[1]

It's time to walk the dog, but I don't seem to be going. It's a beautiful afternoon. Bright blue sky, cotton streaks of cloud, a crisp breeze skating along the sidewalk up here in Clarendon. There's a new training video -- "Command Performance!" -- on the table for inspiration, too.

But I'm socked into the couch, mesmerized by a much older dog story. My own dog, who is aging seven times faster than me, is getting worried. Every five minutes, regular as a metronome, he walks over to give my leg a hard poke with his nose. It's time to go out -- poke. It's time to go out -- poke. Hey, did you forget? It's time to -- well, you get the idea.

I can't argue with him. It's 4 o'clock. Prime time in the park. If I delay by even 30 minutes, the paths at Arlington's Lubber Run will be much more crowded with dogs and people and possibly even an animal warden. It will be harder to walk, and more fraught, as well as ever-illegal, to let the dog off the leash. And somehow it will be way more unpleasant scooping up after him. There's something about bending over the ground with a mitt of newspaper bag as young lovers stroll by and children gambol that is -- well, it's just harder.

So we ought to be going. But we're not, because I'm transfixed by an image that floats like a dream on the television screen in front of me. It's a black-and-white dream from childhood. It's an episode of "Lassie."

Now, it's been more than 30 years since I've seen one, but the landscape is as familiar as if only a day had passed. It's all right there in the front of my memory: the velvety blacks of the trees and creeks, the silvery whites of boulders and farm fences. Towheaded Timmy, in his perfectly pressed plaid shirt and gap-toothed grin, with those strange, tense eyes that always look like he's about to cry, even when he's smiling.

And at his side, the majestic, snowy-maned star of the show, her needle nose lifted to scent danger, her bright button eyes shining. (She was played by a he, but we didn't know that then.)

And Lassie is barking! There must be a barn on fire, or a kid floating downstream toward a waterfall, or something!

It's surprising how upsetting that sound is. Maybe the human brain is hard-wired to respond to canine distress in the same way we react to a baby's cry -- as an alarm signal, full of information, if only we could decipher it. Maybe that's why the sound of the neighbor's barking dog ranks as one of the world's least tolerable sounds.

But soon enough, Lassie's bark turns to yips of triumph, which means that everything is going to be all right. In the last frame, Timmy smiles his crinkly smile and clasps her neck, as if to seal the deal. The credits roll. But my mind is still deep inside that last frame.

It takes a while to figure out why, but eventually it occurs to me that locked inside that idealized image is the answer to a mystery I've been thinking about for a few years now. That is, ever since I noticed that something had changed between dog and man, that some tectonic plate had shifted in the culture since my childhood in the '60s and '70s, when responsible canine management still consisted mostly of opening the back door and letting the dog out.

Somewhere along the way since then, a stroll with Harry or Prince or, in my case, Bear began to seem less like a casual jaunt and more like a hack through a jungle of ever-proliferating dog laws. By the mid-'90s, leash laws and clean-up-after-your-dog laws had been joined by no-dogs-on-the-beach laws, and keep-your-dog-out-of-my-park laws, even proposals for banning entire breeds of dog.

Was it my imagination, or had not the tenor of the conversation on this matter changed as well, from pleasant suggestion to indignant demand? From "Responsible dog owners clean up after their pets" to "DON'T EVEN THINK OF LETTING YOUR DOG SQUAT HERE "?

The newspapers seemed to be filled with news about running conflicts between dog owners and non. All around the Beltway -- all over the country -- dogs and their owners seemed to be squaring off against soccer teams and joggers, skateboarders and homeowners' association boards, tenders of lawns and water-quality experts. In Arlington alone, there has been trouble at three spots -- Bluemont, Glencarlyn and Fort Ethan Allen parks. In the District, the lines have been drawn at Montrose and Battery Kemble parks and several smaller patches of green around Dupont Circle. And along the Potomac riverfront, at Jones Point in Alexandria. In Fairfax, the flash points were Blake Lane, Nottoway and Idlewild.

And this at the very same time my neighborhood alone had sprouted two doggie day-care centers and a pet health-food store, and the formerly austere gun-dog catalogue that arrives unbidden at my house suddenly had begun featuring dog beds that look like upholstered furniture and several varieties of dog breath mints.

What was going on? Was it simply a schizophrenic cycle of pamper and banish? Or was it a symptom of a larger condition, some epic shift in our relationship with dogs?

Well, I didn't know. But as I collected leash and plastic bags, the dog dancing like a prizefighter at my heels, it seemed possible to me that Lassie was mixed up in this somehow. Not the actual dog. I mean the Lassie lodged in our collective memory, the dream dog, the perfect hybrid, the working dog who was also the perfect companion -- fountain of empathy, self-reliant shepherd and canine clairvoyant.

Yes, that Lassie. The dog who solved problems, instead of creating them.

[2] BORN FREE (UNTIL NOW)

For most of human history, dogs have been free to wander almost at will, and have chosen to hang around us. Which is very flattering when you stop and think about it. (They like us! They really like us!)

In fact, there is no other creature with whom humankind has had a longer, closer, more nuanced working relationship. The level of communication, humility and respect necessary for even the most elementary work by Border collie and shepherd, for example, would put a lot of human-to-human relationships to shame.

