How dogs — yes, Fido and Blackie! — can improve life in America’s neighborhoods

Cities have long been viewed as either glamorous or depraved — but in both cases as places quite unsuited for most American households. A new movement has challenged this myth head-on, proving in neighborhoods across this continent that all kinds of people can feel at home in the city — including families with kids. Now the next step for urban revitalization activists is to make our cities better places for pets and the people who love them. — The Editors

Between leisurely café lunches washed down with bottles of wine and weekend trips to the sun-dappled Côte d’Azur, Parisians, it’s clear, have an inside track on living la belle vie. But who knew French dogs had it so good?

On a recent trip to Paris, after a long day of dutiful sightseeing, I climbed onto a crowded Metro train. Spying an open seat halfway down the car, I bumped and jostled my way toward it, only to be greeted by a snoozing Westie, serenely curled up in “my” seat, next to its unfazed owner. Needless to say, I ended up standing.

Yes, dogs routinely travel by train in France. They also roam the streets leashless, are welcomed in many hotels, and accompany their human companions into bars and bistros alike. While many North Americans may not be ready to embrace this sort of doggie utopia (I myself was torn between admiration for the Metro’s liberal transit policy and a deep desire to give the dog the boot), it seems logical that as more and more urban dwellers opt to live with pets, cities that want to thrive must adopt pet-friendly policies.

“The American family has changed dramatically over the past 50 to 100 years,” says Kathleen Hulser, who with fellow historian Roberta Olson curated Petropolis: A Social History of Urban Animal Companions, a recent New York Historical Society exhibit that traces the gradual evolution of pets from outdoor creatures who earned their keep by doing essential work to members in full standing of the modern urban family. “We’re having fewer children, we’re having them later, we may not have them at all, we might be gay or lesbian, we’re living longer after our children are grown up — all this means that we have more openings for people to have animals as companions,” says Hulser.

Urban centers, she believes, are at the forefront of redefining the new American family. Over the past century, American cities have repeatedly transformed themselves to respond to a variety of challenges. In recent years, to combat the mass exodus of families with children to the suburbs, many cities have adopted a variety of revitalization and livability measures, including improved parks and playgrounds and the “community school” model of public education (which encourages neighborhood schools close to home rather than extensive busing), as a way to both hold and attract middle-income families. These efforts seem to be working, as cities from Portland to St. Paul to Brooklyn now sport revitalized middle-class neighborhoods where the sounds of kids playing echo up and down the sidewalks.

The next step in making cities attractive for a new breed of urban dweller just might hinge on whether or not people with pets feel welcome. The oft-quoted phrase “dogs are just children with fur” has never rung more true for so many people, but our cities haven’t yet caught up with this trend. Sure, there’s no end to the variety of consumer products we can buy for our pets — dog collars that change color according to Fido’s mood, industrial-size harnesses to secure him during car trips, $100 doggy beds — but in a country where four in ten households own a dog (and dog walking can be a lucrative career), cities need to offer real options to urban pet owners lest they, like many before them, flee to the greener pastures of suburbia.

Today, the biggest priority for urban dog advocates (and it’s really dogs we’re talking about since cats, fish, gerbils, and other common pets are mostly confined to the house or apartment) is off-leash recreation. Recent studies confirm that our pets are getting as fat as we are, and the obesity epidemic is a particular threat to urban dogs who don’t have enough space where they can romp around. Special dog parks have appeared in many cities, but they are a contentious issue. Urban greenspace is always at a premium, and even if dog-park advocates find a potential site, other residents will want to put a softball field there, or park benches and picnic tables.

It’s a tough fight, notes historian Hulser, but she thinks dog advocates should take heart from an example in New York in the 1950s, when a group of mothers fought back against the notoriously authoritarian parks commissioner Robert Moses’ plan to take away a children’s playground. Moses, the subject of Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography The Power Broker, was not known for backing down, but he eventually did just that. “Mothers with strollers are quite a political lobby,” Hulser says. “But dog owners with puppies in their arms are not bad either.”

Dog parks are great, says Claudia Kawczynska, editor of Bark, a popular Berkeley-based dog magazine, but for many advocates of the off-leash movement, the issue goes beyond simply creating enclosed parks where dogs can frolic together. On a larger scale, it’s about community, about creating better public spaces for both people and animals.

“Many people think dogs just need to romp with other dogs, but socialization goes well beyond that,” Kawczynska says. “It’s not just playtime with other dogs, but being socialized within the community — getting used to seeing children on bicycles or skates, old people walking slowly, people carrying umbrellas.” This means letting dogs roam free — at least to some extent — beyond fenced-in zones.

Some cities have embraced a time-sharing model of public space to better integrate humans and animals. In Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, for example, dogs may run off-leash anywhere from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. in the summer months and from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. in the winter months. (There’s even a “Dog Beach,” a natural pool where dogs can swim during off-leash hours.) Boston Common, the country’s oldest public park, has a similar time-sharing model, as well as several bag dispensers to help you clean up after your dog.

