Thursday, March 6, 2008

Rashomon at the Rocky Run

No, we're not having a Kurosawa film festival--but one of The Master's best known films has a certain relevance to the events this article is going to try and piece together. Try, and probably fail. But I'll lay out the varying testimony as best I can, and you can draw your own conclusions.

As I mentioned in an article I posted here back on January 30th, at least two 'doggie daycare' businesses have recently been making use of the Rocky Run as a recreation area for the dogs they are being paid to exercise and socialize--a resource they aren't paying to use, although Puppy Pals Playgroup (hereafter abbreviated as 'PPPG') did contribute a few hundred dollars for the new storage bin, when asked by Jerry Culligan. The dogs that they are bringing do not, as I understand, come from Washington Heights, or Harlem. Downtown doggies, for the most part.

PPPG, part of a larger business called Dog City USA , started using the Rocky Run back in late 2007--in other words, at our least busy time of the year. They've been in existence for several years now. They only accept dogs aged 12 weeks to 24 months, which sets them apart from other dogsitters in the city (at least according to their online ad).

I didn't get to ask if they'd extended the maximum age to 36 weeks, as this recent Craigslist ad would seem to indicate. I did ask about qualifications, and was told that they do expect people they hire to have past experience with dogs--not necessarily professional experience or training--which to be sure, is something most dog-minders in NYC do not have, and are definitely not required to have. Their helpers are paid 10 dollars an hour to start, for part-time hours, according to the ad.

Both of PPPG's current owners are self-professed longtime dog lovers, but they are not exclusively devoted to dog-care. Julie Zittrauer, the second PPPG person I spoke to, is an actress who has been in some interesting productions, including a reworked version of Lysistrata, performed in Central Park. You can google it, if you're curious.

Allison Barron, the founder of PPPG, has a longtime connection to figure-skating, as well as a knowledge of "Canine Nutrition, exercise and weight loss mgt., as well as Pet CPR and Geriatric Canine Massage." That's her on the front page of the DogCityUSA site, with her two huskies.

Like many (if not most) people who get into pet-sitting of one type or another, they are trying to make a living by working with animals they love, while still retaining enough spare time to attend to other interests.

They told me they visit our run twice a week, on workdays, in the early afternoon, and stay around 90 minutes per visit. They don't always come on the same days of the week, and also visit other runs (they mentioned Dog Run 105 ), and take the puppies for outings to places like Orchard Beach in The Bronx (I guess dogs are allowed there in the off-season?).

They also told me they have a guideline that says there has to be at least one dog-minder present for every four dogs. And I was further informed that they have this guideline in accordance with a rule that applies to all city dog runs. No more than four dogs per person. I have to say, I was unaware of this rule, and can't find it on the Parks Department website. It's probably a good rule to have, but I suspect most people visiting dog runs in the city don't know about it. It would seem like common sense that the more offleash dogs one person has to watch, the more fragmented that person's attention will be, and the more likely he or she is to lose control.

According to the PPPG people I spoke to last night, that other dog playgroup, run by several young men, no longer visits the Rocky Run. Reportedly, they got a summons and a stiff fine from the Parks Department for having too many dogs per person there. This is almost certainly the group Yolanda saw in January, when she brought Max to the run one afternoon--she said one young man with a ponytail was in there with around 14 dogs, some of whom were barking at Max through the fence.

On a number of occasions, this group and the PPPG were in the run at the same time--that must have been quite a scene.

So anyway, this is all very interesting, and very much a sign of the times. Businesses like PPPG are springing up all over the country, to deal with the contradictions presented by a nation of people who own dogs, but also have jobs that require spending long hours away from home, and have a hard time reconciling the two. Sooner or later, one or several of these groups were going to discover our somewhat off-the-beaten-path dog run--it was actually Julie Zittrauer who happened to come across it--she told me she lives just north of the George Washington Bridge, and had no idea the run existed, until she passed it one day. The discovery of a large and easily accessed dog run, with plenty of nearby parking, that has few visitors on weekday afternoons (particularly in winter), would have been welcome news for a group like PPPG.

And now, as the winter draws to a close, more and more run regulars, who were at best vaguely aware of PPPG (if they knew about them at all), are becoming increasingly conscious of their presence.

When I wrote about them last, I asked if anyone had any experiences, positive or negative, to report. I'm sorry to say, the first report is pretty negative, and comes from the owner of one of the most well-liked and trusted dogs in our area.

Leo is a purebred Labrador Retriever, whose owner, Irina Vodar, is one of the people who helped found The Rocky Run, over two years ago. His lineage is rather distinguished, so she hasn't had him neutered--and frankly, if you've ever met Leo, you'd have to ask yourself what would be the point.