Dogs and humans got together very early -- 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, by most estimates, long before cattle and horses entered the human circle. Our admiration for canines spans cultures and continents. The ancient Egyptians bred and venerated greyhounds, the Babylonians marched into battle alongside their giant mastiffs, and the modern French, as we all know, welcome their dogs at the restaurant table (as opposed to the Aztecs, who fattened their proto-Chihuahuas and put them on the table).

At its best, the dog-human relationship has been a mutual admiration society. They have helped us hunt, and they, running with us, have gotten more to eat, with less effort. That special relationship has even been codified. Virginia's present-day legal code contains a little-known subsection about dog exercise that harks all the way back to 11th-century England. That's when, in gratitude for the dog's help as hunter and sentry, humans decided that it should be unlawful to eat the dog's flesh or make use of its pelt.

But all that intimacy also has made for occasional irritation and conflict. Somewhere, surely, there exists a cave painting that depicts beetle-browed Early Man hurling a rock at a barking dingo. Episodes of anti-dog sentiment verging on hysteria are not new. The campaign to ban or restrict pit bull ownership that began in the 1980s is just the latest chapter in an old story.

One of the more severe of such campaigns occurred in Scotland in 1738, after multiple attacks by a butcher's dog on people and other dogs at the Edinburgh meat market. The offending dog -- of a fighting breed known as the blue poll, now extinct -- was put to death, and a bounty of one pound sterling was offered for the head of every fighting dog that remained in the city.

In the ensuing rampage, as described in The Staffordshire Bull Terrier in History and Sport, dog carcasses were hung from shop signs, lap dogs were yanked out of ladies' arms and clubbed to death, and dog hunters were prevented "with difficulty" from attacking and killing the dogs that led the blind. "Little else was to be seen or heard but the chasing, the hacking and the slashing," went a journalistic account of the day. "Dogs were rounded up in batches and driven from the harbor walls and into the sea to drown."

Eventually, tempers cooled. By the 1830s, England had adopted the first canine anti-cruelty legislation, which was followed by a muzzle-your-dog campaign, led by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that is credited with helping rout rabies, widespread until then. Complaints about dogs were common -- marauding herd dogs in the country, loose packs of dogs belonging to the urban poor. But loose dogs remained an unremarkable part of rural and suburban life in England, and in the United States, well into the second half of this century. Dogs went to the post office, waited outside the general store, rode the firetruck, pulled carts, accompanied children to school and moved about solo or in packs with the purposefulness of traveling salesmen.

Gradually, I came to think of the 1960s and '70s as the Age of Jaguar. You remember Jaguar. Every neighborhood had one.

The one I knew was a white German shepherd who lived in the house behind us in Montgomery County. Jaguar was one of those dominant male dogs who, given the freedom to spray eau-de-soi upon every telephone pole, shrub and hydrant within a 20-house radius, predictably came to feel that all of those lands were his to command.

Thus it was common to leave the house in the morning and confront Jaguar standing in your driveway like a Balkan warlord, his paws planted, ears back, growling and warning you to come no closer.

His ire was entirely rational. Dogs are descended from wolves and jackals, and the dominant ones -- males in particular -- are highly territorial. Marking fire hydrants and trees with urine is like posting property markers. To another dog, the scent is as clear as a No Trespassing sign. Jaguar's barks were loud and clear. They said: Hey, can't you read? I told you to keep off my property.

(This jibes with the best explanation I've ever heard about why so many dogs go ballistic at the appearance of the mail carrier. To a dog, the mail carrier is a mysterious person who comes up close to the house every day, yet never enters. And who, warned repeatedly to keep away, comes . . . back . . . anyway! Every day! And at the same time! To the dog, it's not the mail. It's an act of deliberate provocation. Countries have gone to war for less.)

Jaguar never actually bit anyone, as far as I know. Looking back, I realize this may have been in part because we instinctively adopted the deferential body language that soothes the ruffled alpha-dog soul. We averted our eyes, rolled our fingers up into our hands and sidled by. Thus arrayed, we were able to retrieve the newspaper without incident.

But the point here is that we tolerated it. Back then, loose dogs, cranky dogs, even crazy dogs were part of the suburban or small-town landscape in a way that is unimaginable now. There were certain yards you avoided, dogs that made you suck your breath in as you scooted by. There were dog bites, of course, including one in our neighborhood that was settled out of court and paid for some plastic surgery and, eventually, a boy's first car. But, amazingly, no one called the dogcatcher. Dogs were around, dogs sometimes bit. And that was that.

By the 1980s, however, for better or worse, laissez-dog culture was waning. The canine frontier was closing. In the rapidly developing suburbs around major cities like Washington, open land began to disappear. The empty lots and patches of woods that had served as informal off-leash playgrounds for neighborhood dogs were being turned into housing developments. Increased automobile traffic made loose dogs a danger to themselves as well as others.

Leash laws were enacted around this time. In many cases, they were passed by local governments with no intention of strict enforcement. Rather, there was a tacit understanding that if dog owners wanted to run their dogs off leash, they would do so in out-of-the-way places where they wouldn't disturb anyone.

