Not every community has had positive experiences with dogs or has humanized them to the degree found in many European countries and here in the United States. In an article, titled “The 20 Most Dog-Friendly Countries in The World,” published this past June on Bestlifeonline.com, not surprisingly 16 of the 20 countries listed were in Europe. However, in many non-European countries and cultures, dogs are not pets. They are primarily kept for security; as working animals for hunting, herding and farming; as a means of transportation; and even as food.
In the United States, dogs are considered companions, humankinds’ best friend, and sometimes even considered “children.” A 2017 study by the research firm Gale found that “44 percent of millennials see their pets as ‘practice’ for the real deal, with 21 percent citing that as the main reason for welcoming an animal into their homes and another 23 percent saying it was at least part of the reason.” Statistics show that 61 percent of white Americans own dogs compared to about 22 percent of blacks, 27 percent of Asians and 40 percent of Hispanics, and these pet owners love their dogs.
Dog parks have been touted as a means of strengthening social cohesion, improving neighborhoods and providing a public service for pet owners in dense urban neighborhoods. However, the desire to create more dog parks does not resonate with everyone in the United States, particularly with many in low-income black communities. Parks & Recreation sat down with NRPA board member Nonet T. Sykes, to gain some insight about why many African-Americans are not totally on the dog park bandwagon.
Parks & Recreation magazine: In a recent discussion about the value of dog parks to a community, you cautioned that not every community sees dog parks in the same light, and some may outright reject them. Why do you believe this to be so?
Nonet Sykes: Black communities have a long history of dogs being used against them and that in some ways, [dogs have been] used as an instrument of oppression and control.
In the days of slavery, fugitive slaves were hunted down by dogs, and during the civil rights movement, police dogs were used to control and oppress the black community, so I think that generally [the black community] had a terrifying experience with dogs, and it has only been recently, I would say, that blacks have started to own dogs.
P&R: In general, how would you say the black community views the dog park trend?
Sykes: It’s a signal that change is coming. They see that gentrification may likely begin to happen, and they’re going to be outnumbered by new people who may not look like them coming into the community and, also, by dogs coming into their community. So, this notion of displacement is likely top of mind.
I don’t know that communities of color would necessarily see [a dog park] as a positive amenity. As I think about some of the communities here in Atlanta, there are other amenities that are more important than a dog park. Now, again, you must think about the differences in community — those that are low income, with concentrated poverty, versus more upper-income communities. Dog parks make sense as an amenity in upper-income, upwardly mobile communities. But, if you’re talking about some black communities where there’s concentration of poverty, the last thing on their minds is a dog park. Is there access to safe and reliable transportation? Are there job centers, retail? Is there a place to buy groceries or coffee? Do we even have a safe place for ourselves to go and sit in a park, not ‘do we have a dog park nearby?’
P&R: What are the cultural norms in black communities that might cause residents not to support a dog park? You’ve covered some of this already, but what other things might there be?
Sykes: I think, in the black community, there’s a perception that dogs aren’t clean. They’re seen as dirty, smelly, and there’s this saying — I don’t know how prevalent this is, but I’ve certainly heard it in the black community, that white people love dogs, black people love their dogs. There’s not that great affinity for all dogs. Essentially, I can tolerate my own dog, but I don’t need a whole lot of other people’s dogs. Of course, you’re getting my perspective as a black woman in this world and what I’ve heard from friends.
P&R: Are there other things that you can think of that may be cultural perception about dogs and the community?
Sykes: My own personal perspective, is that white people value and have an affinity for dogs more than a human life, especially a black human life. There is a perception that some people would go out of their way to save a random stray dog but wouldn’t go out of their way to save a black life or support a person of color. And many white people regard their dog as their child and make comparisons, often, like they are children, which feels like you’re dehumanizing the value of the lives of people of color.
