Fighting for the Little Dogs 

A local dachshund fancier's contentious mission to create separate-but-equal canine recreational facilities.

Michelle Cowles doesn't like messes. Or hair. Or picking up large turds. So when the forty-year-old San Ramon resident and her husband decided to become first-time dog owners several years ago, they thought small. "I said I only want something that's going to poop the size of my pinky," Cowles remembers. "I told my husband we're going to get a toy poodle because poodles don't shed. And he said, 'Those are girly dogs,' so it was between a pug and a miniature dachshund. So we decided on the dachshund."

When the first of her two miniature dachshunds -- she calls them her "girls" -- was four months old, Cowles took her to the local dog park. The city of San Ramon had just spent thousands to build the swankiest pooch playground around, where canines could revel in unleashed freedom. Cowles set down Lucy, who at seven pounds was smaller than most cats. The dachshund scurried out to find a playmate, but larger dogs saw what -- a furry squish toy? A stick with legs? A Scooby snack? Poor Lucy ended up on her back beneath a park bench, tail tucked between her short legs, scared but unhurt. A second trip to the park fared no better.

While some small-dog owners might have retreated to their backyards and called it a day, Cowles didn't. She saw taxpayer-funded park space Lucy couldn't use. She saw a potential death zone. She saw injustice.

Many public meetings, angry large-dog owners, a Freedom of Information request, and roughly six thousand city dollars later, San Ramon cordoned off a section of the existing park for small dogs only. Cowles celebrated with balloons and homemade dog biscuits. "People called me an activist, which just appalled me because I'm conservative and a Republican," she says. "I just felt it was a need, for the safety of small dogs."

That need became insatiable. The blonde advertising executive networked. She testified. She created presentations. And she won -- helping score a small-dog park for the city of Alameda after a seven-pound miniature pinscher named Jenna was mauled and killed by a 95-pound mastiff. Then, in January, an undefeated Cowles turned her attention to neighboring Danville.

For ten years, the wealthy suburban enclave had coveted a dog park. Never mind the acres and acres of East Bay Regional Parks open space and trails that surround Danville and are open to off-leash dogs. Never mind that almost all of these sprawling suburban homes have roomy yards. Danville dogs needed a dog park, and Cowles wanted to ensure that small dogs got their cut, too. By the end, fur flew, officials rolled over and, as usual in this town, the skaters got zilch.


Manolo Blahniks: Out. Louis Vuitton: Out. This fashion season, dogs not much bigger than a well-fed New York City rat are the IN accessory. Paris Hilton in. Britney Spears in. They're cute, cool and, as BARK magazine editor Claudia Kawczynska says, "truly easier to own" than large dogs. So, after spending up to $1,500 for one, a gal needs to be seen. And where better to go than the local dog park?

In 1983, Berkeley built the nation's first dog park. There are now some five hundred around the country, according to the National Recreation and Park Association. For many years, though, Danville remained a dog-park backwater. It took fifty pro-canine lobbyists to finally push the idea to fruition.

The spot chosen was Hap Magee Ranch Park, next to Interstate 680 -- a location owned half by Danville, half by Contra Costa County. Despite picking up just half the tab, Danville's expenses came to $60,000. That's partly because parks officials wanted to maintain a ranch theme, says Tom Cushing, one of the residents involved. Design elements like a wooden fence and a tall, framed entrance had to match the name: Magee Ranch Canine Corral.

The corral finally opened on July 9, ahead of a yet-to-be-completed children's playground nearby. With handsome wood fencing, cedar chips, fresh green grass, galvanized water tubs sunk into the ground, fancy benches, and new landscaping, the place was high class. A's general manager Billy Beane and his dog friend could be spotted there. Danville had arrived.

