Doris Richards, 1937-2009

By Sasha Futran Special to the Planet
Thursday August 06, 2009 - 10:39:00 AM
Doris Richards and friends.
Doris Richards and friends.

The lives of many dogs throughout the country were changed due to the activism and hard work of Doris Richards, who died July 27. Richards helped to start the Ohlone Dog Park, the first in the nation, and succeeded in keeping the park open despite several attempts to close it down. She served as president of the Ohlone Dog Park Association (ODPA) from 1985 to 2002.  

Richards helped people around the country—indeed, around the world—start dog parks. As a result, the limited canine existence of leashed walks and hanging out in backyards was, for many dogs, transformed into one of exuberant play and the chance to run free. It was Richards’ entry into civic activism, and she remained dedicated to making a difference until the end of her life.  

A colorful storyteller, Richards called the creation of the dog park a true Berkeley happening and a tale of political activism and social concern. Appropriately, it began as an adjunct to the People’s Park struggle.  

“In the late ’70s, People’s Park activists planned a takeover of the area along Hearst Street after the city razed the homes there to create a park,” Richards was fond of recalling. “The city fenced the area off, and it wasn’t being used for anything. Activists cut the fencing at various points during the night. The next day they marched from Telegraph Avenue to Hearst Street and the fence toppled over easily when pushed. There were demonstrations, food, and music. It was a festive time.”  

People from the neighborhood began hanging out in what was called People’s Park Annex, and they brought their dogs. Neighbors raised bail money for those jailed, collected food for the homeless, found, painted and donated lawn furniture. Richards originally got involved because it was just around the corner from where she lived, she had a dog, and “Hey, this is Berkeley.”  

Eventually, just dogs and neighbors remained, and the idea for the dog park began. As Richards told it, “We were learning that dogs need outings, a social life, and places to run. We started to use it as an off-leash area.”  

When the city was first approached to create an official park, there were concerns about liability and insurance. By 1983, Berkeley officials had decided to try an experimental dog park. Trees were brought in and an opening ceremony planned, complete with mayor and councilmembers in attendance. The day before the big event, the newly planted trees went into shock and lost all their leaves. So Richards—who is known to have said that if she were to be reborn it would be as a Sheltie because they like to organize and run things—got people together to string up leaves on the trees for the big day.  

Threats to the existence of the park began almost immediately. The city began negotiating to transfer the land to BART, and newly arrived neighbors tried to shut the park down. ODPA was formed in 1984 to fend off the attacks. One of the early rules of the association was that you had to have a dog to be a member, so Richards, who was between dogs, was allowed to work for the association and attend meetings, but couldn’t become its president until 1985.  

However, she quickly organized people and got them to join ODPA and to attend City Council meetings. She designed and ordered teal-colored T-shirts, and, at one critical meeting, councilmembers looked out at a blue sea of 90 people. The vote for the dog park was favorable. 

Those members and T-shirts needed to be pulled out more than once as threats to the park’s existence continued. During all this, Richards was organizing dog washes to raise funds for ODPA and carnivals for dogs to enjoy competing in recall contests, dunking for hot dogs, and frustrating their two-legged companions in leashed spoon races. She was also taking calls from people locally, nationally and worldwide, advising them on how to start dog parks. With Richards’ involvement, dog parks from Point Isabel to Los Angeles, London and several in Finland got started, to name just a few.  

The Ohlone Dog Park went on to be designated one of the top 10 dog parks in the country on more than one occasion by Dog Fancy magazine and, in recent years, Berkeley’s Parks and Recreation Department has reported that it gets the fewest complaints of all the city’s parks and is the most used, as well. 

When Richards retired as ODPA president, members had a blue fire hydrant with a plaque in her honor installed at the park, and the city named March 2002 “Doris Richards and Ohlone Dog Park Month.” When it was pointed out that dogs do certain things to fire hydrants, Richards’ response was a chuckle and the comment, “Don’t you just love it?” She is survived by her dog, Tyler, who is in a friend’s loving care. Doggone it, Doris Richards will be missed.