So, it’s deep…it’s deep and it’s pervasive. When you think about the mere introduction of a dog park, it seems very benign in affluent communities that think, ‘Well, why not have a dog park?’ It’d be great to have a place for all the dogs to go and gather, but when you think about many black communities that don’t have a safe place for kids to play, don’t have quality schools, that are a food desert, don’t have grocery stores, and we’re going to spend millions of dollars on a dog park? So, it’s about priorities and it’s about choices, right? What’s more valuable — the quality of life of a dog or the quality of human life?
I know it’s uncomfortable sometimes for folks to talk about/think about [these perceptions], but my perspective is that you only move forward when you stop and address those things that can be barriers between us. It’s a disservice to pretend that issues don’t exist. You must talk about it, you have to call it what it is, and talk about it to see the various perspectives and, hopefully, find ways to agree on what makes sense and find a path forward.
P&R: So, given the research findings about the health benefits of dog parks — that they support social cohesion, that people who exercise with their dogs are healthier, that communities are healthier with high percentages of dogs — how could parks and rec help improve the perception of dog parks in communities of color?
Sykes: I am not making a blanket statement that communities of color are never going to want a dog park. I suggest conducting a community survey and asking communities about the types of amenities they would like to see and include dog parks in the survey. And then maybe have focus groups to provide additional context. If dog parks rank toward the bottom of a community’s list, focus on why that is and then try to unpack some of that. You can also begin sharing information and data about the value and benefits of owning dogs. I think data shared in context and in communication with communities can help change the perception. Focus groups are a great way to understand perceptions. But, you must first start where people are. You have to ask people what they want and not assume that you know what they need or what’s best for the community.
P&R: Why do negative perceptions and feelings continue today?
Sykes: It’s multifaceted, but it’s likely based on people of color’s lived experiences that have been traumatic over the generations, again, tied to slavery and the civil rights movement and their history with dogs. Stories and images have been passed down for generations.
We currently have a civil rights exhibit around the Atlanta BeltLine with 177 images of never-before-seen photos of Atlanta and the Civil Rights Movement from 1944 to 1968. It’s the largest outdoor public civil and human rights exhibit in the nation. Dr. Karcheik Sims-Alvarado compiled these images in a book, and we went through the book and made sure we did not include any images with dogs in them, particularly because there was a negative relationship, again, with dogs being used in the civil rights movement. We put Xs over the images that we said could not be blown up and placed on the Atlanta BeltLine. Those are real, hard memories for folks. Either it’s their real, true, lived experience, or they’ve seen it in movies. And, there’s been a resurgence of movies about slavery and the civil rights movement in recent years, so we’re still seeing these images today. That could be one of the reasons why the perceptions continue.
Also, for many communities of color, their lives haven’t changed that much. An article I read recently stated that Atlanta has the highest rate of income inequality in the country. The level of economic disparity that exists in the city of Atlanta is the greatest in the nation. If you are born poor in the city of Atlanta, you only have a 4 percent chance of ever making it out of poverty. That’s unacceptable. Many folks still live in deep, concentrated poverty today. They can’t afford a dog, they don’t even know where their next meal is coming from. Many are living paycheck to paycheck, and dog ownership is considered a luxury. So, there are the gentrifiers on the BeltLine, who are advocating for dog parks and more parks and green spaces and walking trails, while on other parts of the BeltLine, people are advocating for a grocery store, a decent place to buy fresh produce and food items that are not pre-packaged, processed food. Those disparities are real.
P&R: What can be done, in your view, to dispel fears and create greater trust regarding dogs and dog parks?
Sykes: I think we’re getting there. It’s going to take time though. Change is hard, change doesn’t happen overnight, and I think if you disaggregate the data by age, you will likely see a greater percentage of black millennials or millennials of color own dogs. So, I think we are moving forward in creating a greater trust regarding dogs, but I think it’s going to take time.
Even though it may be healthy for an elderly person to have a dog for companionship, to get out and exercise with, go on walks and all that, it’s about a lifestyle change. And, many of them are set in their ways. They have their perception of dogs, so you just may have to wait for those millennials to get a bit older, become elders, and you’ll likely see a significant shift in perceptions.