And that worked well enough until the mid-1990s, when so-called "in-fill" development began to eat up what pockets of green space remained, and the "echo" baby boom was filling parks with strollers and toddlers once again. By that time, the number of one-person households had risen, too, as had the percentage of households where all of the adults worked outside the home. And time was getting tighter. People seemed to be working longer hours.

Still, people wanted dogs. And why not? You could argue that the need was even greater. Who wouldn't want the cheerful, loyal and affectionate greeting of a dog after a hard day at work? And so we have them. In huge numbers. About 57 million to 60 million dogs nationwide. About 100,000 just in Fairfax County, or one for every 10 inhabitants. In Arlington County, property-tax-paying dog owners point out that the dog population (an estimated 18,000) equals the number of schoolchildren (18,134 in kindergarten through 12th grade). In Montgomery County, the ratio is similar: about 114,000 dogs to about 125,000 students.

And they're bigger dogs, too. Popular taste in canines has moved from the little poodle and cocker spaniel of the '70s to the canine equivalent of sport utility vehicles. Big dogs. Labradors and German shorthaired pointers and Irish wolfhounds and Akitas and mastiffs. Dog registries around the country showed a big increase in pit bull ownership in the mid-'80s, and a change in the kind of owner, from rural breeders to urban or suburban householders.

So the dogs were getting bigger and everything else was shrinking -- time, green space. In those conditions, marginal dog behavior became intolerable. Jumping on strangers, knocking over toddlers, sullying the sidewalk -- all of those behaviors once treated with a measure of forbearance suddenly were not.

Dogs seemed to be more annoying more of the time.

[3] 'MADDENING DOG!

Whatever possessed me to possess her!'

-- J.R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip

It turns out to be an average day at the park when we finally get to Lubber Run. There are patches of vexation redeemed by moments of exaltation.

First, the vexation. Stepping off the asphalt walk to clean up after my dog, I feel my foot sink into the dreaded too-soft pile of leaves, a memento of a dog who evidently passed this way not moments before.

Soon after that, climbing the narrow, rocky path above the creek, we are menaced, for the third time in two weeks, by an irritable pair of King Charles spaniels who are trotting off leash and on point 20 yards ahead of their mistress. She is a large woman. She is studiously avoiding all eye contact.

As we get closer, her beasts go into full toy-dog Exorcist mode -- needle-teeth bared, neck ruffs raised, snarling and snapping and growling, seemingly preparing, once again, to bite me or my leashed dog. Incredibly, she seems to be oblivious.

It would make a great Monty Python skit -- if it weren't so dangerous. Little-dog teeth can do a lot of nerve damage to the human hand. It's also incomprehensible. If you know your dogs are aggressive, why walk them in public without a leash?

After some hopping and shouting (mine), growling and snapping (the spaniels') and rapid calculations of the loft an unleashed King Charles spaniel could achieve propelled by a booted foot (mine again), we squeak past without bloodshed. My dog has maintained a possibly strategic air of myopic puzzlement throughout. The Lady of the Spaniels remains silent as the Sphinx.

Around the next bend we finally come upon some dogs we know. Sane dogs. And with that, the gods reach down, straighten the sky and let the good begin. This is the real walk, the part that outweighs the bad, that lifts you out of your gutter of woes and reacquaints you with the wonders of the wide and beautiful world.

There is the black Lab who retrieves "sticks" the size of telephone poles. There's the German shepherd who plunges for rocks like a pearl diver, and the black-and-brown spaniel type, recently rescued from the pound, who dashes up and down the path with a huge smile, as if he can't wait to tell you the latest joke. We were here just yesterday, but for Bear, off-leash now, it's like a class reunion.

When all the sniffing and stick-stealing and hip-checking subside, we leash up again and cross Route 50 and make our way to a pocket of space tucked beside Four Mile Run, along the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail. This one-third-acre patch within the larger Glencarlyn Park is one of seven legal but little-known DEAs, or official off-leash Dog Exercise Areas, in Arlington County.

It's an idyllic spot -- sandy soil and gray rocks spilling down to the creek bed. Unfenced, isolated, with natural boundaries -- the water, a wooded slope -- that keep the dogs in sight without confining them. The space is a long, narrow bowl that encourages romping and racing.

Today, Glencarlyn DEA is almost empty, and the ground, as usual, is spotless. (It is a paradoxical fact that dog parks are usually cleaner than the surrounding areas. Peer pressure or self-interest. Or both.)

But tacked onto a tree trunk there is an ominous notice from a group calling itself ArlingtonDogs. The dog exercise area is threatened with closure. The county is worried about soil erosion from the dog traffic, and there is a suspicion that dog waste could be contributing to pollution in Four Mile Run and, by extension, Chesapeake Bay, which would be a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

Wow. Me and my dog, violators of the Clean Water Act? Desecrators of the bay? Could that be possible?

"What about cats?" says a fellow dog walker as we lean close to scan the fine print while his yellow Lab does battle with some rocks in the creek.

Yes, I think. And what about my "Friend of the Chesapeake" license plates?

"Couldn't it be raccoons?" I offer. "Maybe it's raccoons. Don't they spend a lot of time in the storm drains?"

Before we can fully parse this ominous bit of news, it's dark and time to head home. We arrive back at my block just in time to hear a loud quarrel in progress up the street.

