Madison should take a tip from the original Central Park, in Manhattan, where dogs and humans have been coexisting for some time.
As Judith Davidoff reports in Isthmus, the city of Madison does a good job of creating separate parks for dogs, but is not so good at creating shared space for our four-legged companions -- even when they're on leashes. Currently, only about a dozen parks (out of 265) allow people to walk their pooches -- even when they’re on leashes.
I've lived with dogs in New York City twice previously. The first time, my family lived a couple blocks from the magnificent Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and when we returned, we made our home on Manhattan's Upper West Side, three long blocks from the wilder north end of Central Park. Now, in Madison, our human and canine family lives a stone's throw from this city's newly opened Central Park. But I can't throw a Frisbee there to Arthur (our yellow lab) or anywhere near my home, legally at least.
One of my favorite things about living near New York's fabulous parks was their compromise regarding dogs.
This deal is officially called "dog-friendly areas" by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. How it works in Central Park is that pets up-to-date on their shots and in their owners' control get to romp (PDF) before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m. (although in reality, it stretches a little later in the morning and begins little earlier).
"You and your dog are welcome in New York City parks, and there are numerous opportunities to enjoy the outdoors together," declares the department, and that's the attitude I'd like to see develop here in Madison.
Here's the official rule in NYC's Central Park:
Designated Off-Leash Areas: Certain park areas allow dogs to be off-leash from the time the park opens until 9 a.m. AND from 9 p.m. until the park closes. Dog owners/attendants with dogs off-leash in these designated areas must obey all general rules, including having their dog under control at all times, licensing the dog, and carrying proof of the dog's rabies vaccination. Parks that contain designated off-leash areas are listed by borough below. Reminder: Off-leash rules do not apply to park areas where dogs are strictly prohibited (e.g. playgrounds, tennis courts, athletic fields, and basketball/handball courts).
It may sound counterintuitive, but allowing this kind of off-leash romping is a way to deal with the unpleasant factor of dog poop. I love dogs, but I hate stepping in poop just as much as anyone who is hostile or indifferent to their charms. I never stepped in doggy doo in either Central Park or Prospect Park because dog owners had a special privilege, and we knew it. Our off-leash privileges were based on keeping the parks clean and safe, and we policed each other to make sure our pets didn't lose right to romp.
These dog gatherings were the highlight of our subway-schlepping days and we made friends with the other coffee-sipping dog owners. Because we worried about losing this terrific situation, we pointed out stray poop or dogs that seemed to be getting worked up to distracted owners. And we picked up extras in our New York Times bags. It was well worth it.
Here in Madison, we have some wonderful dog parks. I know many lucky dogs whose owners pile them into a car every day to visit Sycamore, Warner, or others. But as a near east-sider in a one-car family, any park I can get to on foot is either a tiny fenced-in area (Demetral) or off limits. Dogs are allowed on leashes along the Yahara River, but are not allowed at all in Yahara Place Park -- one of my favorite places in the world.
I wish Madison would consider provisionally allowing dogs in Central Park. If we human companions can prove ourselves to be good stewards, we could work out a deal like in New York where dogs can romp in certain areas during certain hours. And this solution could be implemented in other parks, too. Animal Services can focus on more important matters, and everyone's blood pressure will go down.
We'll pick up the poop -- which we should be doing anyway -- and you're welcome to come throw a Frisbee.