship to even be acknowledged. Go figure!
Civil servants can be your biggest enemies or best allies. Often it is up to them to support the legitimacy of your activity—and this might be key to your success. The Director of Portland, Oregon’s Parks and Recreation Department, Charles Jordan, understood the off-leash issue to be a classic example of a land-use conflict: “Public lands belong to everyone, yet when there’s not enough for everyone to do what they want to do when they want to do it, we have a collision.” His department took the step of accepting the legitimacy of off-leash recreation and set up a task force to find suitable sites. John Etter, of Parks Planning in Eugene, Oregon, is so enthusiastic that he provides a supportive letter to those interested in dog parks. And Dee Tilson, Park Supervisor at Point Isabel— a 21-acre off-leash park in Richmond, California, established in 1975 and receiving an estimated 900,000 dog visitors per year—is also happy to send her supportive letter.
Consult with any neighborhood groups that might have an interest in your proposal, especially targeting any and all homeowners and businesses abutting a park that might be under your consideration. Kevin Kraus, the philosophy professor who spearheads the dog group in the Dupont Circle, stresses the importance of consensus building. He recognizes his group’s need of first making peace with their neighborhood council so they can achieve the goal of making a de facto off-leash area part of the neighborhood’s Adopt-a-Park strategy. He adds, “We’re optimistic, we are working with really good people in the neighborhood.” Kevin teaches a program in Creative Problem Solving—skills sure to be well tested in his new dog park activism.
Do not ignore the concerns of the community, as they will be addressed some time during the public process. Better still, become a player yourself. Get appointed to or volunteer to be on a civic committee, neighborhood council or a task force. Working from within can do wonders.
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.)
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.
Dr. Lynette Hart, director of UC Davis’ Center for Animals in Society, addressed many key points in a letter of support for a Sacramento dog park initiative: “Dogs especially facilitate friendly interactions among people, as they so actively solicit play and offer greetings … establishing a dog park creates a community center of activity where friends and neighbors gather to relax … users of dog parks are self-policing so as to maintain the appealing environment .… Creating dog parks is a method for more efficiently educating dog owners and facilitating them in assuring excellent behavior with their dogs.”
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Tufts University veterinarian and behaviorist, answering a question about a dog’s need for aerobic exercise, stated,“Walking them on a leash is not sufficient exercise. It is not that they die if they walk on a leash, and it’s not that a human being dies in solitary confinement either. It is just that it is not optimal for their physiological and psychological well-being.” He adds, “It is important for a dog to be provided with natural outlets—to be able to run and exercise and chase things and do as a dog was bred to do.” There is plenty of expert testimony—we hope you will be able to get the vets in your community to write letters as well.
Humane organizations and animal shelters should be willing to endorse your efforts as well. As a nationally respected leader on all issues relating to companion animals, San Francisco’s SPCA has been a staunch proponent of off-leash recreation. This is evidenced by an excerpt from their statement to the Advisory Dogs Off-Leash Task Force: “We feel that because of the growth of our City’s population, in human and canine terms, now is the time to accommodate for the future of our dog-friendly parks … Off-leash recreation is not only an essential part of how many people care for their pets—it is a way to give a little something back to the animals who give us all so much.” The SF/SPCA cares so much about this issue that they have even offered to contribute financially to the development of a state-of-the-art dog park in San Francisco.
Running with a Pack
Putting on the Dog: Position Papers and Presentations
One of the most remarkable finds on the web is a must-read report from Australia, “Public Open Space and Dogs: a Design and Management Guide for Open Space Professionals and Local Government.” Reading this might convince you to pack up your dogs and move down under, where there seems to be a very enlightened view of the place of dogs in society, including in parks—think “multi-use” and not separate little dog runs. As evidence of their forward thinking, this is what the report says about dogs as a threat to wildlife: “Another argument for restricting dogs’ access to public open space is that their presence (behavior and smell) frightens away native wildlife … the most direct failing is that the scientific evidence to support this view is far from sufficient to constitute the basis of a management prescription. The second failing relates to the fact that dogs are not the only agents that may frighten wildlife. Humans, especially children and teenagers, park maintenance staff and their machinery are likely to have as much impact as dogs.” Makes you want to burst out in a verse of Waltzing Matilda!
For some visual inspiration, there are two excellent videos, Your Dog Off Leash, prepared by Dog PAC, SB, and the Point Isabel Video Project. Both demonstrate the benefits of off-leash recreation and provide convincing proof of its efficacy—especially useful for people who have little first-hand familiarity with the joys of dog parks. They are invaluable resources.