A barrel-shaped bulldog of a woman -- the manager of a small apartment building -- is shouting herself hoarse at a cowering figure that on closer inspection turns out to be a young woman pushing a stroller. An ancient, arthritic golden retriever is lightly tethered to the carriage. The golden, head cocked, milky eyes gazing upward, is wagging its tail uncertainly. The dog, it seems, has made the mistake of squatting to empty her bladder on the grass beside the sidewalk.

The offending substance has already been absorbed into the ground, but the apartment manager is practically levitating with rage, roaring and red-faced about the bad manners of dog owners. The dog owner, head lowered, face red, mumbles a running apology and points, as a kind of character reference, to the plastic bags festooning the stroller. The manager is having none of it.

And this, I think as we watch, about the grass in front of a squat apartment building whose main contribution to neighborhood beautification is a dumpster that sits behind two shrubs next to the parking lot.

Ye gods, I think. What next? Leashes equipped with catheters? Funnels and buckets? Yes, I think, the Jaguar Age is well and truly over.

At precisely this moment, my dog stops to sniff a cigarette butt. That's when it hits me: Dog owners have become the new smokers.

Think about it. Once free to smoke (run their dogs) wherever they pleased, smokers (dog owners) are now consigned to furtive puffing (off-leash exercise) in small alcoves, posted paddocks and other ghettos.

Dog ownership, once a barometer of confidence and cool, a link to a shared past of farm and field, now carries with it the faint but undeniable whiff of weakness, a presumption of moral flaw. You must hate children, you must be selfish, you must be planning to let that beast void on my lawn without picking up after it.

Like the smoker, the dog owner in the late 1990s is a presumed scofflaw, guilty until proven otherwise, a self-indulgent creature whose expensive little habit carries health risks that pose an unfair economic burden on the rest of society.

Later, when I call a local animal control number to inquire about the law regarding dog urine, I get a recording that underscores the point.

"If you want to report a loose dog or other emergency . . . ," it says.

Exactly. A loose dog, once as unremarkable as a loose cat, is now an emergency.

[4] You'll Never Know How Much I Smell You

-- Title of a Dog Book by Roy Blount Jr.

"Oh, yes! Dog-owning has become privatized!" exclaims cultural historian Harriet Ritvo when I reach her in her office at MIT to bounce this idea around. "Dogs can't run around free anymore, they can't relieve themselves at will. The burden of having large, carnivorous animals is being transferred from the larger society to the people who particularly benefit from having them."

In a book titled The Animal Estate, Ritvo examined Victorian attitudes toward domestic animals, especially dogs and cats, and found that a society's attitude toward its pets reveals unspoken assumptions about other areas of life -- class, wealth, privilege. In 19th-century England, there was great debate over whether the poor should be allowed to keep pets at all.

So what does our present discontent with dogs say about us? What are we talking about when we talk about dogs?

Ritvo sees the changing attitude toward dogs as part of a larger withdrawal from civic life, of a piece with home schooling and bowling alone, a retreat from a public arena in which contact is often bruising and anxiety-filled.

Well, Jaguar, meet the inflammatory citizen, the litigious American, locked in a futile quest to control his environment the way he would a computer.

"Being anti-dog is the socially permissible prejudice," says Pamela Ferguson, a former parks commissioner in Berkeley, Calif., and prominent advocate of dog parks.

"It's not a rosy picture," she says. "We've entered the postindustrial economy without taking our dogs with us. When a dog goes out now, it's almost as an exile -- an invader into foreign space." Increasingly, the only thing left for dogs to do is to love us unconditionally, and within the confines of our own back yards.

Which doesn't help. The isolating of dogs becomes a vicious circle: We don't take our dogs anywhere, and because they're not allowed anywhere, they don't learn how to behave. "One of the reasons American dogs are in such a mess is that they don't get to go anywhere except the vet," says Vicki Hearne, a philosopher and professional dog trainer, and the author of Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name and Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog.

And if we don't have dogs around, there's no way to develop a consensus on what can reasonably be expected of them. In Europe and elsewhere, well-behaved dogs, sometimes muzzled, always leashed, can be seen sitting beside their owners on subways, buses and streetcars. Here, dogs are banned even from most apartment buildings, and bringing a dog into a public building sends people racing for the health inspector.

"We're in a Dark Ages now, as far as dogs are concerned," says Hearne.

But behold the banished beast: O exotic and noble dog, with your enormous see-in-the-dark eyes, and your ears like satellite dishes, and your mysterious, paw-quivering dreams. You don't have to own one to argue that the world would be a poorer place without them.

Some trainers compare training a dog to teaching a bright 5-year-old child (albeit a child who still eats off the floor). But that's only part of it. While the dog's brain is not our equal in powers of reason, its senses far make up for that. Dogs see things we can't see, hear things we can't hear. They are our messengers to the natural world and to other creatures less accessible to us.

Some breeds can run as fast as 40 mph -- faster than the wolf, which clocks in at 30 mph -- and for longer distances than the cheetah. Dogs are colorblind, but at night they see almost as well as if it were day. A sound that is inaudible to us at 100 yards is still coming in loud and clear for a dog at a quarter-mile away. Their wet, black noses are equipped with some 200 million olfactory cells (compared with our paltry 5 million); their sense of smell is orders of magnitude greater than ours, and far superior to machines that can detect explosives or drugs.