Leo was one of Max's first friends in the neighborhood, back when he came to live with us, a little over a year back--and when his shyness and uncertainty with other dogs made us extra-cautious about who we introduced him to. With Leo, we always knew there would be no problem. I have never in my life met a more calm and amiable dog--of any breed. At the run, Leo rarely plays with other dogs, or chases after balls--he likes to trot around and sniff the ground, to find out who's been there, who's there now, and what's been going on. He is sociable without being hyper, extremely well trained, and unexcitable to a fault. I've never seen him mount or otherwise be dominant with another dog, and in fact I've never heard of him being involved in ANY negative incident, at the run or anywhere else. A model canine citizen if there ever was one.

Irina knew about PPPG, and says she had actually encountered them once before, while leaving the run, and there was no problem then. There was a problem this time. What follows is Irina's recollection of the second meeting.

It happened recently, only two weeks ago, but the memory of the event is still very fresh in my mind. I was coming back from a meeting in Washington Heights, accompanied by my eight year old dog Leo. We’ve been walking for an hour and a half already, and were happy to be coming back home.

As we drew closer to the dog run, Leo insisted on going in. I agreed. And there was a good reason for it: we saw a batch of around 15 dogs from a walking service swarming around the grounds. Leo couldn’t wait to get in the midst and sniff and wag his tail at each and every one of them.

We entered the grounds. Instantly, a group of at least 6 of the dogs happily surrounded Leo. I waited till the initial wave of greet and meet subsided. While Leo was busy sniffing and wagging, I got a phonecall reminding me of the timeframe. I’m coming! – I replied and hurried Leo off the grounds.

It took just a moment- Leo was surrounded by other dogs, they sniffed,- and we made out of the fenced area. I closed the gate behind me, and felt a vicious whisper in my direction. I didn’t hear it at first, but I felt it. I turned to the short, slender, blond haired, gray eyed girl and said: “I’m sorry, were you talking to me?”

She (later described as Allison, the owner of the Puppy Pals Playgroup) turned energetically on her heels and uttered with a force that was not expected from her petite frame: “That’s right, I was. Next time don’t bring an unneutered male into this playground.”

I searched for an explanation for this unexpected hostility: the dogs were cool. No trouble. All happy waggy tails. I didn’t exchange a single word with the three women walkers. Not even a side glance. I simply didn’t have the time.

Here was in front of me this stranger in the neighborhood, using our dog run for her business, telling me, one of the founders of the dog run, how to conduct myself.

I retorted with a question: “Do you live here?” The answer was a vague “I live in Manhattan.”--with a twitch in the eye that suggested that the truth of that statement may have been stretched a bit. “I thought you made a living gathering dogs around Manhattan and depositing them on our playground, but you don't live here”,- I replied.

“Of course you would know that, after all, you’re Russian, you would know best”. She picked up on my accent.

“Get yourself a boyfriend, a dog with balls won’t do it for you”- she added later.

I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. She spiced her tune with ugly swear words in Russian, making me wonder how she came across a teacher.

I was outraged, of course. But I couldn’t sustain the hollow argument for long, was pressed for time, and had to leave.

As I walked away, with unsuspecting Leo in tow, who did absolutely nothing wrong, I heard her calling out: “That’s right, keep walking”.

I couldn’t do anything at all, but walk away and let that arrogant woman have her moment of triumph.

I have lived in the neighborhood since 2001, and have contributed yearly to the dog run since its inception. I’m also a celebrated filmmaker and an ABC Channel 7 employee.

I have never heard anybody tell me to my face that I’m a Russian and mean it in a derogatory sense.

At the time I got this email from Irina, I hadn't been able to reach anyone with PPPG. On Tuesday night, I was able to speak with Allison Barron and Julie Zittrauer. Allison returned my call, and I tried to get her side of the story--she was definitely the person Irina had words with. And unsurprisingly, her recollection of the encounter was very different. She didn't want to send me an email detailing her side of the story, but the jist of it is this:

She said Irina had left the gate open too long, and kept Leo on a leash the whole time he was in there--about five minutes, she thought (her partner thinks it was more like three minutes).

She was worried some of the puppies would get out, since they were definitely coming up to investigate Leo, and one of them, named Bandit, is himself unneutered, and often insecure and overdefensive with other intact males (he was later described to me as a "$3,000 show dog", and I have to ask--who spends that much on a dog then sends him off with strangers every day?). She agreed that Leo's behavior was impeccable the whole time. It is certainly true that some dogs become fearful and lash out when approached by other dogs while they are still leashed, which is why most runs ask that dogs be unleashed when inside. Leo, to say the very least, is not one of those dogs.

