The Last Great Controversy: Dogs

Bella the Dog and my leg

Bella in a dog-appropriate location.

To dog or not to dog? —  that is sort of the question. If a cemetery is a park, then dogs are a given right? But, as we’ve discussed, cemeteries aren’t quite parks, so dogs aren’t quite a given.

This question was the most divisive of the survey. As you can see from the chart below, this was the most evenly divided questions – 20% for and 20% against with everyone else somewhere in the middle.

I think one survey-taker summed the root of the issue up best when they simply stated “feces bad.” Certainly managing dogs in the cemetery comes with the threat of bad dog owners who won’t clean up after their pooch. Does this spell doom for our canine friends or can we find some (hopefully feces-free) common ground?

Survey Results, Do dogs belong in a cemetery?

On the scale, one represented “dogs do not belong in a cemetery,” and ten represented “cemeteries are a great place to walk the dog!”

The most resounding opinion from the survey results of this question wasn’t that the dogs themselves are bad, it’s the owners who don’t properly supervise and clean up after their dogs. While bad-dog owners are almost impossible to police, there are real benefits to allowing dogs at your cemetery. One of the most obvious is more people who might want to walk through. The Oregon Gardens in Silverton, Oregon, recently rolled back their no-dog policy. One of the volunteers I spoke with said it was one of the best things they had even done for attendance. But of course, a garden is not the same kind of sacred place a cemetery is.

Salem Pioneer Cemetery

No dogs allowed at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery.

The Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. turned dog walking into a way to both make some money and help meet the steep demand for green space in the area. In order to walk your dog at the cemetery, you must either purchase a day-pass or belong to the K-9 Corps, a private membership program that limits the number of people who can walk their dogs in the cemetery. If you or your dog violates any of the rules set out by the cemetery, your membership is revoked and you can not longer walk your dog there. This has been a very successful program and they have people on an often years-long waiting list. While this is an unique program, it does require some policing which may not be practical for a small cemetery with little to no staff.

Lauren Maloy, the Program Director at the Congressional Cemetery, described her experience with the program in an email interview, April 2018:

The dog walking program at Congressional Cemetery began organically, and it also almost single-handedly saved the cemetery. A few Capitol Hill residents began walking their dogs here in the early 1990s. They tell stories about how high the grass was, how drug dealers frequented the grounds, and how the cemetery as a whole was mess. Within a few years they formalized it into a membership program and began self-taxing themselves to raise money for the cemetery. Slowly, the presence of these dog walkers transformed the cemetery from a neglected corner of Capitol Hill to what it is today. This is partially because the program grew, but also due in great part to the funds the K9 Corps brings in, which is now over 200k. The non-profit that runs the cemetery (APHCC) now also runs the dog walking program.

The successes of the program far outweigh any disadvantages, at least in our case. Many historic cemeteries have difficulties with vandalism, and since the dog walkers are almost a constant presence here, we have had only minor problems with vandalism. As part of their memberships, all dog walkers are required to either volunteer 8 hours or pay out of this option – either way, the cemetery either gets the volunteer hours on the grounds or at our events, or gets the additional revenue.

I understand why it’s still controversial, and although I wish I could say that we never have a problem with people not picking up after their pets, we do. As a whole, our dog walkers are conscientious and extremely respectful, but at times their dogs get away from them, and this can lead to dog waste on the grounds. We will always [have] people who strongly disagree with having dogs in a cemetery, period. However, the benefits of the K9 Corps extend far beyond revenue and stopping vandalism – the K9 Corps really gives this cemetery life. We have a group of over 600 people with their pups who strongly value this cemetery and want to contribute to its success. You can come here at almost any hour of the day and see someone, and that’s not something you could say about many historic cemeteries.

While this program is very successful, the Congressional Cemetery is also located in a densely populated neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Parks in the area are limited and the cemetery was the simply the best place available for walking dogs, leading to the success of the program. A program like this might not work for a smaller or more rural cemetery.

The practical opinion: 

Allow dogs at your cemetery in some capacity. 

The opportunity provided by allowing dogs at a cemetery in your community is not something to ignore. The kind of people who want to use the cemetery for a dog walk are people who live nearby and could become serious advocates or volunteers for your organization. Often, and especially with older cemeteries, families have long moved away from the place that their great-grandfather is buried. Dog-walkers by default would have to live nearby. This means they probably care about the cemetery looking nice and are an important ally in the fight against vandalism since they are the most likely to see or hear someone who shouldn’t be there. The value of creating a working relationship with this kind of person is immeasurable.

That being said, it doesn’t have to be all dogs or no dogs. The Woodland Cemetery in Ohio hosts many events; one of the best attended is a monthly guided “Woof Walk” through the cemetery. This example would be great for a small cemetery who could start a dog-walking club with simply a volunteer who is willing to supervise the special dog-walking events. Maybe you could partner with your local Humane Society to offer the shelter dogs an outing and attract people who wouldn’t normally visit but who live nearby.

Other options might include a membership program where you have to attend one guided class before you can walk your dog there on your own? What if you trade the privilege of walking your dog for some volunteered man-hours? Do you have a large space where there are no burials? Allow dogs only there. What about a clearly defined walking path? Post that dogs are only allowed on the designated walking paths and provide bags.

But don’t ignore people’s concerns about respectfulness. 

Whether dogs should be allowed also has a lot to do with the kind of space you have. An older, less-used cemetery could greatly benefit from increased traffic. A modern, often-used cemetery might not be the right place to allow dogs. A military cemetery is probably not an appropriate place to allow dog-walking. Use common-sense and listen to your community. If allowing dogs creates problems for maintenance or community relations, reconsider.

Takeaway Point

Don’t allow dogs if you think your space isn’t appropriate for it. However, don’t uninvite dogs simply because you are afraid of a few bad dog owners. Be creative, try out a special dog walking class to see how it goes. Don’t dismiss the power of your park-like space to create a real connection to the people who live closest to you. They can be your greatest allies.