The sniff test

July 10, 2006

Dog parks are such a simple idea - fenced-off pieces of public land where dogs can run around to their hearts' content without a leash and without annoying or biting or assaulting any human passers-by - that it's no wonder they're springing up everywhere. New York has 40 of them. Anne Arundel has a bunch. So why does Baltimore have just one?

Cathi Webster, president of the Friends of Canton Dog Park, on Toone Street, can tell you why. The simplicity of the idea is deceptive - because a dog park is not just a fence. It requires serious volunteers, running water, a double gate, a monthly cleanup, a mowing of grass, a dedication to fundraising and a commitment to enforcing the rules. "A dog park is like a golf course," Ms. Webster says. "It's a 365-day living thing." Canton's annual maintenance budget is about $2,500 - and a lot of volunteer hours.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. It's good for the dogs, and it's good for everyone else. Ms. Webster, who owns a Chihuahua-basenji mix named Scout, says she hates to see dogs running free in Patterson Park - or dashing off into Eastern Avenue. "If my dog saw a squirrel, he'd be in Dundalk before I could stop him," she says. "An animal off-leash is just so dangerous in the city. Why, if you love your dog, would you put him in a situation where he can fail?"

Two years ago, the city's Department of Recreation and Parks came up with rules for dog parks. The first rule is that a community group has to take the initiative. It has to be willing to build the dog park and maintain it. So far, there's been some interest from neighbors of Patterson Park, but that's it. Connie A. Brown, the chief of the department, says he gets regular complaints about loose dogs and "after-hours barking" all over the city. He'd love to host additional dog parks - if the public would step forward.

"We'd looooooooove about 10 more dog parks in the city of Baltimore," says Ms. Webster, because that would take some of the pressure off Canton. People drive from miles around to bring their canines to Canton. (Aggressive behavior or too much barking or any interest in reproduction of the species gets them kicked right out, if they're caught.) The owners like it for the human interaction, too. Becky Robbins of Canton says she just wishes there were a coffee bar and margarita bar at the entrance. That might make it too popular.

Dog owners of Baltimore, get organized. The city needs you. Your dog needs you. You have nothing to lose but your leashes - at least, inside the fence.

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