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
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?
Wellness: Health Care
The most common dog-park related incidents revealed
The warmer summer weather correlates to an uptick in ER visits, many of which are related to dog park dilemmas. Interestingly, there has been a 34 percent increase in dog park utilization over the past five years, and these designated areas are the fastest growing segment of all city parks in the U.S.
With this increase in use comes the proportional increase in dog injuries. Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) recently sorted its database of more than 420,000 dogs to determine common dog park-related medical conditions in 2011. Topping off the list are sprains and soft tissue injuries, with lacerations and bite wounds following in second place. My own ER experience supports these statistics, and it wouldn’t be summer in the ER without treating at least a couple of these over the course of a weekend. The remainder of the top list 10 is rounded out as follows: kennel cough, insect bites, head trauma, heat stroke, parasites, and parvovirus.
Each of these conditions can make a fun day at the park a costly one. The most common conditions on the list, sprains and soft tissue injury, carry the price tag of an average of $213 per pet. Insect bites, turn out to be the least expensive, and run an average of $141 per pet. The most expensive medical condition to care for is heat exhaustion or heat stroke, and the reported average cost is $584 per pet. However, if the heat stoke is severe, cost of treatment can easily exceed thousands of dollars.
The majority of medical conditions that occur at the dog park can be avoided by taking necessary precautions, particularly by simply keeping a close eye on your dog at all times. Dog parks have rules just like any other community, and if you follow these tips, it may help prevent an unnecessary trip to your veterinarian or local ER.
Hopefully these tips will make your next visit a walk in the park!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
One of the nation’s finest dog parks
Marymoor Park east of Seattle, Wash., is a Disneyland for dogs, a place where people and their pooches can romp and run over 40 acres of off-leash play space. Now, Marymoor is also a place where people can celebrate and commemorate their beloved living, lost or deceased pets. “The Stephen King/Pet Sematary references were unavoidable, but this is not what this place is about,” says Jesse Israel, with King County Parks.
The newly dedicated Marymoor Park Pet Garden is a one-acre space next to the off-leash area, where people can reflect on the good times they had with their dogs at the park. It’s the first publicly funded memorial pet garden in the Pacific Northwest, and likely, the entire country.
The garden was designed to meet two needs: those of dog owners who wanted to honor their canine friends, and those of a park system in need of entrepreneurial ideas to stay afloat financially. Pet owners can donate money to the garden in exchange for trees, inscribed paving bricks, benches and trees. State and federal urban forestry grants helped fund the garden, along with donations from local businesses. Volunteers maintain the manicured lawns and islands of perennial plants as well as a stone fountain and kiosk where people can post poems and stories about their pets.
“I was blown away that government could be so innovative,” says Judy Trockel, head of Serve Our Dog Areas (SODA), the official stewardship group for Marymoor. “It’s a recognition of and respect for the role pet owners play from an economic and political standpoint.” For more information, visit www.metrokc.gov/parks/petgarden/
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Lucky dogs frolic in a water wonderland designed just for them
It was June 1989, and we had found our dream home: one and a half acres of grass and woods for the dogs to enjoy and some potentially nice areas for my own gardening pleasure. Privacy, so we could have as many dogs as we liked. Perfect! Oh, and the house was nice, too, all on one level, no stairs—we could grow old there. But it included a swimming pool, something we weren’t terribly excited about; my husband and I knew how much work and expense a pool involved, and weren’t sure it would be worth it. However, our daughter Julie, then 9, was thrilled to have a backyard pool, so we signed on the dotted line and bought ourselves a house.
Initially, our dogs were moderately interested, but while they liked lake swimming and creek wading, the pool was a little scary, and they mostly avoided it. Then, five years later, Sprint, our first Border Collie, came to us. From the start, she loved the pool. An avid retriever, she quickly learned to dive in after a ball or toy. As the years passed and our “dog nation” gradually became entirely populated by Border Collies, it developed that they were the only ones in the pool. The three of them, all girls and all crazy for the water, would drop balls into it for one another to retrieve. After a play session in the meadow, they would dash to the water and plunge in, happy to cool off.
Julie grew up and moved away, and her father and I were not keen swimmers. But we still had to keep the pool chlorinated to prevent mosquitoes, and regular cleaning was required. Then, fate intervened. When some underground piping broke, we were told it would cost thousands of dollars to make the necessary repairs. We decided to fill in the pool (even that was a surprisingly expensive operation). On a whim, I approached a local pond designer and told him my crazy idea: to convert the pool to a pond designed for the pleasure of the dogs and as a focal point of the garden. Could he do it for less than the cost of filling it in? When the answer was yes, I decided to go for it.
