Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene It's a Dog-Eat-Dog World

Reflections on the canine boom, and what to do about all that poop

By Michael Sims

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  Although some of us might vote for antibiotics or contraceptives instead, the general consensus is that dogs are man's best friend. Their nobility is enshrined in fictional characters from Odysseus's dog, Argos, to that perennial heroine, Lassie. Dogs lead the blind, sniff out bombs, lower the blood pressure of the elderly, and amuse children. Thousands of years ago a wild dog invited itself along on a mastodon hunt, and a moment ago one of its descendants peed in your yard.

And with that familiar scene, we segue into the negative flip side to the popularity of canines. As long ago as 1907, the California Court of Appeals said "even the very best" of dogs "can, with less effort and in a shorter space of time, make themselves more of a nuisance to the square inch than any other domestic quadruped."

Once upon a time, when the United States was still largely rural, the only time a legal question arose concerning dogs was when one of them killed livestock. Nowadays, however, most Americans live in cities or suburbs. With our current canine population estimated at 56 million--roughly one dog for every five people--it isn't surprising that dog-owning has developed a prominent downside.

There are three well-known problems, all of which are caused by irresponsible dog owners rather than the dogs themselves. There is the accumulation of what some ordinances discreetly call "animal waste matter." There are dogs that run free, which can lead to harassment, or even injuries to dogs, or people, or both. And there's the kind of nonstop barking that leads even an animal-lover to consider buying a rifle with a scope.

Frankly, none of these problems is going to ruin the world. Compared to other pressing problems facing the mass of mankind--global warming, food shortages, the fall of the ruble--dogs barely rate. In fact, many dog owners--possibly even most--are responsible members of society. They have too much regard for their dogs and their fellow citizens to permit such behavior.

But dogs are dogs. Dogs are like a kid brother, twice removed. Dogs are more in our faces than ever before. Dogs, you see, are people too.


Crapped out

A man loitering on a street by himself is a suspicious character. A man loitering on a street with a dog is merely one of the millions of people who structure their daily lives around their pets' digestive cycles. This common routine raises a question: What are all those dog owners doing with their dogs' daily deposits? The answer, usually, is nothing.

Recently a well-dressed elderly woman in the Belle Meade Plaza parking lot was overheard muttering, "Oh, shit, I stepped in doggy poo-poo!" Many of us have expressed our own versions of this sentiment. Some days it seems that you can't take a step in our fair city without watching the ground. Of course, in this Biblical plague of dogs, Nashville is like every other city in the U.S. "Dog droppings," the New Jersey Superior Court declared over a quarter of a century ago, "have become a scourge, a form of environmental pollution no less dangerous and degrading than the poisons that we exude and dump into our air and water." While many people would contest that sort of overstatement, few would deny that the situation is unpleasant. When nature calls, many dog owners literally look the other way.

Nashville has yet to enact what have come to be called "pooper scooper" laws--ordinances that require dog owners to clean up after their pets and deposit the waste matter in a trash receptacle rather than on the street or in someone's yard. Few consequences of the modern urban world have generated more jokes.

Pooper scooper laws raise an interesting question: Did Homo sapiens spend millions of years learning to stand upright and evolving opposable thumbs only to wind up scooping dog excrement into a baggy and carrying it around?

"If aliens are watching this through telescopes," comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, "they're going to think the dogs are the leaders of the planet. If you see two life forms, one of them's making a poop, the other one's carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge?"

Unfortunately, such seemingly ridiculous behavior is becoming the only responsible way to address the growing amounts of waste matter that accumulate in city streets, yards, and parks. Pet-owning is a privilege that entails responsibilities, especially in a crowded urban environment. Nashville may not have graduated to the ranks of the more noteworthy urban cities. Boston, Philadelphia, or Chicago we're not. But Nashville is growing, and with it, so are the mounds of soft, smelly crap (except in the winter, when the droppings quickly become like giant, frosty tootsie rolls).

Earlier this year Nashville attorney and Metro Council member David Kleinfelter proposed a pooper scooper law for the metropolitan area. "It was a two-pronged proposal," he explains. "First, folks exercising their dogs in public parks should clean up after their dogs. Period. Second, people's pets shouldn't use other people's yards as a bathroom facility without permission."