Dog literature is full of examples of this. One particularly dazzling one, from a book by Canadian behaviorist and trainer Ian Dunbar, may suffice. According to Dog Behavior: Why Dogs Do What They Do, a dog's nose can detect a single gram of the butyric acid that makes up human perspiration evaporated 300 feet into the air over a city the size of Philadelphia.

Or put another way, writes Dunbar, a dog's sense of smell is to a human's as the moon is to a wren's egg.

But dogs are not merely awesome sensory machines. They also, Hearne says, possess a finely tuned moral sense, a keen sense of loyalty, and of play. They bring out the best in us. And then they die, and remind us that we are mortal.

So we need them. And they need us. In fact, we have a moral responsibility to teach them to live in our world, says Hearne, because for better or worse they're stuck in it.

But the world has changed around us, and them. And we haven't figured out what to do about that.

The issue of dog waste is an unsavory but salient example. A few years ago, a water resources expert with the Northern Virginia Planning District Commission did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, trying to determine the source of high levels of fecal coliform contamination in some of Northern Virginia's urban streams. Figuring conservatively, the scientist, Don Waye, calculated that a minimum of two-and-a-half tons of dog waste was being deposited every day by the 16,000 dogs estimated to live in the 20-square-mile area of land that drains into Four Mile Run. Two-and-a-half tons. Some of it was being picked up, of course. But a lot of it wasn't.

This is not the dogs' fault, particularly. It's humans', for embracing dog ownership but not the responsibilities of dog stewardship. A dog problem is most often a dog owner problem.

We make a lot of mistakes. Oftentimes we keep dogs -- the most gregarious of pack animals -- isolated from one another and alone for large parts of the day. We tether them in the back yard and forget about them and wonder why they bark. We fail to train them or, just as bad, resort to management by scolding, shouting and swatting, and wonder why they bite. We stay blithely ignorant of the most basic facts of canine society and exempt them from the more basic rules of ours. Who hasn't met the dog owner who thinks it's okay to let his dog insert its muzzle into the personal space of passing pedestrians, joggers or baby carriages?

Believe it or not, none of this is self-evident to the novice dog owner. I know. When I first got my dog, from a farmer who had him tied up and starving behind the chicken house, I had good intentions. I got him vaccinated, got some good help training him and figured I was in pretty good shape. After all, I'd always had dogs growing up. How could I fail?

Ha. There was the time I failed to check the thickness of the ice on the C&O Canal, and, unleashed, he scooted across the thin white after a squirrel, fell through and nearly drowned.

There was the time, again off the leash, he ran howling out of the woods at our local park with a large raccoon clamped to his side. The time he plunged, for reasons unclear, into the storm-swollen Potomac and was swept 20 yards downstream. The time he slipped through my legs and out the front door, this time after a cat, and nearly was hit by a car.

After each of these incidents, routines were changed, permanently. But I had a lot to learn, and I'm still working at it.

Why, you may ask, was he not on a leash more often? Good question. And ignorance is only part of the answer. The fact is, it's hard to exercise a dog on the end of a six-foot leash. He could get his exercise on the end of a leash, but it would take a lot longer, and -- according to a growing consensus among canine behaviorists -- he'd be an unhappier and duller dog. And then there's the fact that keeping him chained to me all the time makes me feel like a jailer.

So, yeah, dog owners need to be more realistic about, and responsible for, the behavior of their dogs. But dog ownership can't be utterly privatized. And most dogs need contact with other dogs and more yard than most individual owners will ever be able to provide. It's in the nature of the beast. So what's the answer?

The dog park, maybe. It's a very 1990s idea. It requires private initiative, public resources and compromise all the way around. And, its proponents say, it can be both civilized and civilizing -- not only for dog and owner, but for the rest of the neighborhood, too.

[5]

It Takes a Village

As with so many social experiments, California got there first. The country's first organized struggle for a legal dog park was in Berkeley in 1985, as competition for open space was intensifying.

As is often the case, the dog people reclaimed land no one else wanted. The first unofficial dog park appeared on a small patch of land over a transit station. The next two sprouted atop a landfill and an abandoned battery dump.

All three spaces have since become official off-leash dog exercise areas, covering about 40 acres in all. The largest, Point Isabel, just outside the city, keeps a frequent users' mailing list that numbers 5,000. On a grassy sweep of land beside San Francisco Bay, dogs peaceably share the earth with bicyclists, Frisbee players, kite fliers and others. The newest of the parks, named after Cesar Chavez, is still a pilot program after a year, and is carefully monitored. But this spring, the park's advocates were gratified by one sure sign that the park was wriggling its way into daily life: an espresso trailer.

Now, other communities are copying the idea. Locally, the first fenced dog park in Maryland opened in Greenbelt in 1996; the first one in Northern Virginia opened in the Del Ray area of Alexandria the next year. Now, dog parks are being considered in dozens of communities from Seattle to Boston, and as far away as Japan. There are at least half a dozen Internet sites devoted to the matter, offering everything from tactical advice to actual ground plans (see box, page 26).

The 15-year history of dog parks isn't even a blip in the long history of human-canine relations, but the preliminary results are promising. The horror scenarios envisioned by dog park opponents have not materialized, and the benefits are increasingly visible.