The conversion, which took a bit more than three months, was laboriously executed by a crew of two or three men. They broke up the apron, dumped some fill into the pool, built a wall across the middle and crafted stone into the border of the resulting two ponds; the lower pond was about 36 inches deep, while the upper pond was 30 inches. A biological filter was tucked under a bush, and two waterfalls added interest to the space while oxygenating the water. Fish and plants would keep a healthy ecosystem in balance. The first summer, we introduced a half-dozen goldfish into the upper pond. By the following summer, there were several dozen.
Planning Pays Off
Before I landscaped the area around the ponds, I watched the dogs at play. As anyone familiar with Border Collies knows, they are always on the move, circling in consistent patterns; I noted where they ran and placed slate stones to form paths along their established routes. Then I planted around the paths, fairly certain that the new bushes and perennials would be unharmed. I decided there would be no fences, since the whole point of the ponds was for the dogs’ enjoyment, and I wanted them to be beautiful but fully dog-friendly.
To maintain some level of hygiene, I taught the girls to use an undeveloped side yard as a bathroom. It would probably be more difficult if we had male dogs, and sometimes visiting boys mark on the bushes. This is not ideal, but we put up with it for the pleasure of their company.
In the beginning, I had hoped that the upper pond, which is farther away from the house and has ledges for plants, would be mostly for the plants and fish, and the lower pond for the dog play. Amazingly, this has turned out to be the case—the girls play almost exclusively around the lower pond. Some fish have come over the waterfall, but generally, the two species ignore each other. When the dogs decide to run around the whole pond and garden area, the path system comes into use; they stick to these stone runways and do not damage the various plants and bushes around the ponds. It is an ideal setup, successful beyond my wildest dreams.
Putting the Ponds to Use
The dogs’ main activity consists of running around the lower pond and throwing balls for one another. Sprint, the “alpha female,” will carry a ball to the highest spot on the rocky border and stand there, pretending to ignore the other two, who stare intently at her. After some casual mouthing of the ball, she will finally drop it in, or put it down and push it in with her paw. Then the fun begins. All three girls begin circling the pond, whining with excitement, preparing to dive in, changing their minds, running some more. Finally, one of them will take the plunge and return the ball to the steps at the corner. Sprint then grabs the ball and heads for her high spot, and the whole thing is repeated. This can go on for quite an extended period and provides much entertainment for both the dogs and anyone watching. There are endless variations on the theme, and the joy is infectious.
This sort of plan would only be amusing for certain kinds of dogs. The obsessive circling habits of many herding breeds tend to keep them close to the water, providing amusement and exercise without harm to the surrounding garden. The dogs are too busy to dig or explore the plantings. When they are tired, they throw themselves down in the shade, resting up for more water play.
Today, the ponds and their adjacent gardens are a pleasant, non-harmful addition to the backyard environment. Just as a zoo designs different habitats for each species, so I designed this habitat for my “water collies.” The pleasure we all receive from it is immeasurable, and we happily share it with visitors as well.
News: Guest Posts
A day at the dog park
Forget about your long Monday morning to-do list. Select full screen, hit play and soak in all the rambunctious, artful play in Kelsey Wynn's dog's-eye-view video of the dog park.
Beautiful Day at the Dog Park from Kelsey Wynns on Vimeo.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog issues may influence San Francisco election
San Francisco is named after St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and is about as dog friendly as a city can be. It has beautiful dogs parks and many restaurants and stores allow dogs. I guess it makes sense in a city with more dogs than children that the residents of San Francisco take dogs and their interests seriously.
The formation of the political action committee DogPAC is one of many signs of the political clout of dogs, or at least their guardians, in San Francisco. The group formed in order for people to promote the interests of their dogs, particularly being allowed to run off leash in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. This park is over twice the size of the city itself and is enjoyed by many dogs and their people.
According to DogPAC’s president, Bruce Wolfe, people with an interest in dog issues will have a big impact on the election of the next mayor. Members expect mayoral candidates to address canine issues, including the Park Service’s proposal to require leashes in some parts of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and to fence off some popular areas for dog walking. The reason for these changes is concern about approximately 1,200 native species of plants and animals, including the endangered Snowy Plover, which consistently disappears in areas where dogs are allowed.,
Other canine issues matter to San Franciscans, and earlier this week, 7 of the 16 candidates running for mayor attended DogPAC’s forum. They answered questions on all things canine: pet-friendly rental housing, the cost of dog licenses and trash cans in parks to dispose of pet waste. Some websites include sections detailing how candidates stand on canine-related issues.
Has your vote ever been influenced by dog issues?
