Almost half of Americans have dogs. Do they also need cars?

Jeannie loves dogs.

Jeannie loves dogs.

In early January, I adopted a dog. This long time dream finally became possible when my husband and I moved to a pet-friendly apartment back across the country in Kitchener.** As with many rescue stories, we ended up with more dog than we anticipated, which has put me and my new neighborhood through a rigorous test. My dog, Jeannie, has given me a tough decision: get a car, or become the neighbor I want to be.

Almost half of American households have a dog (44% as reported here). If even a fraction of them are faced with this same decision - car or neighborliness - that has consequences to the strength of our places and the ability to design around walking.

Why would dog-ownership lead to car-ownership?

It’s tough to manage the needs of a young dog without a car. For example, when I started seriously planning for a pet, I realized I probably won’t be riding the bus or train much anymore - no dogs allowed. To get out of the city and visit family, I’d need a car to bring the dog along. So I checked our local rental car company’s pet policy and bought a trusty travel crate. So far, so good. Within the city, I found a couple vets within a 30 minute dog-walk distance and figured I’d just add dog food to my monthly bulk buying routine and things would work out. That’s what I figured before Jeannie. That’s what I figured based on caring for adult dogs in the past.

But before dogs grow to be calm adults, they are puppies and teenagers and it turns out Jeannie is younger than we thought. And so I've found myself in the reality of people with energetic dogs who need constant exercise, training, and socialization. Even though I’m walking more than ever, I’ve discovered that many dog destinations I now rely on (dog parks, hiking trails, doggie daycare, training facilities) are impractical to access on foot.

In my new neighborhood at the heart of Kitchener, I found a workaround: the carshare co-op has several pet-friendly vehicles within 1000 yards of our home. So far, I have dodged having to own a car myself, but I have not been able to dodge relying on a vehicle regularly. I’m driving a lot more than I ever was in my pre-dog life in New Brunswick, despite now living in a place with far more transportation alternatives. In fact, due to my dog, I’ve actually started recalculating if it would make sense to get a car, something I have been avoiding with great effort since the day I got my license.

A LOT of exercise went into the making of this peaceful image.

A LOT of exercise went into the making of this peaceful image.

Why are dog amenities a drive away in the first place?

In many cases, cities treat dog amenities the same way they do noxious land uses. People count on zoning and bylaws to distance themselves from the sights, sounds, and smells of a pack of dogs at play.

Oddly, it’s in the most urban of places that I’ve found pets to be most welcome. If not out of necessity, perhaps it’s a matter of relativity - how much additional noise and mess do dogs add to the workaday mayhem of the city? I recall walking through Greenwich Village and seeing that no less than Washington Square Park made room for a dog play zone and there was a busy doggie daycare on the ground floor of nearby building. Against the white noise of New York, barking probably doesn’t lose the neighbors much sleep. Or maybe it does and people are willing to make that tradeoff to live in New York. In downtown Toronto too, the dog parks are treated like a social destination and neighborhood asset, not a necessary evil.

It’s not fair to compare all cities to New York or Toronto though. The soundscapes of most cities could not easily absorb, say, my hound’s chatter when she’s getting into it with a pal. So I understand why a city would have a bylaw like Kitchener’s that prohibits doggie daycares with 9+ dogs anywhere within 200 meters of a residential zone. Likewise with training facilities and dog parks - given the potential for noise complaints, it’s no surprise that these are a drive away, buffered by forest, stroads, or industrial land uses. I don’t think it makes for a better city, but I completely understand why these regulations exist.

And since they do, I’m still faced with this challenge - do I get a car, rent one every week, deal with a frustrated dog, or turn to my neighborhood?

Small-scale dog

A dog’s needs are pretty simple: food, shelter, exercise, socialization, and the occasional vet trip. There is no reason these cannot fit nicely into a quiet, walkable neighborhood at the right scale. The problem I’m encountering is that the pet amenities I rely on are super-sized and truthfully would not fit in my neighborhood. The dog park is the size of three blocks, the closest place to get food is a giant “pet depot” in stroad-ville, the training facilities and doggie daycares are designed for over a dozen dogs at a time and relegated to the industrial zone. Even with an extremely active, medium/large dog, I could make do with a much smaller everything.

So I’ve been looking for dog-hacks closer to home instead. The process of doing so has forced me to walk the talk of getting to know my neighborhood and the relationships I’ve formed already are the kind that strengthen a place.

How my dog is making me a stronger citizen

A dog is a fuzzy Fitbit. Also, my feet hurt.

