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Puppy Love

Socializing Doggy-Style in Baltimore's Parks

Steven Rubin
Cry Wolf: At left, Scout (left) and Blue howl the evening away in Patterson Park.
Taqi (center) leads Pete (lower left) and Scout (lower right) in welcoming a visitor.
Kathlynda Merkle with her son Daniel and her dog Sport during Patterson Park's evening canine happy hour.
Scully (foreground) checks out the photographer while Cuervo (far left), Gus (second from left), Rebel (center), and Jeff (human) look on.
Pluto (bottom) and an unidentified suitor engage in a popular activity among Wyman Park Dell dogs.

By Joanne P. Cavanaugh | Posted 7/1/1998

It's a muggy morning, and dog owners are crisscrossing the grassy hills of Robert E. Lee Park, plastic grocery bags and shovels in hand. It's a June "Turd Fiesta" poop pickup. Event motto: "Nothing is more super than a loaded pooper scooper in the morning."

After nearly an hour of sniff 'n' scoop, about a dozen people trudge up a hill to a park pavilion. Their dogs are mingling under one of several park signs advising that leashes really are the law. The people turn over their finds to Rebecca Hirschfield, president of the Lake Roland Canine Association.

Hirschfield plays the role of the scale, weighing the bags she holds in each hand, and announces the winner. Angela Jansen, 30, lets out a yell. She collected the most poop. She repeats her exclamation every few minutes, the sound echoing through the lakefront park. "I'm the champion!" says Jansen, owner of Bacchus, a boxer named after the Roman god of wine and revelry.

"We do this because this park is important to us and important to our dogs," Hirschfield says. "We work in teams; I held the bag. It's better as a group activity. It's not a whole lot of fun as a solitary one."

The prizes are pig ears, apparently a dog delicacy. Jansen, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, holds up Bacchus' winnings.

"We didn't check for rocks," says Sheila Poehlman, 44, a hospital lab tech. "This is the honor system." The small group collected about 50 pounds of dog poop now resting in a black plastic garbage bag on the picnic table where the dog owners held the simple awards ceremony. It's a noble moment befitting a noble place, known by fans as the King of Dog Parks.

In the still-sleepy hours before work and during the post--5 p.m. decompression, hundreds of Baltimoreans and their dogs gather at Robert E. Lee and other parks and green spaces across the city in what has become a tradition for urban dogs and their human companions.

"It's one of the few islands of sanity left in the city," says Owen Richards, 54, a music critic and member of an afternoon klatsch that meets on a grassy median at the entrance to Guilford. "My friend here brings a chair and sometimes we sit for hours and philosophize."

His friend is Leopold Toporovski, a white-haired gentlemen known as Topper, who is wearing a Greek fisherman's cap, blue pinstriped pants, and white patent-leather shoes. A Doberman pinscher is leashed at his feet. "We are brought together by the great goddess, Intellectual Pursuit," Toporovski says.

"Or, we're just chilling out in the grass and soaking up the sun," says Christopher Daly, 16, a student at Calvert Hall College. Daly's play-focused dog Reno keeps nipping at Vrona the Doberman and urging Richards' dog Gozer to get off his haunches.

Meet-and-mingle is a social phenomenon for both species. People chat about home-renovation projects, trade dog-health updates, flirt, deconstruct The X-Files, argue about who should scoop, analyze American pop culture, or lament the vagaries of love. Their dogs share chewable twigs, sniff each other's butts, roll on their backs, faux hump, carry on debates via bites or barks, joyfully spin through the legs of their masters, or run full speed in playful packs.

"People meet each other here," says Bill Koch, 27, whose Greyhound mix, Bela, rolls in the warm grass at Robert E. Lee. "I've gone on dates, but they didn't work out. People are like their dogs, so I learned you should check out their dogs first."