The dog-waste issue has turned out to be largely irrelevant, since well-run dog exercise areas are usually cleaner than their surroundings. No epidemic of dog bites and dog fights has materialized, either. And liability has yet to become much of an issue: A study comparing the incidence of accidents and lawsuits at a dog run and a children's playground in Palo Alto, Calif., found that swing sets produced 168 liability claims against the city each year. Half a million dog visits since 1974 had produced none. Organizers at local dog parks say injuries so far consist of people getting knocked down by their own dogs.

Meanwhile, many dog parks have turned out to be excellent sites for improving the lot of dogs, and the people around them. The Greenbelt park invites dog trainers to teach humans the difference between aggressive play and serious aggression. The park has held "responsible pet ownership" fairs, outlining the time and responsibility a dog demands, and diplomatically pointing out that people with busy lives might be better off with rabbits or reptiles.

But the Berkeley experience has proved to be a model in more ways than one. Wherever dog parks appear, it's after a process that is long, arduous and intensely political.

Berkeley's first park took three years to establish and generated "a mountain of paperwork," says Pam Ferguson, who helped lead the effort. It was the number one issue before the city council for more than a year.

The park advocates, some of them veterans of the People's Park movement of the late 1960s, used classic grass-roots organizing techniques. They canvassed neighborhoods, lobbied skeptical politicians and marshaled the testimony of experts, including veterinarians, animal behaviorists and, not least, the retired dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley. They employed strategic charm, organizing a "paw-tition," in which dogs with finger paint on their paws "signed" a long scroll-like petition. It was presented to the office of the city clerk, where it hung for more than a year.

There's a steep learning curve, for dog owners and non-owners alike: Volumes of conflicting information about what a dog park should look like. High fences or no fences? Kids in or out? Near the water or not? Sand, dirt or grass for ground cover? Plastic bags provided, and if so, by whom? If dog bites dog, or dog bites man, who is liable?

The politics often are both institutional and individual. "You have to deal with the city council as a whole, as well as the individual council member who was knocked over by a large dog when he was 3," says Claudia Kawczynska, editor of the Bark, a Berkeley-based national dog newsletter with a literary bent.

If non-dog owners sometimes need an education about dogs, dog owners often need a crash course in political reality. "A lot of people think it's their natural right to have a dog park," says Kawczynska. "I don't. There has to be careful control."

In Berkeley's case, and the others since, says Ferguson, success depended on the presence of a core group of dedicated activists who were willing to make the dog park campaign their lives for a few months, or even years -- and to coordinate their efforts with the community.

New York City's rancorous war on off-leash dogs this spring was a prime example. Both Manhattan and the adjacent borough of Brooklyn have a tradition of coexistence between dogs and people. But in Manhattan, a crackdown on leash-law violations degenerated into name-calling and threats, while over the bridge in Brooklyn, off-leash hours at Prospect Park were expanded without a whisper of complaint. The difference, says the organizer of the Brooklyn effort, Jane Cameron, was a preexisting community, an informal system whereby longtime park users taught newcomers and their dogs the rules. In preserving their privileges, the dog owners worked closely with birdwatchers, runners, bicyclists and equestrians, and raised some $1,000 to buy more trash cans.

In the Washington area, that same equation has held. In Greenbelt, in addition to human activists, even many of the dogs were active citizens, service dogs for the disabled, or "dogs on wheels" who visited hospitals and nursing homes.

The struggle to establish a dog park can strengthen as well as divide a community, and the benefits can ripple far beyond the park's confines. "This is a whole-body issue," says Ferguson. "It takes heart and mind and guts, and the talents of a lot of different people to make a dog park."

[6]

A Tale of Two Parks

"Otto, this way! Otto! Come back here! OTTO!"

It's early evening, and we're hanging at the seemingly doomed Glencarlyn dog park again, this time with Judy Green and her dog, Otto, a boisterous adolescent shepherd with a raggedy tail that looks like it lost a battle with a lawn mower.

We've got the usual crowd of about 15 dogs on hand (about half the size of the morning crowd). The pack is constantly in flux, replenishing itself with new arrivals as the mud-caked wobble home.

Having spent most of the day alone, the dogs arrive here ready to rock. (Otto was mashed so eagerly against the back window of Green's Subaru he looked like a one-year supply of dog in a jar.) They carom through the small clearing like mercury balls, and rocket into the creek to retrieve sticks and rocks.

The humans stand around and watch, trade dog lore. We mostly know each other by our dogs' names. I keep wanting to tell these people I'm writing a story about this place, but I'm worried about making everyone self-conscious, and it's almost too much information about me in such a semi-anonymous setting, so I don't. So I'm incognito, undercover, in the underdog dog park. A dog owner and reporter (reporter and dog owner? chicken and egg?): My relationship to this story is as tangled as a leash on a house-bound Labrador. I'm so close to this thing I've got fleas.

But back to Otto, who has disappeared over the creek bank. His tail was shredded long before Green adopted him from the pound, but somehow it seems fitting that the companion of Arlington County's number one dog park advocate has a few battle scars.

Judy Green got involved in dog parks as an ordinary citizen back in 1995, when she petitioned the county for fencing at the dog park near her house. Thus began a five-year quest to make dog parks as commonplace in the local landscape as soccer fields and tot lots.

