Written by: Erin Harty, Staff Writer - VetCentric.com
It’s a great, big world out there, but if you’re a dog, much of it is off-limits to you. Always attached to that bothersome leash, you never get a chance to sniff even half of the intriguing stuff you’d like to investigate on those all-too-short walks.
It’s no picnic for dog owners, either. As responsible caretakers, they know better than to let their dogs off leash in a busy city: not only is it usually illegal, but it’s also dangerous to the dog and inconsiderate of the neighbors. But it’s hard to explain civic responsibility to a dog that wants nothing more than to run and play with new friends.
Over the last several years, dog owners across the country have banded together to help city-dwelling dogs enjoy their "dog-ness," even in the shadow of skyscrapers in the nation’s biggest cities. They’re lobbying for the establishment of dog parks: off-leash areas that can range in size from a few hundred square feet to several acres, usually fenced-off or otherwise separated from the rest of the community or park.
In many cases, it’s hard to tell whether it’s the dogs or the owners who enjoy the parks more. But the enthusiasm isn’t always a universal reaction: the tremendous response and interest that the parks generate are often threats to their very existence if the neighbors aren’t as thrilled about them as the users are. Ensuring the parks’ success requires diligence and cooperation on the part of dog owners, as well as a healthy helping of political savvy, and good old-fashioned neighborliness.
Although it can be hard for dog lovers to comprehend, not everyone finds their furry friends as endearing as they do. Legislation has increasingly limited where our canine companions can go, ostensibly to protect the non-dog-loving segments of the population from the inconsiderate actions of irresponsible pet owners. It’s because of this that dog parks are even necessary, but it’s often difficult to overcome those same obstacles that created the problem in the first place.
In 1996, a zero tolerance policy for off-leash dogs was instituted in Los Angeles as a result of problems with dog bites and waste. "All of a sudden we realized that there was no place to legally take our dogs," said Daryl Barnett, president of Freeplay, a group organized to promote off-leash areas.
Freeplay lobbied to turn a park in Venice, Calif.’unused and overrun with drug dealers, gangs, and prostitutes’into a dog park. The group collected 3,000 signatures, and with a combination of city and private funds, was able to convert the 0.8-acre park.
"It’s been just a godsend, and a real boon to the community," said Ms. Barnett. As the only off-leash area on the west side of Los Angeles, the park attracted a tremendous amount of interest: 3,000 dog owners were using the park each week when it first opened.
"Our dog park has increased the value of property in the area, and has made the neighborhood safer. People are actually moving into the area because there’s a dog park," Ms. Barnett said.
It’s sometimes difficult to convince others in a neighborhood of the value of dog parks, however. In Portland, Ore., a group called Friends Interested in Developing Off-Leash Spaces, or FIDOS, organized when the city decided to close an off-leash site it had opened as a test. The group lobbied for an alternate area, but has been unsuccessful so far.
Environmental concerns top the list of difficulties FIDOS has encountered in Earth-conscious Portland, according to group co-founder Abby Winston. "People don’t want dogs in the creeks," she said, because of possible water contamination. "People are afraid of dogs, and people don’t want to step in dog crap.
"There’s a lot of issues here. But from my perspective, people who are afraid of dogs... that’s their problem, if my dog’s not approaching them. If you’re afraid of heights, do you go into tall buildings?" Ms. Winston said. "I don’t have children, and I pay for schools. That’s what a community does: we live together and support each other’s lifestyles."
Dog owners can go a long way toward enhancing that sense of community by being responsible citizens. Most dog parks have strict rules: aggressive dogs are not welcome, all dogs should be current with vaccinations and parasite-free, owners are responsible for picking up after their dogs, and children are usually discouraged. Enforcement of the rules is generally up to the other users of the park.
"Peer pressure works. Does it work for everybody? No," Ms. Winston admits. "It seems like every city goes through this same issue. They develop a few off-leash areas, and then say they don’t work because people are still walking their dogs outside the areas."
When dog parks are successful at policing themselves and co-existing with a community, however, they’re often heartily embraced. Dog owners in New York City were among the first to push for official off-leash areas, and they’ve been tremendously successful. "It’s wonderful. You could sell tickets," said Robin Kovary, who was involved in the lobbying efforts to establish the dog run in Washington Square Park over a decade ago.
"People observe and have fun. The dogs, of course, have a ball. And they go home and make better neighbors," said Ms. Kovary.