The green space of parks is a lifesaver for yardless city-dwelling dog owners, especially those with larger canines who need a good run. Though such parks are often named after city luminaries, Civil War generals, and the like, they've been renamed in the minds of many: "It's just the dog park," Daly says as he and Reno hang out one Tuesday afternoon on the median strip at University Parkway and St. Paul Street. No one here knows this tree-dotted minipark by any other name.

Dog parks are a national phenomenon, documented--where else?--on the World Wide Web. In urban areas--and, increasingly, in densely developed suburbs--dog owners have formally or informally pieced off spaces for their pets to run off-leash, sometimes contrary to animal-restraint laws. In Washington, D.C., and its congested suburbs, park officials and dog owners have clashed repeatedly over the illegally free-running animals.

A Web page known as the Dog Run/Dog Park Reporter lists more than 30 officially designated dog parks in New York and its boroughs. "We have a real mix of dogs," says Pearl Harrington, a member of the Friends of James Dog Run in midtown Manhattan. "We have mutts and then purebreds, very classy ones like Weimaraners. We have lots of terriers and beagles and they all mingle well--with occasional fights, just like children."

New York dog owners had let their animals roam illegally off-leash in city parks for years, and until recently, Harrington says, they were left alone--they were minor scofflaws compared to the drug dealers, prostitutes, and vagrants who also hung out in the parks. But as the city cleaned up the parks, the areas attracted more visitors, some of whom were afraid of dogs or less than enthusiastic about dodging dog shit, and New York began cracking down on leash-law violators, applying the city's "zero-tolerance" law-enforcement policy to dog owners.

About five years ago Manhattan dog owners lobbied for a legal dog run where canines could romp together at Madison Square Park, which runs between Fifth and Madison avenues for three blocks below 26th Street. After meetings with community and city leaders, one square block was set aside for the James Dog Run. As part of the deal, dog owners operate the run themselves--they clean up after the animals, spray the area with Odormute to reduce smells, and buy and rake the gravel. Says Harrington, owner of Zoe, a shepherd mix, "It's worked very well, proven by the number of dog runs that have sprung up." Although the off-leash zones are busy--the tally on dog-poop bags used at James Dog Run is about 300 a week--Harrington says conflicts between dogs (or dog owners) are rare.

In Baltimore there's nothing so established as the James Dog Run. People and canines gather informally at pocket parks such as the Guilford median, green spaces near schools, waterside paths along Stony Run, and in the better-known city parks and open spaces, including Wyman Park, Patterson Park, Federal Hill, Canton Square, Carroll Park, Linkwood Park, and Robert E. Lee. Some park users say the presence of dogs helps discourage crime: "I don't think you are going to have many criminals in the park when there is a group of large dogs around," says Penny Troutner, a bicycle-store owner who walks her two dogs in Carroll Park at Washington Boulevard and Monroe Street and on Federal Hill. She says she's seen vagrants pack up and leave at the sight of the big animals.

But since Baltimore has no designated dog parks or dog runs, people are required by law to keep their dogs "restrained" while in public. Many of the dog owners who unleash their pets try to keep a low profile, not wanting to draw attention for fear of crackdowns. Some favor the creation of formal off-leash areas, but fear the city might set aside just one section of one park and thus restrict the community dog/owner gatherings. (One small dog run in New York is commonly called "Doggy Prison.")

Dog owners are sometimes ticketed at well-trafficked parks such as Patterson Park, where neighbors and other parkgoers have complained about free-range canines. Dogs are one of the top issues debated at community meetings about city parks, parks officials say. As a result, a citizens' advisory group to the parks department has set up a dog subcommittee. And none to soon: A bill the Baltimore City Council passed in June will revamp the city's enforcement of sanitation and other health-related codes through a new Environmental Control Board, according to Wendy Royalty, the city director of legislative affairs. The law will double the fine for each dog-restraint citation, to $100.

But more than money is at stake. Efforts to reign in the dog-park phenomenon will likely choke a unique pastime dog owners say has given them greater reason to appreciate city life.