"We were getting kicked off of ball fields," she says. "I just wanted a safe place to play. It seemed like a simple enough request." After all, she reasoned, the county was collecting some $50,000 a year in dog licensing fees. And it freely spent money on those soccer fields and tot lots, so how could it object to stringing up a few hundred feet of chicken wire?

The county turned her down, but recommended she try again as part of a sponsoring group. She couldn't find one, so she formed one: ArlingtonDogs. The county promptly put her on the citizens' work group appointed to evaluate the status of all the dog parks. Thus began the civic baptism of Judy Green, anonymous commuter turned reluctant St. George of Northern Virginia dogdom.

When she got started, Arlington was way ahead of most other jurisdictions as far as dog parks go, with seven legal off-leash exercise areas. But by January of this year, the continued existence of at least three of them was in doubt. There was serious noise about closing Glencarlyn dog park entirely, and no plan to replace it. To make matters worse, county animal wardens were shutting down illegal off-leash areas. Fifty-dollar tickets were being written, and the Arlington animal shelter was lobbying to raise the fine for off-leash infractions to as high as $250.

The dog dragnet was tightening. Like a lot of close-in, older suburbs, Arlington is more than 97 percent developed; when it wants to create green space, it has to buy buildings and tear them down. Meanwhile, the county's population is growing steadily, with 22,000 new residents projected in the next 10 years. Residents who will want to skateboard and play soccer on county land, and who won't want to be tripping over dogs while they do it.

The complaints were predictable. Homeowners near Madison dog park objected to the barking. Homeowners near Banneker objected to too many dogs. Glencarlyn's critics were worried about soil erosion. The list went on.

And then there was the pollution issue, which loomed particularly onerously for Glencarlyn, sitting as it does alongside Four Mile Run. Identifying the source of the pollution is about to become a point of law, as the federal government begins to enforce the second phase of the Clean Water Act, when secondary sources of pollution will come under scrutiny.

So Glencarlyn was threatened. Judy Green rallied her membership. The work group's final meeting looked like their last chance.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County was just beginning its odyssey. With its estimated 100,000 dogs, Fairfax had not even one legal off-leash area. What it had instead was a lot of scofflaws.

At one popular illegal dog park, zealous enforcement of the leash laws escalated into a spectacular, full-scale leash-law rebellion.

By all accounts, it was wild. At its peak, the situation at Blake Lane resembled a canine remake of the chase scene in "North by Northwest." There were animal control officers hiding in hedgerows, dog owners equipped with walkie-talkies. There were shouting matches, and dog wardens frog-marching miscreants to their houses to collect ID, even animal control vans leaping the curb to pursue fleeing dogs and humans across the bumpy suburban veld. Arrests were made, court summonses delivered to schoolteachers, teenagers, immigrants. Thousands of dollars were spent on lawyers' fees.

It had started so sweetly, too. The field at Blake Lane was a rough swath of grass and thicket, a former schoolyard nestled in a large cluster of condos, town houses and apartments off Route 123 near Vienna. It began drawing dog owners from the neighborhood several years ago. You couldn't see the dogs from the road. No one knew they were there.

It was pretty anonymous, at first. But over time, people learned the dogs' names, then one another's. Birthdays were celebrated. There were picnics in July. Outdoor Christmas parties. A phone directory was compiled, and the dog owners gave themselves a name: the Bushman Drive Kennel Club. They even had stationery printed.

People got attached to the place. It was a kind of victory over the anonymity and transience of life in a commuter suburb. So when a disgruntled dog owner reported them to animal control, they did not go quietly. They understood about leash laws. But Blake Lane was different. Resisting the crackdown there was a matter of principle, a protest against bad lawmaking and bureaucratic unreason. The dog owners were paying their taxes to support schools, soccer fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, Frisbee courts, golf courses, etc., whether they used them or not. Why couldn't the county provide even a patch of space for dogs to run around with other duly licensed and vaccinated residents?

So, led by a retired but unretiring former advertising executive named Bob Fowler, the Bushman Drive Kennel Club refused to buckle up, or buckle under.

"Because of you, I'm taking Prozac!" the then-director of Fairfax's animal shelter shouted at Fowler during one meeting.

"Well, maybe if you were doing your job and controlling your officers, you wouldn't need it!" Fowler shouted back.

All of which made for some entertaining newspaper stories, but was actually quite traumatic for the people involved and, county officials readily conceded, embarrassing to a county proud of its affluence and amenities.

The club finally collapsed last year under all the stress and the summonses. But before it went under, the club's officers asked the county to make Blake Lane legal. They offered to adopt the park, the way businesses sometimes adopt highways. The county said no. And that seemed to be that.

But not really. Because Arlington was finding a way out of its trouble with dogs.

Just as in Berkeley, dog owners in Arlington were emerging as a political force. The ArlingtonDogs membership was a tiny fraction of all dog owners in the county, but it was enough to get the attention of elected officials and county staff.

In theory, the meetings of the Arlington County Dog Exercise Areas Work Group should have been deadly dull, spewing asphyxiating clouds of bureaucratic acronym and soul-crushing piles of legal documents. But as the work group approached its deadline, a civic poetry -- contentious, but transforming -- began to be written.

