Going to the Dogs

Advocates are working to unleash a plan for a public park where pooches can play

Animal control workers are basically pro dog park. They take care of irresponsible people's pets, so they're eager for anything emphasizing responsible pet ownership. City and county workers, however, have understandable concerns about liability issues and maintenance costs.

Kathy Barton, city Health Department information officer, describes the dog park model as more like that of a public pool, with supervision. "This is an issue we have been looking at for a number of years, and the biggest holdback is available money Š but you don't just open up a park and say, 'Okay, dogs, come on,' " she says. "You have to fence it. You have to make sure dogs are properly licensed and vaccinated. You need a great deal of supervision."

Although Barton doesn't reject the idea of a properly supervised dog park, her three dogs would not go. "I'm infinitely too paranoid," she says, "and my dogs are little dogs, and I have a huge backyard."

The parks department concurs about the concerns over funding. Spokeswoman Joy Sewing says, "It's going to take a partnership." The Houston Dog Park Association is aware that acquiring a site, fencing and other amenities have a price tag, but they are not thinking staff. Nationally, most dog parks are unstaffed -- peer pressure is what makes dog owners dutiful about poop-scooping and so forth.

Those who deal with stray and abandoned animals on the taxpayers' dime are more cautious than those who work for charities. Stacey Wilbanks, the Houston SPCA director of community outreach, is a dog park fan. She lived next to a fenced city dog park in California. "All the city did was mow and stuff," Wilbanks says, "and people would take care of things. Every one that I've ever been to, it's a peer pressure thing; people who are going there want to keep it nice."

Wilbanks sees a dog park not only as a benefit for herself and like-minded dog owners, but as an urgent civic project. She notes that Austin is reported to have more than a dozen dog parks. "It's desperately needed, it really is," she says. "I just don't like being beat like that by Austin."

Dogs who would go to such parks have been socialized, Wilbanks says, adding that she has never heard of major problems. "It's just been a very healthy situation all around." Besides, she says, "The parks are not responsible for safety. Usually there's a liability notice posted by the gate."

So, the dream is a safe, fenced few acres where dog owners can take their pets for free play in a civilized setting. At one California park, volunteers bring fresh coffee around, ask for honor system subsidies and remind parkgoers to visit a nearby Diedrich coffeehouse to thank them for their support.

Advocates say the benefits extend to those with no animals. Spayed or neutered, well-trained, properly licensed and vaccinated dogs are much easier to live with, from both the owners' and neighbors' perspectives, than untrained dogs chained in backyards. Workers in animal control and public health say a visible population of responsible, educated pet owners is considered the solution to dog problems.

The Centers for Disease Control says there are 4.7 million dog bite reports each year, that around 800,000 people seek medical attention and a dozen people are killed. Infants and the elderly are the most common fatalities, but boys age five to nine are the highest risk group.

Julie Gilchrist, a pediatrician in injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control, says, "When people think of dog attacks, they think of strays and packs, but we try to overcome that myth. You are much more likely to be bitten by your own dog or a dog that you know. Education will make the biggest difference; you need leash laws and good fencing, but it comes down to education."

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