In the last 15 years, hundreds of dog owner groups have risen up across the United States to defend dog owners’ rights to exercise their dogs off-leash. As local governments have stepped up enforcement of leash laws, dog owners have organized to defend what they see as the fundamental need to exercise and socialize their dogs. “A tired dog is a good dog,” is the new axiom for many dog owners.
As a result of dog owner activism, the number of dog parks nationwide has soared from about two dozen 10 years ago to more than 1,600 today, according to Julie Walsh, associate professor of political science at American International College in Springfield, Mass., and the author of an excellent new book, Unleashed Fury: The Political Struggle for Dog Friendly Parks (Purdue University Press, 2011).
The creation of over one thousand dog parks across America is a significant achievement, writes Walsh, in her well-written, well-researched book, especially given the lack of a national organization that could provide intellectual and financial support to the movement. But, dog parks are not the whole story. The fight for dog friendly parks also encompasses access to parkland that is not solely dedicated to dog owners and their dogs. Historically, multi-use parks have been the ONLY place where people could walk their dogs, yet today these areas are most endangered. In fact, retaining off-leash access to multi-use parks has been a much tougher political battle and dog owners have lost many cherished off-leash areas in these campaigns.
The fight to maintain access to multi-use parkland is important, writes Walsh. Dog parks alone cannot fulfill the rising need for off-leash recreation. In fact, open space continues to decrease. Moreover, these places are worth fighting for because of their demonstrated ability to build communities at a time when communal structures in American cities and suburbs have broken down. A Washington Post article characterized these places where dog owners meet as” a kind of victory over the anonymity and transience of life in a commuter suburb.”
Given that the struggle for access to public parkland is essentially a political issue, Walsh’s background as a political scientist provides valuable insights into off-leash disputes. Off-leash access to parkland is “a classic cross- cutting issue,” notes Walsh. Like gun control and abortion, people will cross party lines to vote on the issue. As a result, “dog owners have the potential to have significant political clout,” she writes.
Moreover, Walsh uses her skills as a political scientist to develop an innovative framework for analyzing and ultimately resolving off-leash disputes in a way that upholds democratic values. This framework provides powerful standards to which government officials can and should be held. Those democratic values include popular sovereignty— the extent to which popular will determines legislation and policy; civil liberty--the degree to which people are given the opportunity to organize and openly debate the issue; and equality—the extent to which people or groups are treated equitably. As Walsh notes, dog parks do not involve “ethically inviolable principles,” but rather competing uses of recreational space. Government officials are not there to judge which use is “more equal,” writes Walsh, but from the start should treat competing groups equally and foster compromise. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case.
Walsh, who admits she is an off-leash advocate, begins her book by laying out the criticisms leveled at dogs by opponents of off-leash access in a section titled, “The Scapegoating of Dogs.” The most common complaints are dog bites, poop, and environmental damage. Walsh uses academic research and other formal studies to refute many of those claims in regards to off-leash areas. Walsh also delves into studies in the field of Human-Animal Interaction that prove the benefits of dogs to people. Among the most important: “the socializing effect of dog companionship,” or to put it in terms any dog owner would recognize, “when you have a dog in a public space, you’ll get to meet and talk to lots of new people.”
Walsh argues that the simultaneous rise of off-leash disputes across the country is the result of broad changes in American society. Among those changes are obvious ones such as increasing development and less open space, but also increasing numbers of dog owners—10 million more households own dogs today than 10 years ago; more people exercising outdoors; and the increasing popularity, as tracked in AKC registrations, of breeds that require substantial exercise. As Walsh writes, increasing population density combined with a breakdown in communal structures are a sure recipe for conflict.
The heart of Walsh’s book is a discussion and analysis of three off-leash disputes—in Avon, Conn.; the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) in and around San Francisco; and the City of San Francisco itself. In two of these situations--Avon, Conn. and the GGNRA—government officials began the dispute with a final decision—they banned off-leash dog walking and then had to respond to the not-surprising uproar their actions caused in the dog owner community. The dispute in San Francisco, which was related to the 2001 ban on off-leash dogs in the GGNRA, began in May 2002, when city officials announced a new dog policy that required “dog play areas” to be physically separated from all other park activities.
The resolution of these disputes is a mixed bag as far as democratic values and off-leash advocates are concerned. In Avon, Conn., after a Special Town Meeting in which dog walkers won the vote and a subsequent Town wide referendum that they lost, the Town Council in 1998 eliminated off-leash dog walking throughout the town. Today, the area of the park that was at the center of the dispute sits largely vacant. With the views of a large minority trampled, Walsh gives the Avon Council a failing grade when it comes to upholding democratic values.
