Noe Valley Voice October 2011

Dog Park Not Always Peaceable Kingdom

But Haven for Hounds Still Wildly Popular

By Heather World

Poodles Bernie and Fillmore practice their best behavior before entering the gate at Upper Douglass Dog Park. They know Dogtoberfest is just around the corner.    Photo by Pamela Gerard 


A brawl between a pitbull/bullmastiff mix and a Doberman pinscher on the evening of Aug. 29 at Douglass Dog Park cost the owner of the pit bull the tip of her left ring finger, prompting Animal Care and Control to schedule a hearing before the police department’s vicious dog unit.

As might have been expected, the incident caused a stir among visitors to the three-acre park off 27th Street. It also uncovered a small bone of contention: Has the neighborhood’s playground for off-leash dogs become too crowded for sweet, law-abiding animals?

Most regulars seem to agree the park is more heavily used these days, thanks to a $10,000 gate that was installed last fall after two years of fundraising and lobbying by Friends of Upper Douglass Dog Park (FUDDP). It allows pups to roam free in the tree-lined park without fear of straying into the street.

Richard Derus, a park regular for eight years who sits on the nine-member FUDDP steering committee, says in the beginning dog owners were excited about the gated enclosure. Then reservations began to grow because of its attraction to professional dog walkers and unruly dogs.

“For the most part, those turned out to be unfounded fears,” said Derus. “There’s a slight increase in dogs who wouldn’t come here [before the gate] because they are flight hazards, and those tend to be less disciplined.”

His 5-year-old American Staffordshire

terrier mainly chases the ball, and his biggest complaint is that sometimes it’s hard to find an opening to throw it when the park is crowded midday during prime dog-walking time. That inconvenience will not keep him from the park though, he said.

Another frequent visitor, Steve Noetzel, admits he’s noticed friction between dogs when the park is crowded.

“If you have 40-odd dogs, there’s an atmosphere that develops of rising tension between the dogs,” said Noetzel as his 5-year-old black labrador mix Glicka romped with canine friends.

Still, the park remains a favorite spot for him and Glicka.

Too Close for Comfort

For others, however, the crowding poses too big a problem to enjoy the park.

Debbie Symanovich used to bring her 4-year-old black labrador, Henry, twice a day. Now she will only go early in the morning.

“I’ve noticed there are a lot more dogs at the park,” said Symanovich, who is very alert to dog fights ever since Henry had to have six stitches following a run-in with a pit bull at another park. “Suddenly, there’s three or four dogs in pack formation and they get each other on edge.”

At the same time, Symanovich sees the utility of the gate.

“It’s a dilemma for the park,” she said.

Some feel the presence of so many dog walkers—and their multitude of dogs—can’t help but raise hackles.

“Ninety-nine percent of the dog walkers are responsible and clean up,” said Bob Evans, another member of the FUDPP steering committee. “The problem is, if they have too many dogs, they don’t see everything.” 

When Jason Sharp began bringing his labrador-mix puppy to the park three years ago, he found the dog walkers to be a rich and friendly source of information, giving him pointers as well as a chance to socialize his dog.

“I thought it was great,” said the Clipper Street resident.

But over time the park became too popular and too crowded for his taste. He noticed skirmishes at the gate’s narrow entrance, as dog walkers with up to a dozen dogs clashed with others going out.

“Even my own dog, who is very submissive, has gotten snappy at times,” he said.

Sharp uses Glen Canyon now, though he remains fond of the community of people at Douglass.

Melissa Burnley, the president of the FUDDP board, is a dog walker who has been bringing her charges to the park for six years. In response to congestion and conflict at the gate, FUDDP has posted signs reminding people to keep the barking down and to give each person plenty of space coming in and out, she said.

“It’s practicing gate etiquette,” she said. The barking can disturb neighbors, too. “It’s important that we’re courteous neighbors.”

Not Just a Park But a Family

The owners who frequent the park are a tight-knit group, said Mark Lammers, clutching a Chihuahua named Buddha under his arm.

“We have an organic community that has developed,” he said.

Susan Kemper of Duncan Street agreed.

“We watch each other’s dogs,” she said. Moreover, the Douglass Dog Park community comes together in positives ways, filling in holes and participating in cleanup days.

“This park is a godsend, and the people are wonderful,” she said as her 2-year-old golden retriever, Ollie, ran across the field.

The sense of collective responsibility extends to self-policing as well, said Rick Carrington of Ord Street.

“People would not hesitate to speak up and say, ‘You’ve got to get control of your dog,’” said Carrington, watching over his 18-month-old German short-hair pointer.

Leap for Dogtoberfest

The community will come together for a park cleanup Saturday, Oct. 15, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in preparation for its popular Dogtoberfest, which will happen Oct. 22 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. this year. As usual, FUDDP will invite a veterinarian to educate owners and dog shelters to adopt out animals. Dogs can enter costume and agility contests to win prizes for their owners, like gift certificates to Noe Valley pet stores. This year’s event is not a fundraiser, Evans points out.

Meanwhile, the group has much to celebrate: it recently won a Community Opportunity Fund grant to the tune of $100,000, said Evans. The money will go toward sprinklers and new grass, he said.

“If we can get the sod and get the sprinkler in, we could turn that park into a Garden of Eden,” he said.


Ways to Prevent Harm

Officer John Denny of the San Francisco Police Department’s Vicious and Dangerous Dog Unit (VDDU) will be the presiding officer at a hearing Oct. 6 to determine whether the pitbull/bullmastiff in an August dog fight at Upper Douglass Park is a threat to humans. For this reason, he said, he cannot comment spe­cifically on the case, which caused a dog owner to lose part of a finger.

However, Denny said he is familiar with such incidents.

“There’s dustups at every dog park every day,” he said. “A lot of times when dogs get into fights, people will jump into the middle of it, and they will get bit. Generally, the dog doesn’t have the intention of biting the human.”

Denny said the best way to break up a fight between two dogs is to have one owner grab one dog and the other owner grab the other.

But the better scenario is to avoid the fight altogether. Most people feel terrible when their dog causes injury, he said.

“I’ll ask, ‘What can you do to prevent this from happening again?’ Generally, people will voluntarily take measures. You don’t want to leave it up to the dog to do the right thing.”

Denny and dog park regulars offered the following tips to keep dogs out of trouble:

Train your dog (or have a professional do it) to respond to voice commands.

Use a leash.

Use a muzzle.

Use an electric collar that administers a mild shock.

Neuter your dog.