Sitting around folding tables in drafty county community centers, the committee members put themselves through a crash course in the microbiology of dog waste, the aesthetics of fencing, the principles of civil engineering and water drainage. They held public hearings, listened stoically to dozens of citizens making the same points. Tempers frayed at times, but overall, the mood was unexpectedly buoyant. It was aided by the presence of a no-nonsense citizen chairman, some phlegmatic county officials and the so-called Arlington Way, the county's low-key, consensus-driven political style.

But more than that, it was as if the committee on some level recognized that finding an elegant solution to the dog problem would say something important about the county itself. Or, rather, that failing to find a solution would make the county look backward and unresponsive.

By the final public meeting, in March, a lot had been resolved. It was agreed that dog parks were in Arlington to stay. It was further agreed that dog parks worked best if they were closely managed, and by dog owners. It was agreed that well-run dog parks might even present money-making potential -- for the county or for commercial sponsors.

The pollution issue was set aside. It was agreed that the county would await the results of new testing techniques that would pinpoint exactly which mammal -- dog, cat, raccoon, rat, human -- was fouling the water. (The case against dogs as the primary source of Four Mile Run's problems had been complicated by the discovery that a large condominium complex had been dumping tons of raw sewage directly into the creek for the past two decades.)

Finally, late into the evening, only one item remained on the docket. And in the well-established tradition of local government, it was the really controversial one.

Alerted by Judy Green, about 50 people and two dogs showed up to talk about the survival of Glencarlyn. They spoke one by one. Their arguments ranged from the legally sound to the politically undeniable to, finally, the deeply emotional.

They saved the clincher for last. The dog park, they said, had become a community center for the four large single-family subdivisions that surround it.

A small, dark-haired woman, a Texas transplant by way of Fairfax, said Glencarlyn had made a big impression when she was house-hunting. She'd wandered into the park, seen signs for a legal dog park and started to cry. "I thought, `Wow, Arlington really cares about its citizens.'

"This is my community," she told the committee tremulously. "If you close the park, you will really affect a lot of people's daily lives."

The audience applauded. I closed my notebook, scratched my flea bites. The task force members thanked all present and everyone went home.

A few days later, my phone rang. It was Judy Green. "We saved Glencarlyn. I'm ecstatic," she said, in a small, tired voice. The work group had decided that it would be premature to close Glencarlyn. It would stay open at least until it could be replaced.

A few days after that, the phone rang again. It was Bob Fowler this time. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors had suddenly approved a pilot dog park project for Blake Lane. Following Arlington's lead, Fairfax was appointing a citizen task force to get the park organized. Fowler, who at one point in the Blake Lane tempest had fled to Florida, partly out of fear that the stress might bring on a second heart attack, was invited to serve on the committee. So was Judy Green.

"Yeah," Fowler said happily. "It looks like we got our puppy park. It's just a matter of time now."

Well, that was a little overly optimistic. The fractiousness of the first task force meeting suggested that there would be no shortcuts for Fairfax. Some people worried that Blake Lane would be overrun by dogs from all over the county. Others thought a six-foot chain-link fence would make the park look like a prison yard. Still others objected to Bob Fowler himself, whose role in the rebellion struck them as more obnoxious than heroic.

"I wonder sometimes if I'm crazy to be doing this again," Judy Green allowed afterward.

She decided to keep at it. She had selfish, personal reasons, of course. The dogs. But you could argue there was more at stake than that. You could say that, all right.

After all, what will it say about us when we are no longer willing to tolerate the ever-loyal, ever-adaptable dog, our companion, camp follower and guardian from savanna to suburb?

Where will we be when there is no place for Lassie to come home?

Mary Battiata is a staff writer for the Magazine.

Dogs on the Web

A partial list of sites devoted to dogs and dog parks

www.arlingtondogs.org -- The official site of ArlingtonDogs.

www.dogpark.org -- From the people who organized Maryland's first dog park, in Greenbelt.

www.thebark.com -- The electronic version of Claudia Kawczynska's Berkeley-based literary newsletter.

www.freeplay.org -- A national clearinghouse for information about the off-leash dog.

www.offleash.com -- The bulletin put together by dog owners around Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

www.sfdog.org -- A font of statistical information and blueprints for dog parks in the San Francisco area.

www.dogpark.com -- More from California on canines, including a list of dog parks nationwide.

www.uwsp.edu/acad/psych/dog/dog.htm -- Put together by a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a library of Internet information on dog training and behavior.

-- M.B.

CAPTION: Sukriti and Neetika Gujral and Oscar, Oakton

CAPTION: Vincent Covert and Kita, Washington

CAPTION: Melissa Trichon and Daisy, Oakton

CAPTION: Richard England and Zsa-Zsa, Washington

CAPTION: Eric Parker and Milo, Arlington

CAPTION: Dale Vaughan and Cortez and Jezebel, Arlington

CAPTION: DeWee Joseph and Quiteaux, Washington

CAPTION: Alvaro Porcayo and Blizzard, Oakton

CAPTION: Judy Green and Otto, Arlington

CAPTION: Bob Fowler and Dewey, Oakton

CAPTION: Lynn Cummings and Ralph, Arlington

CAPTION: Fred Bowes and Nico, Oakton

CAPTION: Kiran Waldbaum and Nikki, Washington