Laura Davis and Rob Erickson recently moved to Baltimore from Gaithersburg with their dog Edy. "We were panicked our dog would lose quality of life," says Laura Davis, 30, who lives near the Guilford dog park. "Now we have the best of both worlds. The community here really makes an effort. It's like a cocktail hour, and on a few occasions we've brought cocktails here."

For the city to prosper, urban advocates argue, more people need to be induced to mirror the Davis' decision to chuck the suburbs and move to the city, and even seemingly minor issues such as leash laws can come into play. "There is no way you can just say enforce the rules in a city that wants to keep people here," says Clint Roby, president of the Butchers Hill Association and a member of the Patterson Park Master Plan Advisory Committee. "We've got to get people together. We've got to come up with an alternative."

The Lake Roland Canine Association, a group of 150 dog owners who frequent Robert E. Lee Park, is working toward consensus. That's one reason they organize the poop pickups--to be conscientious of other park users and to ease relations with the city. And with the number of dog-park denizens growing, Hirschfield says, it's time for the city to return the favor: "The off-leash-dog constituency has gotten so strong the city needs to do something."

Steve Allan is walking his black dog, Buster, across North Charles Street. Buster strains forward as they cross the four-lane road. A few feet into Wyman Park Dell, Allan unhooks the leash and Buster takes off, nearly galloping. "He's part Labrador retriever, part Dalmatian, so he likes to run," Allan says.

Allan and Buster have been coming to the dell between Charles Street and the Baltimore Museum of Art for more than two years. "As many as 30 dogs can come down here on a good day," Allan, 39, says. It's one of dozens of places a newcomer can explore dog-park subculture.

On this warm, overcast Thursday afternoon, the park seems empty. But then people and their dogs start to trickle in. Darlene Veverka is being pulled down the path by a big black dog. "Have you seen this dog?" she asks Allan. "He showed up here yesterday and I've never seen him before."

Veverka says no reports were filed and no signs were put up, so the dog was likely abandoned. Strays sometimes find their way here--by scent or sound, they follow Charles Village residential dogs to their daily gathering place. This one, who Veverka has started calling Clyde, wandered up the night before in the rain and she took him home.

Veverka and Allan wander further down into the grassy dell. A few people have gathered at a brown bench below the ivy incline that leads up to the museum. Others are coming across the grass, stopping to pull plastic bags out of a white wooden box labeled doggy waste bags.

Greg Segraves, 24, sits on a stone wall behind the bench, swinging his legs. He can explain a bit about dog social behavior: "I guess they have sort of cliques. I don't know why. Certain dogs seem to hang out with other dogs."

As he speaks, Veverka's other dog, Elliott, sniffs at Segraves' dog Chester, who pees on Elliott's head. "That's the second dog he's pissed on today," Segraves says. Elliott was apparently sniffing at Chester midstream. "I know his eyesight is bad, but it's not that bad," Veverka says.

Like parents out with their kids at play, most people who spend an hour or so here chat about their little, or not so little, ones. They discuss each dog's peculiar personality, break up fights over toys, ropes, or favorite bones, chastise the animals for humping each other, size up the competition and brag. One recurring theme is canine bodily functions. Chester, for example, appears to have urinated on the corner of the bench. Segraves, who spends his days working with computers, shakes his head. "Chester, you are going to get a reputation. It's all over now, dude."

The gathering dogs start forming packs, zipping up the hill and back down across the dell. They bring back gifts of drool and mud to their masters. The park is neutral territory; the barking machismo of leashed dogs on city sidewalks is set aside here. Its place is taken by humping, which here seems like a sort of dominance game. Three dogs that take turns jumping on each other's backs start to get more aggressive. They growl and open impressive jaws wide, exposing their teeth. It looks like a schoolyard brawl.

