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Learn from those who are making Asheville, Birmingham, and San Francisco some of best places for dogs in the country.
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Lexi Kwak is obsessed with her dog, Ringo. But finding other dog owners to socialize with is often challenging for the young Alabama graphic designer.
“I want to meet other people who are as obsessed with their dogs as I am with mine,” she said.
So in early 2014, Lexi and fellow dog lover Alicia Stokes took to Instagram to share photos of their dogs and let other Birmingham-area dog owners post images of their favorite canines.
Quickly, their photo account evolved into a social media hub, the centerpiece of which is their increasingly popular website, DogsOfBham, which highlights all things dog-related, including neighborhood events, a listing of dog-friendly patios, links to local shelters, and even a lost-and-found section where residents can help locate lost dogs.
“The website developed as a way to host information, but it’s really brought the community together,” Lexi said. “It belongs to the community.”
DogsOfBham is just one of the many ways Birmingham has opened its arms to the dog community. This large city, located in the central region of a state that does not have a very positive reputation for animal welfare, is quickly becoming known for its Fido-friendly attributes.
“It all started with a previous mayor,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Birmingham resident Joey Kennedy. “He set up our first dog park and really got the ball rolling. Eight years ago, we didn’t have a single dog park. Now we have seven off-leash dog parks and four other dog-friendly parks.”
One, Remy’s Dog Park at Red Mountain Park, even features a fenced area for special-needs dogs, including those who are elderly, injured, or recovering from surgery. Joey, who runs the news website Animal Advocates of Alabama with his wife Veronica, also notes that the city has about 30 dog-friendly restaurants, numerous doggie day care centers, multiple breed- specific rescues, a cutting-edge veterinary community, one of the largest dog festivals in the South (Do Dah Day, held in the spring), and even a mobile dog-treat truck.
“We’ve come a long way in a very short time,” he said. “I only see it getting better.”
About six hours northeast, another Southern city has taken its love affair with its furry friends to new levels. Dogs are welcome just about everywhere in Asheville, North Carolina, from restaurants to downtown public spaces to outlying parks and hiking trails.
“Asheville’s dog-friendly nature is really an outgrowth of our community values as a welcoming, free- spirited southern city,” said Dodie Stephens, director of communications for the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In 2010, the city overturned regulations that previously banned dogs in restaurants, opening up alfresco dining opportunities and creating a culture that not only tolerates dogs but encourages their presence. From leash-free parks throughout the city to a plethora of doggy day cares and boutiques offering haute canine couture, baked goods, grooming, pet photography, and more, Asheville businesses acknowledge not just owners but their pups, too.
Even the hotel industry has opened its doors. Most notably, Aloft Asheville Downtown partners with a local rescue to foster and adopt out dogs; one lucky pooch at a time resides at the hotel, hoping to become the ultimate souvenir. More than 44 dogs have found their forever homes since the program began in October 2014.
“Asheville’s a big little town. We embrace diversity, and whoever is part of your family is welcome everywhere, and that includes dogs,” said Paul Berry, executive director of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, a no-kill organization that also provides a variety of community-based animal-welfare programs.
Its most effective is NeighborCorps. This all-volunteer program (Brother Wolf has 2,000 active volunteers, as well as about 800 foster volunteers) gets advocates out into the neighborhoods, going door to door to speak with residents about their pets, to offer assistance or educational resources, and to help with issues neighbors might be having.
“NeighborCorps has helped us create a tipping point about the community’s posture about no-kill,” Paul said. “It’s something that the community owns, and not just at some abstract level called the ‘community,’ but at the neighborhood level, where neighbors get involved with each other. We encourage people to work together.”
Across the country, in one of the country’s largest and most dog-friendly cities, Brandy Keuntzel agrees that individual responsibility plays a big role in creating a pet-friendly community. Brandy is the director of advocacy for the San Francisco SPCA, a leader in companion-animal welfare.
“It’s important for every dog guardian to encourage responsible ownership. A dog-friendly community is one that imposes responsibility on all the dog owners, irrespective of breed, and that really understands and respects that dogs are family.”
According to the SFSCPA, there are more dogs in San Francisco than there are children; there’s also one of the nation’s largest number of off-leash dog parks: 28.
The biggest obstacle for many towns is anti-dog laws and legislation. According to Brandy, more than 700 U.S. cities have bans or restrictions on certain breeds, such as Pit Bulls and other so-called “dangerous” breeds.
“It’s really well-documented that breed-specific legislation doesn’t make communities safer,” she said.
As such, the SFSPCA works with people and groups throughout the country to change laws and provide education and resources. Brandy encourages dog owners who aren’t satisfied with their city’s laws to become their “own animal welfare organization. It’s amazing how many changes have resulted from grassroots advocacy for dogs in society.”
Whether it’s organizing dog owners for social events or lobbying local governments to pass pet-positive laws, at the core of any dog-friendly community are the dog owners themselves.
“The power of one is really amazing,” Brandy said. “Start making a dog-friendly community important to you, and start acting through that in your everyday life. Once you decide that something is important to you, and you start looking resources and talking to people, the ball just starts rolling. I think you’ll be surprised at how many other people out there feel the same way you do.”
Just look at what happened in Birmingham.
“I never would have thought Birmingham would have become as dog-friendly as it has in such a short amount of time,” Joey said. “You can’t turn that back.”
Top photo: Asheville, North Carolina, courtesy Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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