These basic rules have long been in place elsewhere in the country. In New York City, fines for not disposing of your dog's waste can reach $100. But so far Nashville has resisted this sort of regulation. "People said, 'It's gonna lead to controversy, it's gonna lead to fights,' " Kleinfelter says of his proposal. "As a lawyer I said, 'No, what it leads to is a reasoned way to deal with it, instead of fights.' "

Not that dog owners picketed the Council offices; the resistance came from inside the building. "It was Council members who just didn't understand," Kleinfelter says. "They said, 'These people walk their dogs, and I don't think you want to crack down on them, and how are you going to enforce this, anyway?' I'm still hopeful that at some point the parks board will take it upon itself to put up some signs saying, 'Clean up after your pet.' "

Kleinfelter is not opposed to pets. "I'm glad to see the dogs," he insists. "What you have around Elmington Park, for example, is apartments in that area which actually allow people to have pets, which is fine. So that's the only place where they can exercise them, which is also fine. It's become a social outing, which is also fine. However, just as we shouldn't leave human waste--let's not be scatological about it and just talk about cans and paper--then you shouldn't leave pet waste."

Regarding the second prong of his proposal, Kleinfelter added, "There are a lot of people who walk their dogs two or three houses, let them go in somebody else's yard, and walk home. There was actually an area where the residents told me they saw this lady repeatedly park at the end of the street, walk her dog on their street, and get back into her car and leave.

"Any major metropolitan area has a pooper scooper law," Kleinfelter points out. "Nashville doesn't do things until other cities have done it for about ten years. That's just the way we are. Any progressive idea that comes along, it's extraordinarily hard to convince this city to do it."


Running wild

Another problem is that an astonishing number of misguided dog owners allow their pets to wander around the city off their leashes.

"We all love to let our dogs run free," says Lee Peterson, executive director of the Nashville Humane Association. "Unfortunately, this is not a small town any longer. There's an increase in road traffic, and [there are] many other ways that pets get into things they shouldn't; [they] can even become a menace to other people."

Most of us have had negative encounters with stray or free-running dogs at one time or another, especially in city and state parks. Nashville park rangers tell of strays and unattended free-roaming dogs banding together to chase deer, raccoons, and other wildlife. At Radnor Lake, for example, they sometimes threaten nesting geese. There are countless records of unpleasant encounters with joggers, hikers, picnickers, and horseback riders. That doesn't mean that there are packs of crazed Baskerville hounds out there lusting for blood. It just means that, no matter how loved it may be at home, a dog at large is both psychologically and legally a stray--and tends to behave like one.

This sort of problem occurs often within the Metro parks, where many visitors mistakenly think they may allow their dogs to run free. However, the park ordinance on the books in Metro is unequivocal. To be very specific about it, paragraph A of Section 13.24.130 ("Animals--Running At Large") reads: "No person owning or being custodian or having control of any animal shall cause or permit such animal to go at large in the park." The next sentence moves specifically to the animal in question: "A dog may be brought into a park, provided that such dog shall be continually restrained by a leash not exceeding six feet in length...."

Paragraph B goes on to describe the potential consequences of allowing a dog to run free: "Any animal found at large may be seized and impounded or disposed of pursuant to the laws or ordinances of the State and the Metropolitan Government in relation to the disposal of stray animals on the highways or other public places."

Bob Parrish, superintendent of Warner Parks, explains that "there has been no recent change in our rules and ordinances pertaining to dogs." The laws cited above stand, he says. "What has changed is that, as Nashville has been growing, and as park use has increased, there are more people visiting and enjoying the Warner Parks--and, I might add, most of the Metro parks," Parrish says. "We have had a considerable increase in conflicts between different individuals using the park where a person bringing a dog that is not restrained would result in individuals' recreational experience being diminished. They feel threatened, that their safety is at risk."

In fact, Parrish says, dogs have often been attacked by larger, unrestrained dogs. "There have been dog fights and injuries," he says, "that have resulted in very expensive vet bills and stitches being required and even cases where the owner was concerned about the life of their dog."

There are more than 80 parks in the Metro system, totaling more than 9,000 acres, including natural areas, greenways, and even city cemeteries. The Metro ordinance applies to all of it. Roughly 1,800 acres of Warner Park is forested natural area. "We are listed in the Tennessee register of natural areas," Parrish says. "Unrestrained dogs can really present some major negative impacts on wildlife population. And they can be very disruptive to some of our most popular programs--our nature and environmental education programs."