But why stop there? Many off-leash advocates would like to make it easier for dog and cat owners to rent apartments and houses. These pet-friendly housing options are traditionally limited, and many people face eviction if they have a pet. Laurie Chortyk, of the British Columbia chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, tells Jane Mundy in Modern Dog (Spring 2003) that more than 5,000 pets are surrendered annually in British Columbia, mainly due to eviction threats. And many elderly people are forced to give up their animals when they downsize from a house to an apartment or assisted living facility. “Quite often,” Mundy writes, “the only family [they have] left is [their] dog.”

Barb Heideman, executive director and co-founder of the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Responsible Owners of Mannerly Pets (ROMP), a nonprofit organization that has campaigned for many of the 16 off-leash facilities in the Minneapolis-St.Paul metro area, notes that while public officials cannot force landlords to accept pets, they can influence publicly financed redevelopment projects. Heideman suggests city councils make the needs of pets and pet owners part of the criteria used in considering new housing and mixed-use developments. “If cities are forward-looking, they will start requiring their developers to figure out how to accommodate pets rather than build these massive developments and have no place for people and pets to go,” Heideman says.

ROMP recently launched a program in the Twin Cities area that matches up ROMP-certified dog owners with pet-friendly area businesses. After all, what’s the point of taking your dog for a walk if you can’t take her into your local coffee shop or hardware store? “Responsible owners with mannerly pets deserve full access to area businesses,” writes Heideman in TC Dog (Sept./Oct. 2003), noting also that it’s often more profitable for businesses and rental properties to open their doors to pets. “Pet-friendly policies reduce tenant turnover and advertising costs, and increase client loyalty and satisfaction,” she writes.

Many dog lovers are also lobbying for Parisian-style access to buses and trains, arguing that forcing city dwellers into cars or taxis to visit pet-friendly parks and businesses, as well as the vet, runs counter to the urban lifestyle.

And, for the sake of those who choose to walk to these parks or businesses, many off-leash supporters also want safer streets for pets and their owners. Whether it’s installing landscaped traffic circles, building speed bumps, or narrowing city streets, there are many steps a city can take to slow traffic and make it easier for people to enjoy the simple act of walking their dog.

Creating a livable petropolis is not only about what our cities can do for pet owners — there are many things pet owners can and should do for their canine companions, their neighbors, and themselves. The first and most important step is to train dogs (which, many trainers will tell you, is really about training yourself) to be well-behaved in crowds of people and in public spaces. Potential dog owners also need to realize that not every breed adapts well to urban neighborhoods. When the movie Babe came out in 1995 and introduced the world to a talking border collie, these smart farm dogs suddenly became one of the most popular breeds. The problem, says author Jon Katz, is that sheep dogs have an intense need to herd other creatures and require a lot of exercise.

“These dogs have to have work to do, or they go nuts,” said Katz, who owns two border collies, in an October 21 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. “We do all kinds of work — we clear geese out of neighborhood parks and schoolyards, we do sheepherding three or four times a week, we go for lots of walks a day. They’re great dogs, but if you don’t have work for them to do, they’re not good dogs to have.”

Perhaps most important, says Katz, we should stop treating our animals as human surrogates. During the past 20 years, he writes in his recent book The New Work of Dogs: Tending to Life, Love, and Family in a Changing World (Random House), people have come to rely more and more on their dogs for companionship as they become increasingly isolated from other human beings. Whether that’s due to television, living alone, new spread-out subdivisions, or working too much, Katz suggests that leaning heavily on your dog for friendship can contribute to serious behavioral problems.

“Last year, 400,000 children in the United States were bitten severely enough to require hospitalization, which is a staggering rise,” Katz says. He thinks that this canine aggressiveness is a neurotic response to unreasonable human demands. “Dogs are increasingly under pressure . . . to do things that dogs really can’t do,” he says. “People perceive dogs as loving them unconditionally and uncritically, and to some extent that’s true, but dogs really can’t understand when we’re depressed and had a bad day at work. They really can’t give us the kind of emotional support that human beings can give us.”

In other words, cool out. Relationships between people and their dogs can get sentimental and gooey fast, but infantilizing your pets can do real harm. (I got my first dog, a big-hearted pit bull/rottweiler/Lab mix, two years ago and responded with horror when a beaming friend told me I was a mother now.) Over-coddled dogs, like over-coddled children, are going to have a hard time adjusting to the rough-and-tumble environment of a city park, not to mention other challenges in an unpredictable urban environment, and they might act out as a result.

Does this mean I have to kick my dog out of bed on cold winter nights? I hope not. But maybe it means dogs shouldn’t be our dress-up dolls (outfitting your animal in everything from Western-style bandannas to sports team jerseys is a whole other form of animal cruelty), and maybe it means that the squeamishness you feel when your dog humps another dog at the park says more about you than about Rufus. If the goal is to achieve that pooch-friendly Parisian vision of a well-behaved pet free to be brought into restaurants, stores, and train cars, we must learn to treat dogs as animals on their own terms, not ours. It might not be easy in a country like America where controlling unruly aspects of life is par for the course, but it may well be worth it — not just for pet owners but for everyone who will benefit from the renewed vitality that a pet-friendly city can foster. As Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Anjula Razdan is associate editor of Utne.

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