"Chester!" "Cloudy!" "Girl!" The dogs break up and fall into a row, happily prancing side by side back toward their masters, their mouths turned up into grins.

Dog owners will introduce newcomers to the dogs before the people. That's partly because many here know the names of the dogs but not of the attached humans. "It's kind of strange and embarrassing," Allan says. "'There's Snoopy and Snoopy's mom.'"

It can get kind of awkward asking someone for their name after meeting them almost daily for a year. Veverka, 28, who works at city-based Vegetarian Resource Group and volunteers at a potbellied-pig sanctuary, conveys a park regular named Zach's analysis: "Zach came up with a pretty good theory [to explain the name-recognition problem]. We are always yelling, 'Elli, get out of that puddle!' It's not like you are yelling, 'Zach, get out of that puddle.'"

But the people do unite in their own way. Veverka, who has burgundy hair and three tiny nose rings, tells how they recovered a dog that was hit by a car in January: "He was owned by a college student who found him in a parking lot and thought he was cute. She wasn't watching him and he ran up into the street. She didn't want to take him to the vet, and said to call animal control and put him to sleep." But other dog owners took the small white dog to the vet. The bill for surgery, which included amputating a leg, came to about $2,000. "I paid $500 and we all raised the rest of the money," Veverka says. "Now Snoopy has a home with two friends of mine. He's more like a family dog. He doesn't come to parks like this much. His new name is George."

A lot of the animals here are mutts, orphans from the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And the people who come here really love dogs. A growing group gathers around the black one Veverka found. Clyde seems to be part Rottweiler, part black Lab. He's got a very big head. "He's docile. I looked at him and thought, Oh God, look at the head on this thing. He's going to eat my cats," says Veverka, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with Elliott the dog and four felines. "Your head is on the wrong body," she tells Clyde.

Comments aren't confined to the subject of dogs. And, as with a raucous family, there's very little that's conversationally off-limits. Bob Rathmann shows up with his black German shepherd Jack. As Jack takes off, Rathmann turns to Maria Rivarola, who is at the park with her dog Girl. Rivarola is sipping a cup of java, her hair pulled back in tiny curled ponytails. "What happened to your head?" Rathmann asks.

He sits down on the bench to relay some urban lore: "I saw a guy pissing in an alley on my way over here."

"Speaking of piss," Rivarola says, running her hand over her curls, "you just sat in some." Rathmann, 31, jumps over a bit, but Rivarola's only teasing. "Not really," she says.

Rathmann, a carpenter, has been coming to the Wyman Park Dell for about three years. "It becomes social. We do a lot of things," he says. "I have picnics at my house on weekends; whoever is down here may end up at a picnic in the afternoon. On some Friday nights we may go out; it's whoever is available and not doing anything."

As he talks, the dogs stop playing. Heads up, bodies still and poised, they look west. Another canine is coming and the dogs want to see who it is. Someone pipes up, "It's Clara and her parents."

Clara and her parents, Mark Lear and Bill Beauchamp, are longtime dell denizens. They live over in Hampden. Lear, who works at a lumber mill, built the doggy waste bag boxes. The dell used to be a dog-shit minefield, he says. Now people bring leftover bags from the grocery store and stock the boxes.

A few years ago Lear, who has lived mostly in the South, found that people who walked their dogs at the dell rarely talked to each other. He says he got folks to pause, gather, and chat. He was called the Mayor of the Park.

"It drove me nuts. Everyone was standing around like morons," Lear, 38, says. "Now we have all kinds of people. We have an actual rocket scientist, a chemist, architects, lawyers. It's a potpourri of blue-collar and white-collar workers and they get along."

By 7 p.m. the gathering winnows down to just a few folks. Saying goodbye, they call their dogs, put them back on leashes, and head home to dinner.

Article 11, Section 30(a) of the city code reads: "All dogs shall be kept under restraint, as defined in this subtitle." Read a little further and you'll find the definition of restraint: "State of being secured by a leash or otherwise."

