Welcome to DogTown USA® 2009

Make your city dog-friendly, plus the surprising results of our fifth DogTown USA contest.

Our furry canine companions make a couple a family, a house a home, and a town a community.

One of the best things we can do for our dogs is to provide welcoming places for them to live. Not just backyards and doghouses; we’re talking about entire cities receiving dogs with open arms and providing them with the joys of life. 

In our hunt for DogTown USA 2009, we researched the cities you nominated, trying to find those that do the most justice to our best friends. This year, California made a clean sweep: San Diego, Huntington Beach, and Carmel-by-the-Sea ranked as the best big, medium, and small cities for dogs and their owners.

With everything from off-leash beaches to dog-friendly restaurants and hotels, dog services galore to admirable shelter euthanasia rates, these cities set the standard for canine excellence.

So how can other cities across the nation follow in the footsteps of these three winners? San Diego, Huntington Beach, and Carmel-by-the-Sea share traits that other communities can duplicate to become dog-friendly. All you need is an idea, lots of help from other dog lovers, a strategic plan, and some determination.

Attitude adjustment
Perhaps the biggest attribute of dog-friendly cities is the attitude of residents. People who embrace dogs as part of the community are essential.

“Pets are part of the family,” says Paula Fasseas, founder of PAWS Chicago, the city’s largest no-kill humane organization. The Windy City is a former DogTown USA winner.

Carmel also embraces this belief. “If you look at how dogs can contribute to your community, that’s an attitude change,” says Mayor Sue McCloud.

Dog-centric cities don’t view canines as nuisances, but rather as part of their hometowns’ charm.

“Your dog is part of the community here,” says Madison Fisher, visitor services manager for the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau. “You can do it all with your dog.”

This attitude begins at home with each owner taking care of his own dog.

“The community embraces being responsible pet owners,” says Renee Harris, senior vice president of animal services for the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA. “They take it seriously.”

Owners need to treat their pups with respect and love. That means regular veterinary care, licensing, vaccinations, socialization, training, spaying or neutering, obeying the city’s dog laws, and not chaining their dogs outside. Other rules: Scoop the poop, don’t let dogs run wild, and curtail bad behavior, such as barking, snapping, and jumping, especially in public.

This coastal gem, population of nearly 1.3 million, claims the DogTown USA title for the second time. More than 300,000 dogs call San Diego home. From dog-friendly businesses and restaurants to picturesque hiking trails and dog beaches, San Diego is doggie heaven.

“With 15 designated off-leash parks and beaches, endless sunny days, and an active lifestyle, there is no better place to have a dog’s life than San Diego,” says Mayor Jerry Sanders.

San Diego dogs even enjoy a night at the ballpark when the Padres host Dog Days of Summer at PETCO Park. For a more formal evening, the San Diego Humane Society hosts its annual dogs-invited Fur Ball.

“There are so many opportunities to take your pet with you,” Harris says. “It leads to the human-animal bond component.”

The powers that be
To make big changes in your city, you need to climb the legislative ladder, and deal with local government. Get to know your leaders, and attend city council meetings and other events where officials will be present.

“Those folks can be your allies,” says Justin Rudd, founder of the nonprofit Haute Dog organization in Long Beach, Calif., a former DogTown USA finalist. When planning the city’s off-leash dog beach, Rudd says he found out which council members had dogs. “Those are the folks that will understand what you are trying to do.”

Presenting officials with well thought-out ideas and specific plans for dog-friendly changes is a giant step in the right direction to making a difference. Many times, city leaders welcome a chance to be kind to their four-legged constituents — and their owners.

Sanford, Fla., a former DogTown USA finalist, sees this in action. The planning commission approved dog-centric businesses such as the doggie daycare facility Dog Day Afternoon, and green-lit outdoor areas like the fountain-laden Sanford River Walk.

“This is a great way to involve pets,” says Christine Dalton, historic preservation officer and community planner for Sanford.

Above all, don’t fear speaking up. Elected officials need to hear from their constituents.

Walk the talk
All dogs, owned or not, are taken care of in dog-friendly cities.

“Volunteer, and get grassroots people involved. Be a voice,” Fasseas says.

Spend one Saturday a month walking dogs at the shelter. Work adoption fairs for a rescue group. Organize a low-cost spay-neuter day or offer your clerical services at an existing service. Get people around you motivated to help homeless dogs. Possibilities abound.

You can also volunteer for the more fortunate dogs in town. Join a breed-specific club or work with the city to maintain dog parks or hiking trails. Help organizations plan and implement dog-friendly events, such as Sanford’s Paw Park Birthday Bash and the Haute Dog Howl’oween Parade in Long Beach. When you have a new idea, enlist other dog lovers to help you make it happen.

