By Leslie Crawford
The clash between dog owners and parents can be vicious, but with some simple lessons for both sides, we can find common ground. Assuming you take your child to your local park, you’ve been privy to an ongoing conflict between your little biped and someone else's little (or big, depending on the breed) quadruped. Yes, it's the battle of the breeders vs. the breedowners. What's unfortunate is that there's a battle at all. Kids need space to run and play; so do dogs. The only real solution is to find a way to live in harmony.
On a foggy Saturday afternoon at Fort Funston, the Beale family had ventured beyond its Cole Valley neighborhood to walk along the seashore, where so many other San Franciscans regularly go with their children and dogs. After a few hours meandering along the winding trails and watching hang-gliders jump off cliffs into the apparent abyss, 5-year-old Max was tired and ready to get home.
As Mom, Dad and Max neared the parking lot, they crossed paths with a 20-something man and his black Labrador puppy. Suddenly, and inexplicably, the dog jumped on Max, who quickly fell to the ground screaming and crying. The encounter lasted seconds but seemed an eternity as the parents attempted to pull the dog, who had no leash, off their child. "I was yelling at the man, ‘Get your dog off my child!" Diane Beale says. "But instead of doing anything, he stood there yelling back at me, ‘Get your child!’ It was crazy. It’s almost as if he thought we should have had Max on a leash, not the other way around. He didn’t even apologize but just seemed irritated that I was angry for his having an out-of-control dog."
Tensions Are High
Such a harrowing episode is more exception than rule. Tens of thousands of families and dogs coexist peacefully in Bay Area parks. Unexceptional, even pleasant interactions don’t make their way into headlines or affect neighborhood council meetings as dramatically as one person stepping forward with a canine horror story. Worth mentioning, too, is a sizable population of parents with pets who are far less apt to have an us-vs.-them attitude in the child-dog debate.
But for those who are ill at ease around untethered dogs, a negative experience between a child and dog can eclipse dozens of other benign, even friendly, ones and leave some parents shaking with indignation. Why, they wonder, are their children at the mercy of so many dogs running off-leash, an illegal offense in most Bay Area city and state parks? Anecdotal accounts from miffed parents tell of pooches trampling through playgrounds, sending sand flying and startling children; toddlers knocked over by dogs fetching balls; kids frightened by frisky hounds bounding over to bark, sniff and lick. The list of grievances wouldn’t be complete without mention of those pungent land mines that lie in wait for unsuspecting parkgoers at play.
Dog owners counter that, as law-abiding taxpayers (unlawful off-leash walking aside), they and their best friends have rights, too. Like kids, they maintain, dogs need room to roam, to have a few minutes a day to simply let loose in the otherwise strict confines of city living. And, just like kids, dogs are immeasurably healthier, happier and better behaved when allowed to socialize and play freely with other animals and people. What’s so frustrating, they say, is that while the vast majority of owners are vigilant about cleaning up after their off-leash charges and keeping them under safe voice control, they pay for the sins of the rare scofflaws who let their dogs make a mess and run amok.
Hearing Both Sides
They wish, too, that the complete side of their story would be told, that it isn’t always the dog’s fault when things go amiss. A "Baby Bites Dog" tale is unlikely, but children also can be the antagonists. Even the most well-trained dog will be on the defensive when "charged" by a child intent on hugging, pulling at or teasing. But as most child and dog behavior experts would attest, if blame is to be assigned, it should not be directed at children and dogs. Rather, a few irresponsible adults fail to properly supervise their charges and teach safe and proper "petiquette" (see sidebar "Safety First: A Primer for Parents, Kids and Dogs") so fear and suspicion win out over good manners and thoughtful behavior.
Call it the battle of the breed owners vs. the breeders. Key ingredients in this heated conflict include two groups with a high sense of entitlement; increasing numbers of baby boomers, children and dogs in tow, vying for space in the Bay Area’s overtaxed local and federal park systems; fears triggered by the horrific Diane Whipple-mauling death two years ago in San Francisco; and a succession of stricter leash laws. A look at the numbers shows kids and dogs neck and neck in the Bay Area: San Francisco has roughly 112,000 kids (according to the 2000 U.S. Census) and 120,000 dogs, estimated by the San Francisco Dog Owners Group. In Marin County, dog organizations estimate 70,000 dogs, and census records show about 50,000 children.
After years of letting sleeping dogs lie, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department in May 2002 revised its dog policy, which its creators claimed would clarify where Lassie could and couldn’t play off-leash. Instead, the policy – which demarcated 21 official off-leash areas within the city’s hundreds of parks and recreation areas – inflamed owners who said they were being ghettoized and penalized to the tune of $27 for letting a dog off-leash in most San Francisco parks. Similar dog fights were waged from Mill Valley to Petaluma, where an offender could receive a $75 citation.
Fines and laws vary from county to county and park to park, so many people are confused by what is kosher and what is not. Some parks bearing warning signs reading "Dogs Must Be on Leash" are full of dogs romping untethered. Tolerance levels also vary depending on the park. Many communities have established ad hoc dog parks with little or no complaint from neighbors, some with children delighted to be playing alongside pooches.