Otherwise? Could that mean a dog owner's voice?

Bob Anderson, director of the city's Bureau of Animal Control, admits the law is a little vague. But, he says, the "otherwise" should be interpreted as a physical object, such as a rope or chain tied to a collar: "You've got to be able to physically drag the dog off somebody."

Anderson and other city officials say the leash laws, as well as recently passed ordinances that make owning vicious dogs illegal, are meant to protect the public. "Dogs have a pack mentality and if you get dogs running together, they can turn vicious rather quickly," he says. "They may be the best dogs in the world, but I've seen cases where dogs tear each other apart."

"There are a lot of people who are intimidated by dogs, there are incidences where people get hurt," says Myra Brosius, a city landscape architect who specializes in park planning. "The dog community will argue that animals have the right to exercise and that we shouldn't punish all dogs because of some dogs. But as someone in charge of protecting the public, and public parks, we have to act responsibly."

Even some in the off-leash camp can see the point. "There is a large and legitimate population of people who are afraid of dogs, who have had bad experiences and who don't want to step in dog poop," Hirschfield says. "This conflict seems so irreconcilable, but there are things we can do."

The idea of fencing off areas of city parks has been debated. In some places it's already being done ad hoc. On Federal Hill a metal fence surrounds a playground for children to keep the off-leash dogs and toddlers apart. "It is a very attractive iron fence; it keeps children in the play area," says Troutner. "Dogs won't wander over there and won't be pooping and peeing."

City administrators have studied creating true dog-delineated zones in the city, but each solution seemed to offer more problems. "We did research on dog runs nationwide, and there are also obvious practical issues with liability and whatnot," Brosius says. "Another is maintenance. Who is responsible? Creating a dog run is another management headache." Plus, she says, "there doesn't appear to be a consensus among all park users. The dog community has been encouraged to organize themselves and advocate. The city didn't feel it was our role because there wasn't a citizen mandate overall to provide a dog run."

Over in Catonsville, dogs should soon be running free and legal. A piece of Baltimore County parkland, previously used mostly by partying teens, has been set aside as a dog park, the first such facility in the county. The 350-foot-by-50-foot area is off of Harlem Lane, between Westowne Elementary School and Maryland Tile Distributors.

Laura Cook, a Catonsville resident with two border collies, Murphy and Kramer, led the effort to create the park and pay for fencing. "We needed about $500, so we went around with a can and begged people for money," Cook, 32, says. "We put up 300 fliers and collected about $200. Baltimore County parks matched us with $230. Everything else is on my credit card."

Cook worked with dog-park advocates who had successfully convinced the cities of Bowie and Greenbelt to support such spaces. The Greenbelt Dog Park, touted as the first in the state, opened about two years ago and attracts up to 30 or so dog/people pairs at the end of a workday. The city of Bowie has awarded $13,000 to a dog-park group that is now looking for a site. In Catonsville the county parks department will handle general maintenance, but dog owners will pick up after their pets and do other chores, Cook says.

"We had some property sitting idle and thought we could put it to some constructive use," says John Mickanis, a community recreation-and-parks supervisor for Baltimore County, and a dog owner. "The whole idea of a dog park is very unique. Dogs can run under a controlled situation and you don't have to worry about them getting hit by a car. It can be a rallying point for the county to give out vaccination information, or inform people about the laws. The animals can be turned loose and people themselves can socialize--we are certainly not doing it entirely for the dogs."

The Catonsville dog park is waiting only on a revision of the county leash law. Sam Moxley, a Baltimore County Council member who represents the Catonsville area, says the council might need to draft new "narrowly drawn" legislation for the park, which he calls "a great idea. It avoids some neighborhood problems with people who take their dogs to open parks where there are children, elderly people, or folks like me with a phobia of dogs, having been bit."