Cowles and other small-dog owners had begged for their own space. Doggie deaths!, they'd warned. Cushing and others had downplayed the risk: Dog owners, they argued, could police themselves. Officials went with the Pups Can All Get Along plan. Cowles continued her crusade, but the parks department's planning commission was steadfast. "Don't make me come back here and say, 'I told you so,'" she told the panel on July 22.

Days later in the dog park, Cushing, who drives a car with a bumper sticker that reads "My Border Collie Is Smarter Than Your Honors Student," was chucking a tennis ball to one of his canines. True to her breed, she ran a razor-edge line, shooting toward the ball as if her very life depended on it, and collided with a toy fox terrier. The small dog, named Spot, died on impact. An unfortunate, freak accident, all agreed, including Cushing and the terrier's owner. "Things like this do happen, but they happen very infrequently," BARK editor Kawczynska says.

Danville, however, tossed the proverbial bone. Within days, a small-dog park was on the books, and its eventual design was the most expensive option, costing an additional $30,000. Danville's small-dog park within the big-dog park is set to open this winter.

Yet all was not well back at the ranch. Until the new enclosure opened, park officials asked owners to alternate usage times: even hours for the small dogs, odd for the big guys. But when small-dog owners showed up for their appointed slots, things got hostile, says Danville resident Doreen Pearsall, who owns a six-pound miniature pinscher and a five-pound toy fox terrier. She doesn't carry her dogs in a designer purse or dress them in outfits, she says, but admits the outing is mostly social for her. Not wanting to miss out, Pearsall had continued going to the park even after the accident. There, she found large-dog owners ignoring the rules, she says, ripping down the posted signs and barging in on small-dog hours. "They'd say, 'I'm a CEO of a company, I can do whatever I want.' It was like sending a nine-year-old out to play with the Oakland Raiders." After getting insulted and flipped off, Cowles and Pearsall called the Danville police, who came and promptly told the women that the park rules were unenforceable.

Later, to mollify everyone, parks officials erected a temporary dividing fence. Yet Pearsall, who lobbied with Cowles, is afraid to go back: "I don't even want to go to the grocery store in Danville because I don't know who will be standing in the checkout line."

Dwight Maloney, a parks and recreation commissioner, found the whole spat so deplorable he cast the lone dissenting vote against a separate enclosure. But Town Councilwoman Karen Stepper, who voted yes for it and owns two seventeen-pound shih tzus, sees it differently. "The population in Contra Costa County is projected to get older in the next twenty years, particularly in the Danville-Alamo area," she says. "People move down into smaller residences and get smaller dogs. You're missing a whole lot of your constituency if you're not serving them."

Only a couple of residents spoke against it at the town council meeting: You're foolish to spend this money on pets, one said. Spend it on kids. Build them a skate park.


What to do in Danville if you're thirteen, seventeen, twenty? Drive through downtown at night and it's a Marie Callender world -- safe but bland. The parks close at dusk, so you could go to Starbucks. Or Blockbuster. Or, if you're a skater, the empty parking lot behind the bank or risk (yeah!) a face-off with the owner of an upscale shopping center to ride past stores named Pleasant Thoughts and Elegant Clutter.

"There's no place legal in Danville to skate," laments Darrin Peaslee, 25, who grew up there. The skater, who wears a knit cap despite summer temperatures, says the sport is huge in town. In fact, there was a skate park at one time, he says, a temporary plywood slap-job, but it was torn down to build new houses. To lobby for a real skate park requires a lot of organization, Peaslee says: "Which we don't have. We need a voice."

A voice. A perky, confident voice like that of Michelle Cowles, who is still advocating for the tiniest of the disenfranchised. During a recent phone conversation, Cowles says she's hoping to get on the task force of Dublin's dog park. Her long-term goal is to get small-dog parks written into state code. Back at the Danville park, Cowles had actually compared her cause to winning access for the disabled. On the phone, she's more modest -- she simply wants what's best for her girls. And so, halfway through the conversation, she stops midsentence. Her dogs, she explains, needed to cuddle.

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