Like Council member Kleinfelter, Parrish's efforts to curb or regulate pet owner and pet behavior have been resisted. "There will be people who feel that, 'Hey, as administrators of the park, can't you find something more important to do than to tell me I need to have my dog on a leash? Why don't you look for the person who's breaking into a car or committing a violent crime?' "

But the rangers are hardly frittering away their time on trivia, or demonstrating an anti-canine bias. "Obviously we place a high priority on dealing with those major security issues," Parrish maintains. "But, I have to say that in terms of the volume of complaints that we receive, complaints about dogs off leashes is--if it's not the number one--at least among the top two or three complaints that we get from park visitors."

Warner Parks administrators have tried to gently raise public consciousness about the issue by publishing articles in the park newsletter, posting signs, and issuing warnings to violators. "But we have got to the point," Parrish warns, "where we are having to issue citations."

But he adds a reassurance to a large segment of the population: "I think it's important to realize that dog owners are not being singled out. In any area that is being used by different individuals with different interests, the way for us to ensure that everyone gets to do what they want to do is if we all take responsibility for ourselves and our special recreational interests."

For now the rules are looser outside the Metro parks. "A dog is considered to be running at large," according to the Metro ordinance, "when such dog is off the premises of the owner and not under the control of the owner, either by leash, cord, chain or otherwise." The loophole in this rule is the word "otherwise." Many people insist that they have their supposedly well-trained, obedient dogs under "voice" command. Frequently, these are the same people you just heard calling "Here, boy! Come on, boy!" 176 times.

Dog-lovers who aren't moved by appeals to their good citizenship might consider more selfish reasons to keep their dogs under control. "When dogs are not restrained on a leash, and the owners don't have control over them," says Sherry Spain, a veterinarian with the Green Hills Animal Clinic, "then they're much more likely to come in contact with a stray dog that could be carrying a contagious disease like distemper or parvo. Not to mention also the chances of getting wounded in a dog fight. Or they could come in contact with a wild animal such as a rabid skunk that could bite them and give them rabies. The bottom line is that keeping them on a leash allows you have control over what they're coming in contact with."


Making a racket

"Tis sweet to hear the watchdog's honest bark," Byron said somewhere. Obviously, he didn't live in an apartment building where a chihuahua's honest bark greets every passing neighbor. A few years ago, two biologists spent a night in a Minnesota field, listening to a guard dog's barking. There were no other dogs or people nearby.

Yet for seven hours the beast did not stop repeating whatever it was saying, which may have been no more elaborate than, "Hey, I'm a dog!"

Barking was not the best idea in history. Somewhere back there in the lost early days of our relationship with dogs, enterprising experimenters with too much time on their hands started tinkering with what we would later call man's best friend. It wasn't enough to breed dogs until they developed the cartoon shapes of the basset hound, the whippet, and the dachshund. No, some idiot had to start breeding dogs to make more and more noise.

Wild canines don't bark. Wolves howl and coyotes yodel, but only domesticated dogs regularly bark. We cultivated that particular canine characteristic through careful breeding--primarily for such activities as guarding, herding, and hunting. In general, the closer a dog is to its wild ancestry, the less noise it makes. Africa's venerable breed, the basenji, doesn't bark, and neither does the Malamute, which the Alaskan Mahlemuts developed from the Arctic wolf.

Some scientists think that human beings began breeding toward the bark accidentally. Although adult wolves don't bark, their pups do. The evidence indicates that, in the early days of the human-canine partnership, wolves hung around campfires and garbage heaps. The more tame they were, the sooner they were adopted by humans. The he's-so-cute reaction may have been a sort of involuntary selective breeding. Breeding for tameness encourages animals that are perpetually puppyish, dogs that carry their appealing youthful characteristics on into adulthood. One of those juvenile traits might have been barking.

Dogs seem to convey a variety of information with barks--the limits of their territory, their virtues as prospective mates, threats of what they would do if only they weren't confined. Frequently, however, a steadily barking dog is merely expressing sadness or frustration. "Often it's a dog that's tied up in the back yard and is very unhappy," says Lee Peterson of the Nashville Humane Association. He has simple advice to solve the problem: "Put it in a fenced yard where the dog can be safe and run and play."

That isn't always an option, of course, for apartment dwellers. Therefore, a realistic assessment of what your dog's daily life will be like is essential before buying a pet. Will it be alone too much? Will it have room to exercise? Sometimes dog owners are not even aware that their pets bark in their absence. They go away for the day and don't think about the life of the animal they have adopted.

