Free Dog Libraries: Trauma-Informed Joy for Ruff Times (Part Two)
By Cicely Belle Blain
There are a lot of articles I write where I think, ‘this is definitely going to need a part two!’ and honestly? I didn't think that would apply to a whimsical piece about dog libraries. Yet when I reached out to interview various dog librarians (I couldn’t decide if ‘dog librarians’ implied people who run dog libraries or dogs who know the Dewey Decimal system, and I think it doesn’t matter either way), I was taken aback with the passionate and fascinating responses.
In Part 1, I interviewed Jacqueline Ravel and Lisa Peters, who run free dog libraries in Vancouver and Portland, respectively. They wowed me with their answers to my questions - providing inspiring and emotional reasons why dog libraries are crucial to happy, safe, connected communities. There’s nothing more satisfying than when a deceptively simple idea has profound, far-reaching impacts.
To find out more, I travelled southeast to Boise, Idaho and on to Louisville, Kentucky. Well, the travel was metaphorical, of course, because a) the economy and b) the next big challenge of dog parents - not being able to take our babies larger than 22 lbs safely on a plane. That’s another article for another time.
Brady Vandegrift and Mai Sims run Ziggy’s Place Dog Library on the Boise Bench, an elevated area overlooking the City of Trees (a nickname Sacramento also vies for, but with Boise coming from the French for ‘wooded,’ I think it wins). Brady, a banker, and Mai, owner of Bodyology Therapeutic Massage, have had three dogs in their time as a couple, one of whom was Ziggy, in whose memory they named the free dog library.
“Items come and go, so you never know what you'll find inside!” wrote Brady and Mai - delighted at how the community steps in to co-curate the contents of the library. While the pair keep up with the basic maintenance of the little library - upgrading from a bucket of sticks to a wooden cabinet stocked with treats and toys - visitors also leave items. “It doesn't cost much to refresh supplies, and the best thing is when the whole community gets involved, everybody is donating!”
A common theme among the dog libraries is the handy nature of the organizers - DIY projects keep costs low for these not-for-profit endeavours but are also great for mental health, well-being and community connection.
DIY projects can bring us closer to our surroundings - the land, the city, the people and the resources we have access to - and even our ancestors. In a busy, modern world, we often lose out on the opportunity to build things for ourselves and our communities.
“DIY (Do It Yourself) practice predates recorded history as human survival itself often relied on the ability to repair and repurpose tools and materials. For hundreds of years, people have been fixing water leaks, remodelling their homes and decorating their clothes without hiring professional plumbers, architects or designers. Modern societies oppose the principle of self-reliance with mass production and consumer economy,” write Stacey Kuznetsov and Eric Paulos in their paper Rise of the Expert Amateur: DIY Projects, Communities, and Cultures.
Paulos and Kuznetsov’s paper explores how DIY projects are motivated by several key factors such as self-expression, creativity, saving money, learning new skills and, most importantly, contributing to the community in one way or another. “Motivations for contributing to DIY communities highlight information exchange as a core value: receiving feedback on projects, educating others, and showcasing personal ideas and skills are the top factors.”
In Louisville, Kentucky, the Little Dog Library, operated by Lisa Schmid, saw firsthand the benefit of neighbours with a flair for repair and restoration. “During the first wind storm this year, the library was blown over and damaged,” Lisa explained, “our neighbour Marty Meyer and his granddaughter, Suvi, took it to their garage to rebuild it. Community ownership was our goal, and we are so happy to have accomplished it.”
Lisa, originally from Hopelawn, New Jersey, is a retired restaurant industry professional who moved to Louisville in 2019 to be closer to family. Lisa describes herself as “a proponent of animal rescue, safe neighbourhoods, walkable streets, gardens, pet-friendly spaces, and neighbourly connections.”
Lisa and her partner, Jimmy Soto, also created their dog library as a memorial. “When my beloved Layla passed away in December 2020, I knew that I wanted to make some kind of public memorial for her,” Lisa says. The pair later added an honour to Layla’s canine sister, Abigail. “Abigail used to love to sit in the yard and greet every dog who passed by.”
The love and labour that goes into free dog libraries create and enrich the community. As Brady and Mai put it, “in a world full of hate and judgement, our love of our dogs is one of the most common denominators and a simple thing that unites us all. Any cause that gets neighbours meeting and talking promotes safer and stronger communities where folks are looking out for each other.”
Dogs are often far more easily pleased than their human companions and likely wouldn’t mind a simple bucket of sticks on their daily walk, but the added goodies like toys, treats, leashes, balls and poop bags can have far more profound meaning.
“If someone is having trouble paying the bills, dog toys are way down on the list. We provide a place where their pet can pick up a new toy, a new coat, some treats, etc., in a way that is so organic and stress-free,” says Lisa.
While the majority of people honour the libraries’ honourary system, with many contributing more than they take, Lisa says there have been instances where people take advantage of the free supplies. Likely, in the current economy, desperation drives a select few to clean out the library overnight. It’s rare, and Lisa doesn’t pass judgment; she continues to keep the library stocked with the help of donations from their Amazon wishlist and local businesses like Feeders Pet Supply.
The little dog libraries dotted throughout neighbourhoods all over the world inspire one key emotion: happiness. Whether the smiles are from neighbours (with or without dogs) passing by in admiration or Brady and Mai watching proudly from their kitchen window, the dog libraries improve the overall mood of a community. The dogs, although perhaps unaware of the social significance of these libraries, are the happiest of all.
While those in the direct vicinity of the dog libraries benefit the most, social media allows everyone to experience the joy. “It really could not be going better!” said Brady and Mai after their recent Facebook and Instagram posts highlighting new upgrades garnered a lot of positive attention. Library users love to share happy images of their pets benefiting from the free goodies.
Both Brady and Mai and Lisa and Jimmy urge others to start a free dog library in their neighbourhood. It could be as simple as starting with a bucket of sticks! “It's a fantastic social catalyst,” Lisa says.
Cicely Belle is a Black, queer writer, activist and anti-racism consultant originally from London, UK. They are the founder and CEO of Bakau Consulting, a social justice informed equity and inclusion consulting company based in Vancouver, BC where they work with clients across six continents to enhance compassion, respect and a commitment to anti-oppression in a diversity of industries.
As a founder and former organizer of Black Lives Matter Vancouver, Cicely Belle is passionate about liberation work, systems change and radical empathy for a better world. In 2018 and 2020, they were listed as one of Vancouver’s 50 most powerful people and in 2019, as one of BC Business’s 30under30. They are the author of Burning Sugar and an instructor of Executive Leadership at Simon Fraser University.
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