But Michael Baker, park administrator for Baltimore City's Department of Recreation and Parks, says the city is sticking with the current leash law (city animal-control and police officers write citations for failing to restrain dogs, and the city is swearing in a new force of sanitation officers who will also enforce the law). "But we are willing to work with dog associations and the public within reason," Baker says. "If the dog association promotes a dog run and the community buys into it, we will definitely consider it."

Some attitudes, or perceptions, would need to change first. A 1995 survey of uses at Patterson Park found that of 229 people living around the park, two-thirds favored enforcing or strengthening leash laws, according to Nancy Supik, a member of Friends of Patterson Park. The survey has been incorporated into the park master plan drafted over the past few years to garner city bond money. So far, $1 million of an estimated $10 million needed for park renovations has been approved.

During the summer of 1995 students from the urban-studies-and-planning program at the University of Maryland, College Park surveyed the dog scene at Patterson Park for a few days. They observed 496 dogs in the park during their study period--one for every 11 people. Sixty-four percent of the dogs were off-leash. At peak times--early in the morning and after 5 p.m.--25 to 50 could be seen in the park. The number of people observed picking up after the dogs "was very small," they reported.

Michael Di Menna, a staff member with the South East Community Organization, opposes loosening leash restrictions. "You just can't go to a spot where people are running dogs," he says. "If you have a picnic, you'll have 10 dogs all around you, peeing in front of you. I think a lot of dog owners go to the park and feel like they're claiming some turf." Di Menna says when he walks or runs with his dog Barry, he has the pet on a leash. And he carries Mace to defend against other dogs. "I might be running four miles and have a Doberman at my heels. It's stressful to have big dogs running around. It drives away some people who are not comfortable with it."

At Patterson Park, dog owners who let their pets go leashless down the hill from the pagoda say they also worry about wayward dogs that can become violent. Some talk about owners who set pit bulls loose along the fringes of the dog gatherings. The folks in the dog klatsch don't want their pets to be tainted by the bad dogs' reputation.

Steve Erwin, a 42-year-old musician, says one day when he was walking with his collie mix, Bix, in Patterson Park, his dog "was put down really bad . . . by a Rottweiler. It took him almost a month to get back to the way he was, open and everything. For a while, if there was any over-the-top barking, he'd start to walk out of the park and back toward home. I'm more wary now," Erwin says as he watches Bix romp with other dogs in a nearby puddle.

The dog owners here get to know each other, and the canines that tag along. People with dogs say they have rented apartments or bought homes in this area specifically because they scouted out Patterson Park as a venue for their animals. In this gathering, which sometimes grows to 50 or more people, there's often talk of getting together to go to a concert, pitching in for a weekend barbecue, or meeting for beers.

"There have been relationships launched here," says Kathlynda Merkle, 27, who started coming to the park in October with her two dogs Prince and Sport. "It's a helluva lot better than going to a bar. Going to a bar is a blatant place for a pickup. Here it is camaraderie."

A few minutes later Gail Gustafson-Seidts starts coming down the hill with a baby stroller. In the vanguard is her fox terrier Heidi, and her Irish setter-black Lab mix Sophia. In the stroller is John Michael, who just celebrated his first birthday. The toddler is throwing his hands up and slapping them back on his knees, laughing at all of the dogs.

"Hey," calls out Mike McFadden, 36, a lawyer whose dog Panther sports a different-colored bandanna each day. McFadden turns toward John Michael. "One year old? It's time for us to go out and chase women. Let's get ourselves a nice New York apartment and have chicks over."

Gustafson-Seidts, 32, knows all about the social scene at dog parks. She met her husband here almost three years ago. They came to walk their dogs and ended up going out for a beer. John Michael is a direct product of the scene. The couple married in May 1997 by the pagoda, up the hill from where she now stands. Gustafson-Seidts remembers the small evening wedding. Heidi and Sophia were in attendance. The dogs, she says with a laugh, "will take any excuse to go to the park."

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