"There is no such thing as a difficult dog," the famous obedience trainer Barbara Woodhouse claims in her book No Bad Dogs, "only an inexperienced owner." Anyone familiar with the topic knows that miraculous changes in behavior are possible through even the most elementary dog training. Refusal to bother with such training, and an unwillingness to be consistent in disciplining dogs, results in the millions of lonely, confused--and very annoying--canines out there.

It can also result in legal trouble. Whatever barking's ancient origin or daily inspiration, in the modern urban world it is considered a disturbance of the peace. The Metro ordinance regarding barking dogs dictates that it is unlawful for anyone to keep an animal "which, by causing frequent or loud continued noise, disturbs the comfort or repose of any person in the vicinity." Violators are considered a public nuisance and are subject to prosecution.


Pushing the limits

Many other issues arise concerning the great number of dogs in America. The excesses of certain caniphiles is legendary. For example, in 1990, a San Francisco man was cited for driving in a carpool lane with no other occupant in his car. He insisted that his dog should be counted as a second occupant. The judge didn't buy that argument. Not knowing when to quit, the defendant then protested that he was legally blind and claimed the dog sat in his lap and barked when she saw a car coming close. When Disney foisted on the public its remake of 101 Dalmatians, countless children were smitten with puppy love. As a result, the demand for Dalmatians soon outpaced the supply. "We felt fortunate," Lee Peterson says, "that we had not been inundated with Dalmatians--until recently. Now we're getting a lot of calls from people who have Dalmatians that are now adults. There's nothing cuter than a Dalmatian puppy. They have a high energy level, they love to be around people--constantly. And people are finding out they just don't have the energy to care for them."

Nor are these the only unwanted dogs in this country. "Across the United States last year, 10 million pets were euthanized," Peterson says. "That's the figure compiled from animal control offices, humane societies, and animal welfare groups. And it's simply a case that there are not enough homes. And that's sad enough in itself. However, it doesn't include figures from places like dead animal removal agencies, or animals that have been poisoned or shot, or people who abandon animals in the country, thinking that they can fend for themselves. There may be untold millions of animals right there that are not added into the 10 million figure."

Landlords created their unpopular no-pet policies--and the expensive pet deposits that sometimes serve as alternatives to petless existence--largely because of the irresponsible behavior of pet owners. No one denies that some dogs and cats damage living quarters and furnishings; but we all protest that our own dog would never do such a thing. Not surprisingly, based on their own past experience with irresponsible pet owners, many landlords are skeptical.

Another problem is that some people allow their enthusiasm for their canine friends to exceed the ability to care for them. In response to the more-is-better enthusiasm of some dog lovers, many communities now limit the number of dogs per household. Both Seattle and Minneapolis prohibit more than three dogs or cats. Most of the San Francisco Bay area has strict limits on numbers of pets. One man in Holland, Mich., received a jail sentence for violating that city's two-dog rule, and actually served a few days before agreeing to get rid of one of his dogs.

In a 1982 Ohio case, a judge summed up the legal consensus behind these limits: "Too many dogs in too small a space may produce noise, odor and other conditions adverse to the best interests of the community as a whole." Unfortunately, the best interests of the community as a whole are not always the uppermost considerations of dog owners.

Opponents of such restrictions insist that they unfairly penalize responsible dog owners, which may be true. Some people wouldn't dream of keeping more dogs than they could responsibly maintain. Again, however, legal recourse was created to allow the rest of us some response to those who abuse the privilege of pet owning.

The modern world is crowded with people and with their beloved animals--undeniably too many of both. Dogs may have many virtues, but they can't solve the problems that result from their own popularity. We have to do that for them.


Every Dog Has His Day

Despite the cliché "dog tired," and its once vivid image of an exhausted dog sprawling with its tongue hanging out, the annual time of year called "dog days" is not named for the lethargy of dogs in response to summer heat. Nor is it a reference to the time when only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. The story goes much farther back.

In the constellation Canis Major, the dog is the bright star Sirius. Because of its location it is frequently called the "dog star." The ancient Romans noticed that, during a six-week period overlapping the months of July and August, the "dog star" rose and set with the sun. They thought that perhaps the star was contributing to the greater heat at this time. As a result they named the period "caniculares dies" or "dog days."

Nobody seems to be able to agree on the precise time of the "dog days," but in general, they occur during July and August. The season's canine nickname inspired the Nashville Humane Association to host an annual "dog days" fundraiser. But it has since been moved to the second weekend in October, to allow both the pets and their owners to avoid the heat.


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