A dog is a fuzzy Fitbit. Also, my feet hurt.

1) More neighborhood walks. This is hardly a hack, but since a lot of people rely on the backyard to give their dogs exercise, I wanted to include this as a highly recommended alternative. Jeannie and I are eyes-on-the-street for over two hours almost every day. We know the ins and outs of every block within a mile radius. We know where the stray cats hang out, where the rabbits are thick, where the garbage cans are and how often they’re emptied, which houses are neglected, which streets have speeding problems, where there are drainage issues, which people shovel their sidewalks, which homes are having renovations done, and how quickly a house goes from Open House to Sold.

I have never been more in tune to my neighborhood and I can think of no better preparation to becoming a small scale developer / “farmer” in the words of Monte Anderson. In my pre-dog days, I’d feel safer walking at night when I saw dog-walkers out and about. I’m happy to now be one of those folks on patrol - Jeannie will tell off any rabbit who's causing problems.

2) Friends. Our dog makes friends easily. She is soft and gregarious and everyone wants to pet her or tell her she's pretty. I’m so grateful for this because we did not pick a great time to move house. All winter, the porches have been barren and the days short, so having this little friend-maker attached to me every time I walk out the door is a benefit. Through Jeannie, I’ve connected to other neighbors who love animals - people of all ages who tell me about their furry little one and inquire about mine. We don’t need as many trips to the dog park when Jeannie can play with a buddy down the street instead. Based on my unscientific measure of barks per walk, I’d estimate there are probably about a dozen other dogs living on my short street, half of which have fenced yards to play in, so I hope we can phase out the dog park entirely before too long.

3) Rituals and traditions. I’ve written in the past about the role of traditions in the social strength of a place. Being inducted into the local dog-owner community has introduced me to traditions I would have never known about otherwise. The other week, I was invited by a neighbor to a Sunday afternoon ritual - walking at “Snyder’s Flats,” a disused quarry so popular with dog-walkers that my neighbor recognized almost everyone there. I’ve met a few folks in a sort of young-dogs-club who meet up to play frisbee in the early light at a green behind our home. One of the local pet stores hosts monthly socialization walks, a parade of dogs along our crosstown trail. And of course, I now have a very compelling reason to join the thousands of people who regularly walk the loop around our local version of Central Park.

4) Feeding the neighborhood side-hustle economy. Turns out, there’s an AirBnB for dogs. You can find local people with fellow pets or backyards who will look after or walk your dog when you’re not available. This puts less stress on me and less stress on my dog, all while keeping money circulating in the neighborhood. We’ve already found a pet-sitter through this service and I’ve even considered starting offering walking myself once my own dog learns to be a little more chill on leash.

A couple years ago, I made the video below about dogs in the city, and how they tend to bring out our better selves and combat the isolation designed into our lives. We are training every day so that Jeannie can someday join us on walkable errands and relax on a patio too. 

Conclusion: How’s it all working out?

I believe that we can live car-free (or car-lite as Daniel Herriges has written about) with a happy dog. To be honest though, we do need a car for a few months to get through the training phase because our dog requires specific help that’s a 20 minute drive away. In a massive stroke of luck, I may be able to borrow a car from family for this time.

Never in all my urban studies did I expect dog training to be the kryptonite in my personal quest for walkable living. This experience has made me painfully aware of the predicament we face as communities trying to reduce our dependence on auto-infrastructure. My experience is just one example of the tradeoffs households have to make for their kids, pets, or workplace. I can see how, were we to buy a car to get us through this first year with a puppy, our lifestyle and routines would change, making it especially hard to reverse the decision later. From there, our vehicle reliance would become one more bit of inertia in the move to stronger cities.

In looking for small-scale dog-hacks in my neighborhood, I’ve found that Strong Citizens are already sharing, collaborating, and creating rituals inspired by their furry housemates. They are making more creative and productive use of space and building casual networks of care in their communities. What we lack most in my neighborhood are small-scale commercial dog services like a pet store, daycare, and training/socialization center. Where zoning is not an impediment, filling that gap could be more than just a business opportunity; it could be the opportunity for pet-owning households to live without a car.

How does your pet impact your relationship with your neighborhood? What challenges and opportunities do pets create in your town?

**Previously my writing for Strong Towns involved a place I love dearly called Fredericton, New Brunswick. In November, we made the heart-wrenching decision to leave Fredericton because I needed to see more of my family who reside far away in southern Ontario. Ryan and I are counting the days until our next visit to New Brunswick and hope to have our own tradition of long breaks in the peace of the Maritimes. We miss Fredericton every day.

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