Since we still don't have double-gates at the run, Allison worried one of the dogs would get out of the run (with Riverside Drive only a few yards away), and although this didn't happen, the fear of it was very stressful to her, and was part of the reason for her losing her temper, as she certainly knew she had done. She said Irina was talking on a cellphone and unresponsive when asked to shut the gate. She didn't know Leo, but saw that he was unneutered, was worried there might be problems between him and Bandit, and was acting to protect Leo, as well as the dogs in her care.

She did not agree that she had told Irina to never bring Leo back into the run again--she fully acknowledged PPPG has no authority whatsoever regarding who comes into the run. Clearly she doesn't think unneutered males shouldn't be in dog runs, since she herself had brought an unneutered male, and it was that dog's behavior that most concerned her. She also said that PPPG had every right to use a public dog run, as long as they adhered to the city's rules.

I asked her about the "a dog with balls won't do it for you" crack--she said she didn't remember saying that, but given that she was extremely upset and angered, couldn't be 100% sure she hadn't said it (it seemed like a fairly memorable line to me).

Allison flatly denied she had said anything derogatory about Irina's heritage, and said that she loves Russian people--but her ability to quickly divine Irina's national origin, as well as her familiarity with the more colorful aspects of the Russian language, can be explained by her having been acquainted with many Russians in the arena of figure-skating, as she herself told me was the case.

As the conversation progressed, Allison got increasingly agitated and defensive, and it became hard to communicate. Here's my Rashomon moment--to me, it seemed like I was being very calm and open-minded, particularly considering the fact that Irina is a neighbor, and her dog and mine are good friends--but to Allison, could it have seemed like I was conducting some kind of Spanish Inquisition, and this put her on the defensive? As we all know, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

All the same, I was a little taken aback when she said something a mite sarcastic about how it was great I had this 'clicky little neighborhood blog' (I think she meant 'clique-ish'). But ya know, bloggers get no respect. Ask Markos Moulitsas.

Let's assume, for the sake of fairness, that I could have been more diplomatic, and came across a little too territorial--it's not that wild a concept. I'd only just read Irina's email that afternoon. The fact remains that knowing well in advance that I was calling to get her side of the story, Allison got very angry with me, very quickly, and nothing I could say would calm her down. She started saying she had been considering paying for our double-gates, and other less vital projects, but that was out of the question now. It didn't occur to me at the time to ask her why she would want to go on using the run if she was so terrified at the prospect of somebody accidentally letting the puppies out. Double-gates, whether PPPG paid for them or not, would benefit them more than anyone. As it happens, we've already paid for the double-gates, as I've mentioned here in the past, and the problem has been getting the Parks Department to allocate the labor for their installation.

After we ended the call on a less than happy note, she seems to have almost instantly regretted some of the things she said, because the next thing I know, somebody else is calling my cellphone, and it's Julie Zittrauer. Julie had just talked to Allison, who was worried she'd come on too strong, and wanted Julie to smooth things over.

Julie was a lot calmer and much less defensive (while she witnessed the argument, she wasn't actually involved in it), and was extremely helpful and informative. We managed to clear up a number of things we'd both been wondering about, and ended the conversation in a positive way. But that's not to say we'd resolved anything, because we hadn't.

I talked to Irina on Wednesday night (she'd been out of town), told her what Allison and Julie had said, and she didn't budge one inch from her account. She has a very clear recollection of what Allison said to her, and reading her story above, it's hard to see how she could have just retrospectively imagined those insulting remarks.

She did leave Leo on the leash while he was in the run, because they were only going in there for a few minutes. She was on the cellphone, but her attention was always on her dog (Leo is the apple of Irina's eye, as anyone who has seen them together will know). She saw no warning signs between him and the puppies, who were fascinated with Leo, and not fearful at all.

As to her leaving the run gate open too long, she firmly insisted that it was not open any longer than it took to get Leo inside, and there was no undue delay. She said she fully realizes the importance of getting the gate closed quickly, and is always very careful to do just that.

And, I might add, if the whole scenario lasted three minutes (Julie's impression), from Irina and Leo going in to them going back out again, how long could the gate have possibly been open? Given that far worse things happen in dog runs all the time, was this really something to go ballistic about, even if Allison's version of the story was true?

So we're still bogged down in Rashomon-land here, and video of the dispute is unlikely to surface. Where's TMZ when you really need them?

