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Keep Maggie Daley Park a Dog-Free Zone

Published in ChicagoNow, December 29, 2014

Dog lovers don’t hate me. Before you get angry and start to write mean comments on this post, I must state that I really, really like dogs. In fact, one of my daughters is a vet, and all of my kids have dogs. But I have to vote “no” when it comes to allowing dogs into the new Maggie Daley Park.

Of course, the usual reason given for banning dogs from some city parks is the poop. Yes, I know you pick up after your dog, but not everyone does. And there are also those stinky treasures in plastic baggies filling the trash containers. But there is another reason for keeping dogs out of parks designed for kids that I rarely read about: Some kids are horribly afraid of dogs.

I’ve written about this issue when making a case for not tying dogs up to school playground fences or outside of stores. I’ve known children who feared dogs so much that they were unable to walk to school if they saw one coming down the street. And I have a grandchild so fearful that she was almost hit by a car trying to run away from a dog outside her school. She had a full-blown panic attack.

I know what you are thinking. She should just get over it. It’s a dog’s world. Well, that’s not so easy for a child with special needs who was knocked down by a large dog in a park near her home at age two. And it’s not uncommon for children with special needs to fear dogs, even without a traumatic encounter. Dogs bark loudly, move suddenly into their space, jump up on them – all friendly gestures that upset kids who have sensory issues.

Let me share how hard our family has tried to help my granddaughter:

For over a year, I took her to weekly sessions at Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy. It’s a wonderful program with extremely patient volunteers who bring their well-behaved dogs to interact with children like my granddaughter. Her fear did lessen to the point where she could walk a dog and brush its fur. If all dogs lived in a predictable environment like Rainbow, she would have made her peace with them. Unfortunately for her, the experiences at Rainbow did not carry over to dogs she encountered in her everyday life. Those dogs barked, jumped, and didn’t sit quietly when she whispered, “Sit.”

Next, her mother arranged for sessions with a friend’s therapy dog, facilitated by a child behavioral therapist. That also fell flat as it was hard to coordinate the therapist’s and dog’s availability. So we hired a wonderful trainer from Adventures with Bailey, Susan Knack. My granddaughter did like Susan’s gentle 155-pound Leonberger, Sunny. That relationship helped a bit, but she soon discovered, once again, that most of the dogs she encountered in her daily life were nothing like Sunny.

Many people have tried to accommodate her fear by promising their dogs would be locked up when she visited their homes. But dogs are social creatures that cleverly escape confinement to join the crowd. They also need potty breaks. Every time she was promised the dog would be locked up, it inevitably bounded into the room at some point, reinforcing her fear that dogs could appear at any time.

Finally, her parents bit the bullet and Penny joined their family. They had Penny trained as a therapy dog, at great expense I might add, and she is indeed a wonderful pet. I can’t say my granddaughter loves her, but she does tolerate her as part of the family. And her anxiety level around other dogs, while not gone, is somewhat reduced. Still, when she unexpectedly encounters a dog, she screams or panics. Both behaviors excite the dog, producing exactly the response she fears.

I guess it boils down to who Maggie Daley Park is for. My granddaughter would never go to a dog park or dog beach expecting pooches who don’t like kids to leave. I do think she and other children like her have the right to go to a park created for children without having to worry about sharing it with dogs.

In a Chicago Tribune editorial, Don’t let Maggie Daley Park go to the dogs, Joanne Cleaver shared this about Lake Shore East Park:

But right outside the dog park, in the shade of the trees that ring the dog park, owners unleash their dogs and let them dash back and forth across the big lawn. Off-leash dogs run through the gated playground, where dogs are banned, according to the signs. Dog owners cluster in conversation on the sidewalks while their dogs monopolize the sidewalks, forcing stroller-pushing parents to cut a wide detour.”

Yes, the Park District reneged on its promise to allow dogs in Maggie Daley Park. And I understand that urban dogs have limited green space. While the dog poop argument is a valid one, the rights of children who fear dogs to enjoy this park built specifically for them trumps everything. Consider how many places are off limits to many children because their special needs make it difficult to go there (movies, crowded museums, noisy concerts, etc.). Surely, they should feel safe in a park dedicated to the enjoyment of all children.


by Laurie Levy
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