The dispute over access to the GGNRA also has not served democratic values well. The National Park Service, which runs the GGNRA, has developed a reputation as being overtly hostile to dog owners in favor of “natural area” advocates. The Audubon Society and the Sierra Club have joined with the NPS to oppose dog owners in the GGNRA and the NPS has bulldozed and sawed down exotic trees in “natural area” initiatives. The resolution of the dispute, which appears imminent, does not bode well for off-leash advocates.
While the City of San Francisco initially took actions that did not serve democratic values well—the 2002 dog policy was developed with little input from those most affected by the policy—dog owners --the City eventually did a good job of incorporating their concerns into its policies. The desire for timed-use options and a lack of “pens” was heeded. But, Walsh cautions, the driving force behind the City’s actions was probably its financial inability to enforce its more punitive policy. “The City had little choice but to work out a compromise,” Walsh writes.
Walsh also cites examples of situations where government officials have done a good job of upholding democratic values as well as meeting the needs of both dog owners and non-dog owners. Among those places: Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash., and New York City.
The one, main drawback in Walsh’s book is that she did not delve further into these successful case studies, especially, the successful defense in 2007 of New York City’s off-leash hours program, which allows dogs to be off-leash before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m. throughout its park system. As NYC officials have noted, the policy is believed to have led to a decrease in dog bite incidents and to have made the parks safer. A thorough analysis of why that was the outcome in NYC and not in these other cases would have been extremely valuable.
Still, Walsh draws important lessons from these disputes. At this point, it should be clear to all involved that the off-leash issue is extremely volatile. In Avon, Conn., and San Francisco, journalists who had covered local politics for years reported never having seen such intense emotion and widespread involvement in a local issue. The lesson for government officials should be that rather than fan the flames of controversy by aligning with one side or another, the goal should be compromise. This is not a situation where one group is asking to dump toxic waste in a park, writes Walsh. If government officials let the parties know from the start that the goal is compromise, both sides will have an incentive to work towards that goal.
As far as lessons for off-leash advocates are concerned, Walsh notes that when it comes to politics, “the importance of organization simply cannot be overstated.” Dog owners need to organize not just in defense of access to a particular park, but in permanent, local organizations that will keep a vigilant eye out for future threats to off-leash areas. Not only can these local organizations negotiate with government and other groups, but in so doing they gain legitimacy for the activity itself.
Walsh also urges the creation of a national organization that could provide the benefits of numbers and unity. Not only could such an organization counter the resources of national groups like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club—both of which tapped their memberships to email the NPS in opposition to dog owners--but also it could help local groups in the early stages of formation, sharing strategies and information.
It is critical in these public disputes for dog owners to be mindful of public perception, counsels Walsh. The media has often taken the justified anger dog owners have expressed at losing treasured off-leash space and painted them as selfish, emotional, and even dangerous. The media also often denigrates this anger and concern by describing dog owners as “barking mad”, etc. Editors and producers should be held accountable for providing respectful, fair coverage of these issues. But, it is equally important that dog owners, who often far outnumber opponents at public meetings on these disputes, be respectful of other speakers and not look like an angry mob.
Walsh notes that when the venue for policymaking is in the executive branch of government—as is the case with the National Park Service and most local Parks Departments— the process will by definition be less democratic. As civil servants and political appointees, Parks employees are not answerable to voters. By contrast, elected officials are less likely to countenance solutions that strongly favor one constituency over another. The Avon Town Council is a notable exception; but in San Francisco, many of the City’s top elected officials have strongly urged the NPS to reach a compromise in the GGNRA. The lesson for off-leash advocates is that whenever possible engage elected officials in off-leash disputes rather than officials who are not answerable to voters.
Another point that Walsh makes that needs to be emphasized is that elected officials do not necessarily respond to the needs of dogs. Dogs don’t vote. Indeed, off-leash advocates should avoid slipping into situations where the needs of dogs are pitted against the needs of people. People always win. Rather, it is critical that dog owners emphasize that they vote and it is THEIR need for access to recreational space with their dogs that needs to be addressed.
By using political science and democratic theory to analyze off-leash disputes, Walsh has written a groundbreaking book that should be read by anyone interested in off-leash issues. The analytical framework she provides--the degree to which key democratic values like popular sovereignty, civil liberties and equality are upheld—is a valuable tool to those seeking resolution of these disputes. Unleashed Fury is a well-researched, serious book, but it’s very readable.
Walsh dedicates her book to the memory of two of her dogs and their many canine friends. While the book is definitely for people, if it helps people resolve off-leash issues more democratically, many dogs will benefit, too.
# # #
Unleashed Fury: The Political Struggle for Dog-friendly Parks, by Julie Walsh (Purdue University Press, 2011), is available from Amazon at www.amazon.com, from Barnes and Noble at www.barnesandnoble.com and from the publisher, Purdue University Press at www.thepress.purdue.edu.
© September 25th, 2011 - This article may not be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.