In his 1906 book, “Chapters from My Autobiography,” Mark Twain wrote the following: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
To that famous quote I would append the following: survey results.
Once more, I find myself having to defend a beleaguered user group from the wiles of the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks Department: dog owners.
Yes, yes, I know, dogs are responsible for the utter devastation on city open-space lands. They are creating an endless series of parallel trails; they have driven off virtually all the wildlife; they have made simple walking on public lands a terrifying experience.
Or so the prevailing ideology — or is it theology, at this point? — within the OSMP would have us believe.
Before I start, let me do my usual caveat: There are dog guardians in Boulder who are atrocious ambassadors for the rest of us. They let their dogs run wild, chase wildlife, slobber on other people, seeming to think it’s cute. They either pretend not to see their dogs pooping ( “Say, look at that fascinating cloud over there!” ) or dutifully bag up the waste and deposit it at trailside for the poop fairy to pick up. (That would be me; I don’t run with a dog any more, but in an effort to protect dwindling privileges, I pick up the poop that self-centered dog guardians leave behind.)
But contrary to the propaganda regularly hurled by anti-dog factions both inside and outside of OSMP, these are a small minority of people.
After years of little progress and growing restrictions on dogs and their guardians on open space, I’ve grown cynical. I believe that from the outset of the “Visitor Master Plan” process years ago, OSMP intended to step hard on the city’s once-dog-friendly open space rules.
Another crackdown is pending, all but certain to result in reduced privileges for dog guardians. And while they may not get it, local bureaucrats are themselves slavering over the chance to erect new regulatory edifices to deal with this apocalyptic problem.
Que será, será. But I’d like to let everyone know how statistics and surveys are being misused in their campaign.
Among the information currently being used to support new and tougher restrictions is a “conflict study” conducted by the department. The entire enterprise was an exercise in leading questions. Surveyors literally approached people on trails and asked them if they’d had a dog conflict that day; not quite as bad as, “When did dogs on open space stop bothering you?” but almost.
Further, the survey so wildly expanded the notion of “conflict” that the term has become all but meaningless.
Consider first that in studies from 2006, 2007 and 2010, 85.9 percent of respondents reported no conflict at all. However, the survey also confusingly places under “No Conflict/Not Applicable” such things as “dog chasing dog — guardians did not intervene” and “dog chasing dog — guardian reaction was ambiguous.”
The good aspect of that curious grouping is that the surveyors acknowledged that simply because a dog is “chasing” another dog does not mean something isn’t right. Dear OSMP: This is called “playing” in most instances and doesn’t call for a “guardian response.” But merely by suggesting that such play might be a problem, the survey gives away its bias.
At any rate, when you add in those ambiguous categories, 90.5 percent of those surveyed reported “no conflict” or “not applicable.” Not bad.
Of the remaining 9.5 percent, 3 percent reported “voice and sight” violations in which dogs were seen doing such things as chasing or flushing wildlife (the first is inexcusable; the second highly subjective) and making unwanted physical contact (an alarming 0.7 percent).
Meanwhile, 6.5 percent of “conflicts” fell into violations of “etiquette” — like the twin scourges of barking and sniffing . Also included here were “repeated calling” by guardians, licking, pawing, “dogs shaking water” and “dogs getting things muddy.”
Clearly there is a crisis at hand.
“They have expanded the definition of conflict to the point where nobody even knows what it means any more,” says native Boulderite Lori Fuller, who has spent many frustrating years advocating for dogs on open space and is a member of Friends Interested in Dogs and Open Space. “It’s so inclusive that we don’t even know what problems we are trying to solve any more.”
And let’s look at OSMP’s unscientific method in measuring whether dogs can be recalled by guardians (a requirement for having an off-leash “green tag” for open space). Surveyors hung out on trails and reported the percentage of dogs that responded immediately when called by their guardians — about 50 percent. And so they concluded that a shocking half of dogs don’t come when called.
Only one problem: the guardians who did not attempt to call their dogs when going by — 85 percent — were not counted, rendering the survey meaningless. Clearly, not all 85 percent can be immediately put into the “came when called” category, but it’s interesting that they were completely eliminated from consideration … for behaving well.
In addition, the surveyors had no way of knowing whether guardians were even attempting to truly “call” their dogs. As Fuller points out, “dog owners will tell you that there may be more than one command, one a sort of casual get-your-attention command, and one that means ‘come here right now.'”
Which of course highlights the fact that the surveyors don’t necessarily know anything about dogs.
Unsurprisingly, given the perilous gravity of this looming disaster, OSMP bureaucrats have proposed all manner of delicious “solutions.” You can find the whole report by pasting http://1.usa.gov/IWwxMf into your browser, but my favorite idea is the creation of a new bureaucratic edifice through which the city would preemptively evaluate dogs before guardians are given green-tag privileges.
This program, according to the report, would require $50,000 to get off the ground and unspecified ongoing costs to hire or train people to do this testing. No word on whether they would have any expertise whatsoever in dog behavior or training, but who cares?
According to the report, “nearly two-thirds of Boulder residents” would support such an initiative, though no citation is given. But it also acknowledges that, “The increased difficulty in demonstrating voice and sight control skills, higher program costs, and reduced convenience in access to voice and sight privileges will be of significant concern for some community members.”
In the end, disappointed bureaucrats gave this idea only a “yellow” light due to the costs and difficulty in implementation, so it remains as yet just a twinkle in the eye of those proclaiming the Dogpocalypse on open space.
OSMP’s laser-like focus is on the dogs themselves, but the dog-related issues that bother most users are more about people behavior than dog behavior, such as the oft-cited problem of conveniently orphaned poop bags. Here’s one more example: Dogs are accused of creating parallel tracks that continually widen trails. Really? Head out to the trails on a wet, snowy or muddy day and see how many people don’t want to get their tender tootsies muddy, while their dogs schlep right through.
I know it must be fun to create new edifices of regulation far out of proportion to the alleged problem. Conjuring up a fancy new tag certification program won’t do a damned thing about that problem or the thoughtless buffoons who leave bags of poop at trailside. And OSMP shouldn’t rely on dubious stats to justify its zeal for restriction.