Dogs Gone Wild?

By Joel P. Engardio

We love dogs in San Francisco. About 150,000 live here, which means we have more canines residing in The City than kids. But in finding park space for all those dogs to play, there’s an escalating debate: Are they our best friends or dogs gone wild?

In a recent press release, the National Park Service said romping dogs had killed two baby geese and bit nine people in federally owned area parkland over the past year. Dog advocates say these incidents represent a tiny fraction of total dog visits, which are problem-free.

Dog tensions are legendary in San Francisco, like when Supervisor Harvey Milk purposely stepped in a pile of doggie doo at an outdoor press conference in 1978. He wanted to pass a pooper-scooper law and prove his point: Quality of life in a crowded city depends on how responsible its dog owners are.

Today’s debate centers on where dogs should be allowed off-leash. Dog advocates want more areas for pets to run. They also want access to walk dogs in parkland. Environmentalists and parents object to the idea of excited dogs trampling fragile plants, endangered birds and small children.

It’s worth remembering that much of San Francisco’s coastal land was controlled by the military and off-limits until the early 1970s. Then it became national parkland with a mandate on recreation. A pet policy was created that allowed for dogs to be off-leash when under voice control at popular places like Fort Funston, Ocean Beach and Crissy Field.

In recent years, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area has focused more on restoration of native plants (even trying to drop “recreation” from its name). Now there is a proposal to replace the original pet policy and significantly reduce where dogs can go.

But thousands of responsible dog owners visit area parkland every day. Their pets don’t dig up plants or maul goslings. Limiting dog access has the unintended consequence of restricting people and families, too. After all, dogs don’t go to parks alone. A city of more than 800,000 people, and their 150,000 dogs, needs access to open space for safe recreation.

Of course, dogs will be dogs, which is why training is key. Dog owner groups like SFDOG have been called extremist, pushing for dog rights over others who wish to enjoy a clean and tranquil park. But the SFDOG mission focuses on training to “promote responsible dog ownership.” They have long embraced the pooper-scooper and acknowledge when leashes are necessary.

“We’re for off-leash only when the dog is under control,” says group leader Sally Stephens. “If a dog chases a bird, jumps on people or digs in the park, then the owner should get a citation for it.”

While press releases about dogs killing baby geese may move popular opinion toward more canine restrictions, SFDOG hopes the public will see the other side with the Million Dog March in McLaren Park on June 2.

Organizers don’t expect a million dogs, but they like how the name suggests a force that can’t be ignored. “We want to show the size and passion of the dog community,” says Stephens. “It’s a gentle reminder to elected officials of the value that dogs have to people.”

The Million Dog March – a leashed event providing free poop bags -- isn’t a political rally. It has mainstream sponsors like Yelp, Zynga and Pet Food Express. It’s a 3-mile walk and party that includes music, games and dog contests like bobbing for tennis balls.

“This will be a celebration of dogs and their place in our lives,” Stephens says. “It’s also a chance to stand up for our dogs and have a whole lot of fun doing it.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner May 5, 2013

DogsJoel Engardio