In a sense, this is just a dispute between two people who use the dog run, albeit one for personal recreation, and the other as a business resource. Although Irina is a local, and Allison is not, there's no rule that says only locals can use a dog run--and Julie, though not from the immediate neighborhood, lives as close to the run as some other people and dogs who visit regularly.

My original concern, when hearing a less detailed version of events, was that PPPG might think they had a right to expel or ban certain dogs from the run, in order to guarantee the safety of the dogs they are being paid to care for. This does not seem to be the case, though Allison may (or may not) have said some things in the heat of anger that would give that impression. In any event, as Julie agreed, it's a fact that many people who arrive at the Rocky Run with their dogs, and see a large group of strange dogs, supervised by a much smaller number of humans, will often hesitate to go in--all the more if they're worried about being yelled at. Simply by using the run, PPPG is going to sometimes prevent other people and dogs from using it.

But that's a problem we deal with all the time--as neighbors. If Max and I are alone in the run, and I see Isis, the huge, friendly, but sometimes overly dominant American Bulldog, standing outside the run with her owner, I can come over to the fence, say hello, and offer to vacate the run, so Isis can have a nice frolic with her lady for a short while. That's what neighbors do.

If there's one thing about the Rocky Run I love most of all, it's that we don't just care about our own dogs--we care about ALL dogs, and want to share the wonderful sense of fun and community we've found in the process of giving our pooches the recreation they crave. And that's a trait common to many (not all) dog runs, as I've found when I've taken Max outside Washington Heights, and visited runs further afield. Nobody ever made us feel unwelcome, and I'd have probably been pretty steamed if anyone had. Anyway, how do you know who's a local, when you meet new dogs and their people every week?

There's no problem with 'outsiders' coming to use our run, and in any event, we're all New Yorkers. The problem comes when the very people who created and maintain this resource feel like they're shut out of it sometimes, by people who just see it as a public resource, like a beach--and it is, but like most dog runs in this city, the Rocky Run was not mainly established by taxpayer dollars. It was not created exclusively for our community, but it was created by our community. And not by PPPG.

At the end of Rashomon, the people recounting all the conflicting versions of the same depressingly typical human story, are forced to sadly conclude that there is no way to know the final truth about any event, because human beings are too dishonest about their own actions, and the motivations behind them--not only with others, but with themselves. And yet, the film tells us, there is hope, because we have unselfish feelings to stand against those more negative traits. We are capable of self-sacrifice, and love for others. We can put our egos aside, and find gratification in the act of doing something for someone else, as the woodcutter agrees to adopt the abandoned baby, even though he has six children at home.

We grow frustrated with our own species, and tell ourselves that our dogs are better than we are, and there's much truth in this, but in fact we and our dogs are very much alike, being social animals, both cut from the same basic evolutionary cloth. If you're reading this, you've probably had the same experience I've so often had, with some tiny Yorkie or Shih-Tzu, who barks and growls and lunges furiously at your dog, who has done absolutely nothing to provoke such an outburst, and may, depending on his mood and training, ignore the little pest, or respond in kind. Yolanda's sister has a delightful friendly little Miniature Poodle named Grady, and speaks ruefully of the frequency with which they encounter "Shih-Tzus with Issues". But plenty of other Yorkies and Shih-Tzus are fine, of course. No breed has a monopoly on aggressiveness.

The little yappy dog in question is acting on a misguided instinct. He believes he is defending his person, his territory, and himself, from a potential malefactor. He may feel cornered, or insecure in some way, and his instincts tell him the best defense is a good offense. But his instincts were evolved for a very different lifestyle, and a very different body, and in fact his outbursts greatly increase the likelihood that he and his owner may come to harm, since some dogs are more tolerant of Shih-Tzus with issues than others, and conflicts between dogs can also lead to conflicts between people.

The only thing you can do in such a situation is to remain calm--it's always the best approach, with people or dogs. It's also the most challenging. We are not a city of Zen Masters. We are a city of pugnacious pushy assertive people--some of the time. We're also a city that welcomes the whole world into its embrace. It's a matter of which side you find yourself rubbing up against.

Allison wanted to protect the dogs in her care, as well as her business, which would be very negatively impacted by puppies coming home with bite wounds, or not coming home at all--and there's something else I learned from my conversation with Julie. One of Allison's own dogs is very old, and sick with cancer, and she's been stressed out from caring for him, and wondering how much longer he has. That's something we can all empathize with.