A day at the park
A larger project that can really unite the dog-owning community is a dog park. Luckily, these endeavors don’t have to break the bank. Dog parks can often be created within already existing parks. All that’s needed are some waste bag containers and fencing. Former DogTown USA winner Colorado Springs has five off-leash parks, and acknowledges their importance.

“If your town doesn’t have a dog park, you can work with your city officials to designate an existing park as an off-leash area,” says Ann Davenport, director of community resources for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.

It’s hard to think of this picturesque seaside hamlet without seeing a dog. This fact makes residents of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., extremely proud.

“It very definitely is a way of life here,” says Mayor Sue McCloud. “Dogs are just a given.”

Despite being tiny (population 4,000), Carmel has a large dog population. Nine hundred actually call this town home, but more than 50,000 visit annually. Nearly 20 restaurants welcome dogs, as do half of the local hotels. Even the stores are happy to oblige the four-legged shopper: The Carmel Plaza shopping center has a Fountain of Woof for the dogs.

“It’s really dog-centric and dog-friendly,” says Gary Tiscornia, executive director of the SPCA for Monterey County.

Although there is no specific dog park, canines do get to romp off leash on the one-mile stretch of Carmel’s famous white-sand beach, as they can in the 35-acre Mission Trails Nature Preserve.

“You are sort of joined at the hip with a dog,” McCloud says. “It’s always been something that’s been important from the onset. We’ve always respected the extended family.”

Get involved
If you don’t see a lot of social activities involving dogs in your city, try starting them yourself.

“That’s a great way to build support in a community,” says Candice Eley, public relations coordinator for the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA.

Begin a breed-specific meet-up group at a park once a month. Visit dog hangouts, and recruit other like-minded folks to join you at a pet-friendly restaurant for “yappy hour” with your pups. Go for hikes along nature trails once a week, plan a doggie parade, or host a dogs-of-summer barbecue event.

“Don’t wait for everyone else to do something. You have to go for it, even when others say it won’t work,” Rudd says. “I can’t tell you about all the naysayers who told me I would never get a dog beach going in Long Beach. This summer [was] its eighth anniversary.”

Money matters 
To build parks, support rescue groups, and host dog-friendly events, you need money. Fundraising is a great way to get the ball rolling and make your ideas into realities.

Instead of giving gifts at the office Christmas party or your own birthday bash, agree to donate that money to a worthy dog cause. Raise funds yourself by organizing a dog wash, book sale, yard sale, craft boutique, or bake sale. Have a money dance at your wedding, and donate the cash. Contact a local university, sorority, fraternity, or service club to see if your cause can become its pet charity.

When funds are available, it makes it a lot easier for those in charge to say yes to a proposed project.

Open-door policy 
Encourage local stores and businesses to be dog-friendly.

Ask if they will allow dogs inside or on the patio, or if they’ll provide water, waste bags, and treats to visiting pups. Find out if restaurants will reserve a portion of their outdoor dining areas for dog patrons. Petition landlords to relax restrictions on renting to dog-owning tenants. See if workplaces will allow dogs to spend their days at the office.

Another California beach city ranks as DogTown USA this year, as Huntington Beach makes waves. Population 198,000, Surf City USA boasts more than 30,000 dogs, an 80-percent spay-neuter rate, a dogs-only menu at the popular Park Bench Café, and the Surf City Surf Dog exhibition, complete with surfing canines.

“We have an environment that’s welcoming, not only in our parks, but also on our beach,” says Luann Brunson, senior administrative analyst for the city.

The one-plus-mile Huntington Dog Beach is a huge hit with residents and visitors alike. In fact, more than 2 million dogs have visited the off-leash beach since it opened 12 years ago. Teams of volunteers keep it the cleanest beach in the city, says Huntington Dog Beach President Martin Senat.

“We’re very laid-back about dogs here,” Fisher says. “Where else can you see dogs on surfboards?”

Keep the faith
Although many dog-friendly towns have geography and climate on their side, that doesn’t mean other cities across the nation can’t follow their leads. Campaign for dog-friendly parks and recreational activities, take care of homeless dogs, make your own dog a canine ambassador, organize social groups involving dogs, encourage the city to host dog-friendly events, and be persistent.

“Make a continued and meaningful commitment to supporting dogs and owners in their city,” says Barbara Baugnon, marketing and communications director for the Oregon Humane Society. “From off-leash parks to pet-friendly restaurants and hotels to supporting dogs in shelters, it all adds up to a city where two-legged and four-legged family members can bond together.”

Above all, embrace dogs in your community. Help others see them as assets, not nuisances — that is the ticket to a dog town.

Kyra Kirkwood is a DOG FANCY contributing editor who lives in Fullerton, Calif. She has visited all three winning cities and lived in 2005’s DogTown USA — Chicago.

– See recent DogTown USA winners

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Dogs · Lifestyle

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