Recognizing this community (“constituency”) is a concept most policymakers will appreciate. Your group’s willingness to become a dog park sponsoring group, or to take on stewardship responsibilities, such as self-policing, maintenance chores (ranging from poop clean-ups to wood chip disbursements), fundraising, assistance in shelter adoptions, increasing dog licensing compliance, etc., should not be lost on policymakers. Make sure to include such positive stakeholder assistance in your press release. There will never be enough officers to prevent people from walking leash-free dogs in parks, no matter what New York’s Mayor Giuliani feels—so better to make an alliance with dog people that can take on some of these responsibilities and help to educate others as well.
Discuss the importance for the elderly with dogs to be able to use parks for leashless recreation. Not only does it provide a social avenue, but for those with mobility problems it can be very difficult to walk, much less exercise, a dog on lead. Every local group probably has a dog park champion such as Ruth Wightman, of Alameda County, a “career-change” senior who went from retirement into the “field” of dog-park activism. She attends the bureaucrat’s meetings that other advocates can’t because their work schedules conflict with middle-of-the-day meeting schedules. She’s there keeping careful watch, and she’s having a blast with her new dog as well.
Dog owners are taxpayers, paying taxes into a system that provides parks to the public, yet most of us rarely use these greenspaces for anything but walking our dogs. If you can, get some budget numbers from your recreation department to show the public resources that are being spent on sports. Or make graphs or maps showing how much park area is devoted to a single-use activity, like baseball diamonds and tennis courts—contrast that with how much is set aside for your favorite recreational pursuit.
Public Health Benefits
We all know that the more a dog is socialized, the less likely it will be to develop aggressive behavioral patterns. Exercise not only tires a dog out, but “also generates ample supplies of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a mood-stabilizing and calming effect on personality,” as Dr. Nick Dodman describes in his book Dogs Behaving Badly. He also adds that you should exercise your dog “preferably first thing in the morning for an effect that lasts all day.” A more relaxed dog also leads to one less inclined to bark the day away, proclaiming her lonely state to the neighbors.
Finally, Jane Dirks, in a paper presented at the 1996 conference of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, had the following to say about the public benefits of dog parks: “For ultimately, the Dog People find in the Dog Park a sanctuary, a space for healing. Dog People exult in watching their animals run, feeling that an hour or two’s romp with their dogs is essential to health, theirs and their dogs’, and makes up for a week of sedentary working hours. Dog People roam the trails of lower Frick Park [in Pittsburgh], alone or in groups, peeling away the stress and cognitions of the human world, cleansing themselves in the world of nature through the heedless antics of a happy dog.” Now, isn’t that well worth fighting for?
July 26 2012
Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times, writes an intriguing column today about novel public health efforts to help mitigate the harm of guns in our society. In his column he cites the work done by David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health, who has studied just that, the public health approaches to firearms. He talks about changing societal norms that this will require. Hemenway has seen evidence that such change is possible and says, “Where I see social norms changing is dog poop. You are not allowed to let your city dog run loose now, and you have to pick up your dog poop.” He said in an interview with Kristof that if people felt as responsible to their guns as they do for their dogs, who knows if, nothing else, people might insist on safer guns or trigger locks. One can only hope!
July 17 2012
July 17, marks the anniversary of the 1959 death of Billie Holiday. Her life was a hard one: a childhood of bitter poverty and early sexual abuse; an acute sensitivity to the all-pervasive racism of her time; a series of difficult relationships with controlling, exploitative men; an eventual downward spiral of depression, addiction and broken health. Among the things that gave her joy and an amazing vitality despite her troubles, music was, of course, the most important—her profound connection to jazz brought her the respect and adoration of audiences and fellow musicians alike. Another was her faithful and requited love of the series of dogs who were her companions throughout her life. We don’t know how or when she found her first dog friend, but anecdotes crop up throughout her biography. Lena Horne recalled that when the two jazz divas were together, they usually talked mainly about Billie’s dogs; “her animals were her only trusted friends.” There was the beloved Standard Poodle who, on his death, was wrapped in Billie’s best mink coat for the cremation, and the Chihuahua puppy she fed with a baby bottle in her New York apartment. Perhaps her most elegant companion was the handsome Boxer, Mister, who accompanied her to glamorous Harlem nightspots—places where he surely would not have been allowed if his mistress were anyone less remarkable than Lady Day.
NPR did an interesting story today about trying to find her final Resting Place—notice the little porcelain dog on her headstone.
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