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    Million Dog March

    By Joel P. Engardio

    While San Francisco is known for having more dogs than children, the world record for largest dog walk (22,742 canines) belongs to a small town in England. That might change when the Million Dog March comes to San Francisco June 2.

    Organizers don’t expect a million dogs (our city has about 150,000), but they like how the name suggests a force that can’t be ignored. “We want to show the size and passion of the dog community,” says event planner Sally Stephens. “It’s a gentle reminder to elected officials of the value that dogs have to people.”

    Dog politics have been a source of tension in San Francisco ever since Supervisor Harvey Milk famously stepped in a pile of doggie doo at an outdoor press conference in 1978. He wanted to pass a pooper-scooper law and staged his misstep to prove his point: Quality of life in a crowded city depends on how responsible its dog owners are.

    Today’s debate centers on where dogs should be allowed off-leash. Dog advocates want more areas for pets to run free. They also want access to walk dogs in parkland designated for habitat restoration. Environmentalists and parents object to the idea of excited dogs trampling fragile plants, endangered birds and small children.

    But there are lots of San Francisco families raising both kids and dogs. And plenty of Sierra Club members have dogs, too. “The love of dogs crosses all categories,” Stephens says, which means her Million Dog March will attract more than just doggie die-hards.

    Stephens leads a citywide dog owners’ group (SFDOG) that is hosting the potentially record-breaking dog walk in McLaren Park. Some call SFDOG an extremist group that pushes for dog rights over others who wish to enjoy a clean and tranquil park. But SFDOG advocates for more off-leash areas while acknowledging there can be a time for leashes. The Million Dog March will be a leashed event. It will also provide free poop bags.

    “We’re for off-leash only when the dog is under control,” Stephens says. “We don’t let dogs dig in the park. We don’t let dogs run up and jump on people.”

    Of course, dogs will be dogs, which is why training and public education is a big part of the SFDOG mission to ensure “responsible dog owners” have access to open space.

    It’s worth remembering that much of San Francisco’s coastal land was controlled by the military and off-limits until the early 1970s. Then it became national parkland with a mandate on recreation. A pet policy was created that allowed for off-leash dog play at popular places like Fort Funston, Ocean Beach and Crissy Field.

    In recent years, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area has focused more on restoration of native plants (even trying to drop “recreation” from its name). Now there is a proposal to replace the original pet policy and significantly reduce where dogs can go.

    But dogs don’t go to parks alone. Keeping dogs out also restricts the people and families who bring them. A city of 800,000 people (and their 150,000 dogs) needs access to parkland for safe and responsible recreation.

    The Million Dog March will show how the dog community can assert itself while having a good time. The three-mile walk isn’t a political rally. It has mainstream sponsors like Yelp, Zynga and Pet Food Express. It’s a party that includes music, games and dog contests like bobbing for tennis balls.

    “This will be a celebration of dogs and their place in our lives,” Stephens says. “It’s also a chance to stand up for our dogs and have a whole lot of fun doing it.”

    Joel Engardio serves on the board of directors of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and Plan C, a San Francisco organization that advocates for moderate solutions and legislation. Follow his blog at www.engardio.com