News: Guest Posts
The downside of free-roaming dogs
Last week, the Denver Police Department and Animal Care and Control held a friendly press conference reminding dog owners to keep their pets leashed, or face fines of at least $80.The conference was held at Cheesman Park, the city’s favorite place to illegally let dogs run loose. Hilariously, a man let his dog cavort, leashless, on the lawn during the press conference, apparently unaware of exactly who was gathered at the park—until a couple officers started heading his way. (He got off with a warning.) There was no real news at the conference. No laws have changed. It was just a springtime reminder to dog owners that they should only let dogs go leashless in designated dog parks. It probably won’t change matters much, but I’m happy the city is making an effort. As the owner of a dog-aggressive dog in a canine-filled city, anything that keeps pups on leashes is fine by me. My husband and I got Daisy from a shelter almost four years ago. She’s a mutt who looks like a miniature wolf, or a blonde fox, and is often mistaken for a Shiba Inu. She is sweet, loving and probably the cuddliest dog I’ve ever met—when she’s around humans. But the mere sight of another dog sends her into a defensive rage. They warned us about it at the shelter. When we took her on a get-to-know-you walk, we saw how she pulled mightily on her lead when she spied another dog. At the time, she seemed so small and cute that it wasn’t a big deal. We were so wrong. After adding on about 15 pounds of healthy weight—she was terribly skinny in the shelter—Daisy got back to fighting strength. And she was ready to throw down. In a neighborhood filled with leashless, laid-back Labs and Frisbee-loving Aussie shepherds, Daisy was like Tony Soprano arriving on a hippie commune. Everything about Daisy’s communication with other dogs says, “Eff you.” She walks with her head erect and ears pointed skyward, her chest puffed out. Her tail, usually long and straight, curls up over her back. When she detects another dog in the area, even if it’s just a distant bark, her hackles go up and she begins to huff and puff. When a dog comes into sight and moves closer, she starts to thrash and snarl, trying vainly to run at the other dog. Every dog, no matter how small, large or docile, is seen as a threat. We tried seeing a trainer—it was expensive, and the trainer herself wasn’t a good fit. If we had more money, we’d go to a professional behaviorist. I’ve read books and articles. I’ve tried to sit in Cheesman Park with Daisy and feed her treats when dogs, often off-leash, appear. She refuses the treats, and her breathing becomes ragged and shallow as her rage turns into fear. It’s a sad situation, but we do our best. Daisy has a couple of dog-pals she can play with at relatives’ houses. We avoid the dogs we see on walks, as it seems a large part of Daisy’s anxiety comes from her leash. What’s frustrating, though, is when a leashless dog comes running at Daisy, full of cheerful intentions, and I hear the owner absently call, “It’s OK, he’s friendly.” To which I respond, “Yes, but my dog isn’t.” By this point Daisy is lunging and growling at the other dog, who’s often puzzled, but sometimes offended and angered. And then we have a potential dogfight on our hands. I understand the desire to let a dog off-leash. I might understand it more than anyone, since I have a dog who loves to run but can’t be let go in public. Still, leashes don’t exist just to be a buzzkill—they’re an important safety tool. I wish more people remembered that.
News: Guest Posts
For our story on the state of the state of dog parks
As many of you know, Bark was founded in 1997, as a newsletter to advocate for off-leash dog parks in Berkeley, Calif. Since then we’ve grown into a glossy magazine but we continue to follow the progress of off-leash areas across the country, from Provincetown to Seattle to Minneapolis and beyond.For our summer issue, we’re looking at the state of dog parks—and we need your input. Where are the wide-open spaces? The parks loaded with amenities? Fabulous water access? Meandering trails? Which are the small, smart parks that fill a community's needs perfectly? Which boast strong community engagement? We want the whole story, so if you see problems at your park or face obstacles in starting or keeping one running, tell us about that too. What can we learn from these challenges? If you’re involved in launching or maintaining a park, we’d love to hear what’s working and what’s not—from smart fencing options and erosion control to keeping volunteers motivated and neighbors happy. We’re as excited about off-leash areas as we have ever been. But as we move into the third decade of these dedicated play zones, we want to expand our horizons and find ways to ensure that opportunities for leash-free play keep getting better. Please tell us about your dog park experiences, comment here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What a great way to start the day!