After tense negotiations, several cities have managed to arrive at equitable solutions. Petaluma has a time-share agreement in many of its neighborhood parks, where dogs can run off-leash during "rush hours" in the early morning and evening. Others have created idyllic dog-centric open spaces, such as Petaluma’s 9-acre Rocky Memorial Dog Park, San Rafael’s Field of Dogs and Mill Valley’s lush Bayfront Park.
Other communities still battle tooth and claw over how their limited park space will be used. They live in uneasy cohabitation, with some calling the police on neighbors who fail to tether their pets. Dueling advocacy groups – most prominently San Francisco’s Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth and San Francisco Dog Owners Group – sound reasonable and sympathetic when defending their turf. "The reality is everyone thinks they have a wonderful, friendly dog," says Coleman spokeswoman Marybeth Wallace, who has three children and a 94-pound Burmese mountain dog. "But the bottom line is we need places we can go and not be around dogs."
"We think the leash law is a fine idea, especially on sidewalks," says Laura Cavaluzzo, a longtime San Francisco Dog Owners Group member and former spokesperson who opposes the city recreation and park plan to build additional fenced dog runs. The runs, she says, are not only prohibitively expensive but dirty, unsanitary and unpleasant to use. "We don’t want the leash law to go away. All we’ve ever asked for is more acreage," she says.
Attacks Are Rare
The most passionate defenders on both sides agree on at least one point: A doggie detente is unlikely until people stop their growling and start putting themselves in others’ shoes. Mistrust has managed not only to turn neighbor against neighbor, but has let unbridled emotions get in the way of facts.
One of the more telling and heartening truths about dogs in San Francisco public spaces is that aggressive, harmful run-ins are rare.
"You’re more apt to be bit in your home," says Sergeant William Hernden of the San Francisco Police Department’s Vicious and Dangerous Animal Unit. "We have very few actual attacks of people in the park."
To be specific, 85 percent of all dog bites and attacks occur in homes, most often dogs belonging to a victim’s family or to a neighbor. (Off-leash defenders point out that the Whipple death took place in an apartment building by a leashed dog specially trained for attacks.) What’s more, according to the San Francisco Dog Owners Group, San Francisco boasts a dog-bite rate that’s about half that of the rest of the nation – partly due, Hernden suggests, by people’s increased diligence since the Whipple attack.
Still, this may be small comfort to parents or children who remain apprehensive in the presence of a dog on the loose.
"It’s gotten so polarized that there’s no room for people to be sensitive to other people’s fears," says Kath Wydler, a San Francisco mother with two girls and a Doberman. Wydler thinks dog owners can help other park users – adults and children alike – by behaving compassionately toward those who share the same space.
Owners on Alert
"A dog owner needs to be very aware of the people around them," says parent and dog owner Betsy Nakamura, who recently moved to San Raphael from San Francisco. "I’ve always had dogs. I had a Rottweiler and definitely knew how responsible I had to be. I get irritated with people who are cocky about their dogs and think they wouldn’t do anything wrong. A dog can act out of fear or provocation. I don’t take any chances with my (new) dog, even though she’s a gentle, lovely Lab. Although I find San Raphael is much more relaxed about off-leash use than San Francisco, I am careful to keep my dog on leash when appropriate."
Caroline Murphy, who lives in San Francisco’s Sunnyside district, has a dog, a 3-year-old daughter and another child on the way. It’s essential, Murphy says, "to be mindful that other people may not be as comfortable around dogs." Like many parents with dogs, Murphy seems endowed with greater empathy about the misgivings that divide the two camps. But she also is quick to offer her broader perspective as a parent and dog owner who, she attests, has left her a winner on all counts.
Murphy says she and her family have found a tight-knit community of supportive neighbors – parents and dog owners alike – who meet in the park daily, watch out for one another and, as a group, make sure that their park is kept safe and clean. She thinks segregating canines and kids makes parks neither safer nor cleaner. Children can’t learn to live with dogs, Murphy says, if they never have an opportunity to be around them.
"Because my daughter is comfortable around dogs and has learned how to behave appropriately around them, she is also safer around dogs," she says. "The real answer is that if everyone gets a little education, we’d all learn how to get along far better."
Don't Miss: Safety First: A Primer for Parents, Kids and Dogs
Children should know never to go somewhere with a stranger and a dog. "Lost" dogs are often used as bait by people claiming to be looking for a stray pet.The San Francisco SPCA offers a free class, Dog Talk, to San Francisco schools and libraries. To find out more about Dog Talk or to receive a free parent handout in English or Spanish, contact the SPCA at 415-554-3036 or www.sfspca.com. To learn about similar classroom visits in Marin called Playing It Safe With Dogs, contact the Marin Humane Society at 415-83-4621 or www.marinhumanesociety.org.
Leslie Crawford is a freelance writer in San Francisco.