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Dogs Say Don't Fence Me in!

Do "dog parks" improve the lives of dogs or people?

A decade ago, a Miami Beach city commissioner told me that dogs running and defecating freely on public lands are among the most contentious and intractable issues facing local governments.

As usual, I was arguing for off-leash hours in our local, seven-acre park, which had long been known as a dog walker's haven—a place people could walk their dogs off-leash with only periodic harassment from the authorities. But the city had just renovated the park and wanted to construct a "dog park,” a designated leash-free area. Dogs off-leash anywhere else would be fined.

Like many other dog parks, the new one-acre play pen was soon an overcrowded, fetid depository for fleas and ticks with no procedure for dealing with canine or human aggression and general bad behavior. Many dog walkers avoided it for the safety of themselves and their dogs. I avoided it on principle and because I liked walking my dogs, not standing in place while they waited in vain for me to throw a ball I knew would start a riot among all the bored, eager-to-please dogs in that pen. It was also far too small for the high-speed game of long ball our Australian kelpie played in the park for a dozen years, entertaining people of all ages and drafting the best of them to throw her the ball the way she trained them.

Whenever the subject arose, I reasoned that if New York City could successfully negotiate off-leash hours for Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, surely Miami Beach could do the same in Pine Tree Park. I was wrong.

But this year brought change. When the dog walkers raised the issue again, they were organized and applied enough political pressure to force city officials to offer instead an expanded and improved dog park the city commission seems likely to approve, finances permitting.

I had gone to the first meeting intent on speaking in favor of off-leash hours, but I saw that in this case the proposed compromise was the best political solution. Expanding the dog park by half and redesigning it would represent a small but significant victory for the dog walkers, something to build on.

Miami Beach is hardly alone. Around the country, municipalities have increasingly blamed dogs for all manner of real and imagined affronts and passed ever more restrictive leash laws, says Julie Walsh in Unleashed Fury: The Political Struggle for Dog-friendly Parks. In response, dog walkers, often the most regular users of the parks in question, have organized and forced creation of leash-free areas that range from cramped and dismal to large and welcoming. The areas—1600 and climbing, Walsh estimates—bring people together and provide a sense of community in an atomized world. Moreover, they put dog walkers center stage in the battle over access to public lands.

Spacious, well designed, attractive dog parks might be the best political solution where too many people are competing for too little open space. But to me, no matter the size, they are also chain-link monuments to social policies designed to divide public lands into zones of special interest group influence. They also divide people. Dogs can break down barriers of fear, isolation, and distrust--that is why they go into hospitals and nursing homes. That is why they draw a crowd when they play.

Dog parks do not solve the problem of poorly behaved dogs. People willing to take responsibility for themselves and their canine companions do.

Call me an old Romantic, but I hope that the debate over off-leash walking brings us closer to a world where people and dogs can wander free of human-made fences and artificial boundaries.