On Monday morning, when Cameron and I were walking our dogs at local 30-acre dog park, we ran into our friend, Lauren, who told us about a Chihuahua who was lost there on Sunday. She described the poor owner, a man in his sixties with a pronounced limp, who was frantically asking for help, crying as he told people his very sad tale. He was inconsolable. We saw him there on Monday too, calling and calling to his dog—it was so heartbreaking.On Tuesday morning, again we saw Lauren, who excitedly told us that she had “spotted” the dog but had been unable to catch her. So we decided to try to help and, after our walk, we set out to try to find her. We weren’t aware Lauren had gone back to where she had seen the dog and was trying to contact the owner. It turned out that the little dog had wandered into a fairly remote area, outside the park boundary, where few people venture. Luckily that morning, Lauren and her Blackjack, a gorgeous German Shorthaired Pointer, decided to take their walk there, when true to his sporting dog nature, Blackjack “flushed” the small dog out from under a shrub. But the fearful pup simply scampered away. When we arrived, Lauren pointed to the dog, who was huddled alongside a doorway of a communication tower building at the water’s edge, behind a 12-foot fence topped with barbed wire. We both tried to entice her to come but she wasn’t responding. Thankfully, after repeated attempts, Lauren got through to the man and he was on his way. A few minutes later, he drove up and we flagged him down. He ran up the path to the fence gate, crouched down and called to his dog, and magically she crawled under the gate and bolted into his arms. With tears streaming, he held her closely to his chest. We were all very happy that we could help in any small measure, especially proud of Blackjack’s feat, and greatly relieved that a dog and her human were reunited. Even Lauren’s boss played a part in accepting why she needed to be so late to the office that day—there was no way, as she later told us, that she wasn’t going to stand guard over her “charge” until she was safely back with her owner. There are a couple important lessons in this. #1 Teaching a solid and reliable recall is one of the main responsibilities we owe our dogs. You just never know what might spook or divert a dog, especially in unfamiliar situations. In the case of this small dog, she wasn’t used to dog parks at all and when a larger dog tried to play with her and she simply ran off. #2 Some larger off-leash areas, especially those that aren’t fully fenced, might not be right for some dogs. It certainly seemed to be the case with this dog. She will need much more training, or simply a more secure alternative, like a nearby fenced-in dog park with an area set aside for small dogs, for her future off-leash recreation. Luckily, the man thought so too! Have you ever lost (and hopefully found) a dog? Did you use any special strategies to find your dog?
News: Guest Posts
Forget the dog fights, it’s the people to watch out for
I love the idea of dog parks in theory. Who wouldn't want to see their dogs bounding across fields of grass with new canine buddies? Years ago, when we lived in New Orleans, we took our dogs to a model airplane field that was surrounded by woods and required something akin to a secret password to find. Consequently, very few people went there and we all became a tight-knit group. Everyone looked out for each other's dogs and made sure their dogs played nicely with others. It was wonderful and I looked forward to it nearly every night after work.
Fast forward a few years and our relocation to the Chicago suburbs. The closest dog park I could find required a $150 annual permit since we lived out of the county. It cost $25 for each additional dog after that. Down South, our dog park romps were free! But the shock of the sticker price was nothing compared to the behavior I witnessed on behalf of both dogs and their owners.
Early on, I was warned to keep an eye out for the woman who had two Belgian Sheepdogs who had a tendency to nip at the heels of other dogs, and that had caused some dog fights when the nippees didn’t appreciate being herded. I asked why she was still allowed to bring her dogs to the park and all I got were shrugs and a description of her vehicle make and color so I knew not to enter the park if she was there.
Another time, I took my 10-year-old Catahoula to that same dog park and he was having a great time trotting along the trails with a pack of other dogs. At one point, a large mixed breed started chest bumping him in an attempt to play. Desoto wasn’t in the mood, so I asked the mix’s owner to call her dog away from him. She was so busy blabbering to other people that I had to ask four times before she actually heard me. Her response? “Oh, he’s only playing!” Yeah, and my dog doesn’t want to play! So when does a solicitation to play become bullying? I finally left the park in a huff because the lady didn’t seem to care about the other dogs there, only her own.
The last straw was when one of my Dalmatians, Jolie, was standing--not running, not chasing, not moving--in a field when a big Chow raced up to her and bit her on the leg. As the Chow ran away and my poor girl yipped and ran to me, the Chow’s owners merely said, “Huh, that’s weird. They’ve been fine together before.” No apology, no inquiry as to whether she was okay, and certainly no offer to pay for her trip to the vet to get stitches and meds. Plus, I had to scratch her from two agility shows, losing nearly $150 in entry fees. The worst part of it was her behavior when she saw other dogs running toward her. She barked loudly and growled. Jolie had always been friendly with all dogs; now this bite incident had traumatized her and I would have to work hard to build up her trust in other dogs again.
In talking with other dog training professionals, I am not alone in my concern over dog park safety. But I dislike telling my clients not to take their dogs to them period.
What are your thoughts on dog parks? Do you and your dog enjoy going to them? Why or why not?
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