But it doesn't justify Allison's behavior (no matter how long the gate was or wasn't open), and it doesn't make her behavior helpfully protective of the dogs--the best way to take care of dogs is to set them a strong example of calm assertive leadership. If you fly off the handle too easily, out of fear or frustration, you're not going to be able to accurately size up the actual dangers you're faced with (if any), and you'll also communicate your sense of danger to the dogs. We're all faced on a daily basis with that tightrope--be aware of all the bad things that could happen to our dogs, without over-anticipating them--and thus causing the very problems we're trying to head off. The very same dog can be fearful and aggressive when being walked by one owner, and calm and friendly with the other--because he's picking up on the first owner's tensions, apprehensions, and dissensions, and responds to the unconscious cues he's being given.

One thing about dogs--even Shih-Tzus with issues--they don't try to justify their behavior afterwards. They don't need to rationalize. They do what they do. Show them a better way, and they'll do better. They live in the now, and don't dwell long on past insults (though they probably don't entirely forget them, either). And that's something we should try to emulate, however imperfectly. We can also do something dogs mainly can't do--think about our past mistakes, then look to the future, and think on how we'll do better if faced with a similar situation.

So anyway, what do we do about Puppy Pals Playgroup? How the hell should I know? Maybe we watch and see if this problem repeats itself. Maybe we reach out and find some compromise--like a regular schedule of visits, so people who don't want their dogs to be in the run with them will know when not to come. Maybe we look into whether even a limit of four dogs per person is too lax, and institute a stricter rule of our own.

Maybe we don't do anything, at least as long as they aren't spending more than three hours a week in the run--and as long as there are no further instances of locals being insulted.

And maybe we think about the fact that even though the other doggie daycare group (which Irina mentioned parenthetically that she never had any problems with, because the young men were always very polite) seems to have stopped visiting our run, there will almost certainly be other groups besides PPPG visiting our run in the future. How much, I have to ask, is our little uptown dog run supposed to absorb of the vast numbers of frustrated hyperactive downtown doggies in this city, whose people are too busy making money to exercise them personally? And I have to ask, pointless as it may be to do so, if you don't have the time to exercise and socialize a dog yourself, even in those precious early months, when a lifelong bond is being formed, why did you get a dog at all?

But whatever we do, let's remember the unending need to set a good example of proper socialization to our dogs--and let the best of our dogs, like the unflappable Leo himself, be an example to us. Isn't that right, Leo?


Sam said...

I think I can clear up some of your confusion. While Alison is an absolutely devoted dog lover, and someone I would trust implicitly with any animal of any kind - she will really go above and beyond to help or do right by an animal - she herself is emotionally unstable. She has a long history of burning bridges, losing friends and alienating people. She loses her temper in the blink of an eye and can be extremely abrasive and ill-tempered even when she is on her best behavior. There is seriously something wrong, and unfortunately she doesn't seem to realize it or have any insight into it. This is not just run-of-the-mill bad temper. There's a screw loose, and it's a shame because she has many wonderful qualities as well and a good heart underneath it all. She really, really loves dogs and I wouldn't have any hesitation entrusting a dog to her - but I'd keep my social interaction with her to a minimum! For me, there's no reading between the lines- Irina did nothing wrong but unwittingly irritate someone who in all seriousness probably has a chemical imbalance- (and I honestly say that not as an insult, but as someone who knows a few things about chemical imbalance!) Poor Julie is probably run ragged trying to mend the fences Allison kicks down...! Irina should let it go and chock it up to one of those unfortunate NY experiences, and Allison should take care to control herself, especially when she's a guest somewhere (which she more or less was.) (She'd also do well to apologize to Irina...!)

Chris said...

Well, that may be the most belated response we've ever had, Sam--this happened over two years ago. Irina has long since let it go. I don't think Alison ever apologized to Irina, but I'm sure she regretted the misunderstanding. Puppy Pals isn't coming to the Rocky Run anymore (last I heard), and I'm not sure Julie is still involved with it.

My only real comment is this--we expect those who professionally exercise dogs to obey the three dog per person rule, and to make sure that those who live in the neighborhood a given run is located in are not made to feel uncomfortable at a facility they contribute to with both money and labor. Very few dog runs are operated by the city--they may be on public land, but they are maintained at the expense of private citizens.

We reserve the right to inform the proper authorities if the run is being improperly used--we also reserve the right to post articles on this blog, identifying the dog-walking businesses and their operators by name--which can then be found via search engines. Which can be bad for business, if prospective clients do a bit of checking.

We need dog walkers in this city, no question. And I have no doubt Alison would go the extra mile to protect a dog in her care. But fear and dog runs just don't mix. The first and last rule is always KEEP YOUR COOL.