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Citizen Canine 

As the dog wars heat up, desperate times call for desperate measures -- perhaps a mandatory test for off-leash pets?

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
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On a crisp Saturday morning in mid-January, Dolores Park Dogs, a neighborhood group of pet owners, held its first Canine Good Citizen Test. Dog owners lined up to put their animals through a 10-part test of good manners and docility, administered by the American Kennel Club. A pet was awarded one good citizenship certificate for passing all 10 steps, which included obeying common commands such as "sit" and "down" and showing "good manners" while its leash was handed over to a stranger and its master went out of sight. The hardest part of the test for many dogs was allowing a stranger to touch intimate parts -- ears and paws -- with a grooming brush. If a dog flinched, the test was abruptly terminated and good citizenship denied.

Thirty-one dogs took the test: 19 passed and 12 failed. Most of the dozens of people exercising dogs in the hilly, 13-acre park avoided the citizenship testing area, which was marked off with bright orange cones.

On that morning, the test was voluntary, but there is some talk around Dolores Park that it might not always be so. Tom Cramer, a co-director of Dolores Park Dogs, says the group has discussed proposing that the doggie ordeal be made mandatory for anyone who wants to run his dog off-leash in the park. Non-good-citizen dogs would still be allowed to walk and poop on-leash, but they could play off-leash only in a designated, confined area.

For decades, dogs have roamed freely in Dolores Park. Why now are some people -- dog lovers, no less -- thinking of curtailing that historic freedom? The answer must be considered in the context of the larger dog wars racking San Francisco. Last week, over 1,000 angry dog people accosted the Golden Gate National Recreation Area Citizens' Advisory Commission, which has proposed eliminating off-leash dog running from San Francisco's federally managed beaches. After more than three hours of pro-dog testimony, though, the commission partially caved, postponing the decision for four months.

The battle may be joined again on Feb. 15, when the Department of Recreation and Parks is poised to issue a citywide off-leash policy. According to a department spokesperson, some parks that now allow off-leash dogs may revert to on-leash only, though rule changes in other parks will probably keep the overall number of off-leash-friendly spaces the same. Dog lovers who use the 18 city parks where off-leash running is now allowed are frightened that the city's new rules will limit already scarce dog space.

Dolores Park Dogs' citizenship idea is one response to those fears. Those opposed to free-running dogs typically justify their on-leash position as environmentalism. As the battle for control of San Francisco's urban parks heats up, dog lovers are going to great lengths to defuse these environmental objections and to plan for all eventualities, including administering compulsory tests to dogs, if all else fails.

Dolores Park Dogs is a single-issue group focused on preserving Dolores Park for off-leash dog use. Its 400 members are extremely proactive in their campaign to protect off-leash privileges. Every Saturday, volunteers manicure the park, picking up not only dog poop but human poop, trash, syringes, and unmentionables. The organization recently spent several thousand dollars sodding a grassy area that had been denatured by playful Canis familiaris.

At a planning meeting in early December at the Golden Gate Lutheran Church on 19th Street and Dolores, Cramer and his co-directors moved their agenda items while a pack of dogs frolicked in the church nave. They talked about how the Parks Department closed nearby Precita and Holly parks to off-leash dog use, causing an increase in free-running dogs pooping in Dolores Park. That is a problem, said Cramer, because it exacerbates the complaining of anti-dog types from neighborhood associations around the park.

Dolores Park Dogs' most vocal critics maintain that the scores of dogs that visit the park are unsanitary and frighten children in the playground, which abuts the main dog-running area. Dolores Park Dogs' leaders and representatives of the dog opposition, such as Donald Bird of Friends of Dolores Park, have been attending regular summits at the office of Supervisor Mark Leno, who is trying to broker a peace. Bird's group wants to confine off-leash dogs in certain areas. Several plans are being debated. One is to put a hedge between the playground and the most popular dog run. Another is to restrict off-leash running to a newly designated area that would be created by spending $250,000 to move a soggy soccer field, which is on the other side of the park from the playground. The soccer field has already cost the city well over $1 million in retrofits because city engineers can't get it to drain properly, despite repeated attempts. Moving it a hundred yards or so would free up some space for the dogs, says a spokesperson for the Parks Department, but there might be problems with the soccer people.

Yes, indeed.

Katie Brackenridge, co-director of the Jamestown Community Center, represents some of the soccer folks. "Moving the field is ridiculous, criminal, insane," says Brackenridge. "I can't believe anyone would seriously consider it."

Dolores Park Dogs' leaders say they do not believe the soccer field will be moved. Publicly considering that possibility, however, is part of a larger political strategy. The leaders agree that backing down on the idea of moving the field makes them appear to be ultra-reasonable. The trick, they say, is to somehow corner the opposition into appearing to be unreasonable.

There is very little middle ground in the dog wars.

Testing for good citizenship is also part of Dolores Park Dogs' strategy. It is a last resort in the event of Dogmaggedon -- should the Parks Department's upcoming ruling restrict dog life at the same time the National Park Service makes beaches off-limits to the unleashed. Under the group's plan, dogs that pass the behavior test would be issued a tag identifying them as good citizens -- a kind of Ellis Island inspection for dogs, complete with visa.

Enforcement might be a problem. The police who patrol the park seem to have their hands full rousting drug dealers and drunks. And of the dozens of dog walkers who did not submit their pets to the citizenship test that Saturday morning, many said they never would; one said the idea is overcontrolling.

At Fort Funston, there is wide talk of civil disobedience, should the GGNRA make its 74,000 beachfront acres off-limits to free-running dogs for the benefit of bank swallows and shrubbery. At Dolores Park, however, another path has been mapped: enforced obedience by dogs and masters, and the concomitant creation of a canine elite.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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