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Dog-gone campaigning: Calgary election candidates go off the leash

Politics can often be a dog-eat-dog game.

But, when pooches are a part of a political campaign, they can break down barriers, create a comfortable environment and humanize a candidate.

Calgary municipal election candidates are posting more pup pictures and popping up at Calgary’s off-leash areas with increasing regularity.

Natalie Winkler, a candidate in Calgary’s Ward 8, said the River Park off-leash park is that area’s unofficial town square. She held a pop-up there Sept. 25.

“It’s the heart of the community. It’s the unofficial town square and it’s where people are engaged,” she said.

“Dogs are a great icebreaker – I love dogs. And it’s a great place to hear (voters’) concerns and just have them talk freely and openly.”

Winkler said it lets potential voters see politicians and candidates in a different light. Plus, it’s not like knocking on doors where a voter might feel pressed to talk. 

“If they want to talk, it’s come up and ask me the hard questions or it’s a friendly wave,” she said.

The connection between dogs and political campaigns was highlighted recently in research done after the 2008 US presidential election. At that time, soon-to-be president Barack Obama and his family didn’t have a dog. He’d promised his daughters that, if elected, he would get them a pup.

Diana C. Mutz, with the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, looked into the connection between voters, candidates and dogs afterward. While data was largely anecdotal, Mutz wrote in her paper there appeared to be a connection.

“However, this announcement appears to have unintentionally highlighted the absence of a key point of identification between the candidate (Obama) and voters, and thus to have significantly undermined the likelihood that dog-owning voters would support Obama.”

New dogs, old tricks

In 2013, when Chris Harper ran in Ward 1, he unleashed visits to the large dog park in Varsity. At the time, based on what he could see on social media, he was the only one doing it.

His good friend Harris, who was a campaigner, had suggested going to the dog park. They brought Harper’s dog, Murph, along.

“We went there and there were people all over and they knew each other, and they knew the other dogs’ names,” Harper said.

“It was just a natural place to connect with other people. That’s what got us into it.”

Harper said, at that time, there was a lot of traditional door-knocking and lit drops being done, but this felt more authentic.  He started putting photos up on social media highlighting his trips to off-leash areas.

“That’s when I started to see other candidates pick it up later in the season. And now, when I look at it it’s like, everybody’s doing that.”

Off-leash campaigning led to coffee meetings with different groups he wouldn’t have otherwise met, Harper said.

Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary (who had just returned from the dog park herself prior to this interview), said she’s seen it more this Calgary municipal election than in the past.

“I don’t want to go out here and say this is new, but I think that it’s a bigger part of the campaign repertoire than it has been in other municipal elections, and I think that’s probably because of the pandemic,” Young said.

Many people went out and got their new furry friends during COVID-19, she said. With that, goes increased visitation to the city’s 150 off-leash areas.

Different kind of campaign

Not only were more people scooping up pets during the pandemic, COVID-19 has made campaigning different.

“It’s really hard campaigning during a pandemic. Knocking on people’s doors, it might be welcome it might not be welcome, depending on people’s comfort levels,” Young said.

Many candidates made turnkey decisions as the COVID-19 pandemic ebbed and flowed between the first, second, third and now fourth waves.  Some stopped door-knocking altogether. Others held outdoor meet-ups. Virtual coffee meetings became commonplace.

Young said typical things like a candidate shaking hands at a transit station to get their name out just aren’t happening. Not only because of the COVID-19 virulence, but Calgary’s transit ridership had plummeted.

“It’s just harder to be seen and to get your name out there, which is so important in an election like this one, where we’ve got so many new candidates running,” Young said.

Minnie didn’t mind a little bit of politics at the off-leash area along Oakmount Drive SW. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

COVID-19 played a role in turning to dog parks to campaign for Ward 11 candidate Kourtney Branagan, but it wasn’t the only reason.

She understood that there was a risk in trying to hit the doors. People may not answer because of the tension of not knowing one’s vaccination status or if they were carrying COVID-19.

But, Branagan said it was a part of their strategy to help change the political narrative at Calgary city hall.

“A different kind of politics needs a different kind of campaign,” she said.

“As generations shift, as demographics shift – we are a young, active city.”

People love their houses, she said, but they were finding fewer people at home and more Calgarians out and about in their communities.

It’s political in Ward 13

Ward 13 candidate Jay Unsworth would love to set up in off leash areas in Ward 13. The problem is, they have unicorn status.

It’s become a point of debate for him during the 2021 Calgary municipal election campaign.

In Canada’s 2016 census, there were 135,000 dogs registered in Calgary. The recent number of licensed dogs in Calgary numbers roughly 100,000.

“Ward 13 has nine or 10 per cent of the population, but .75 per cent of the dog parks? That’s not OK,” Unsworth said.

“We’re hearing a lot about it at the doors.”

Ward 13 is in the bottom left of the graphic.

He said there’s no shortage of sprawl in the area, but no one’s thought of making dog parks a public amenity in the area. For residents without cars, or seniors who are unable to drive, it’s an accessibility issue.

“I think Calgary’s blessed with a lot of dog parks, except for Ward 13. We've absolutely been forgotten about,” he said.

Given the pandemic, it would have been nice to have a different venue to meet people, Unsworth said.

“I think puppy adoptions and animal adoptions are through the roof. So, people are getting out,” he said.

“It's a place where people can talk in a safe, socially-distanced environment. They're getting outside, they're connecting with me and with their neighbours that way.”

Humanizing the candidates

The ease of connection is obvious. When a dog owner goes to a dog park, they cohort with other dog owners. Most people give a wave, a smile or strike up a conversation on the weather, how they love a dog’s ears, or the cute little outfit the canine fashions.

When political candidates are out there, it can break down that imperceptible barrier between politicians and the everyman.

Young said candidates try to find ways to humanize themselves throughout a campaign.

“You might see them making sure that they're seen in walks with their children or with their family,” she said.

“Being out there with your dog is pretty neutral. Nobody expects you to stay home with your dog. You have to pick up poop like anybody else. So, there is that sort of humanizing aspect,” she said.

Dog parks are communities unto themselves, too, Young said.

“Those communities have been lifelines for people during the pandemic,” she said.

“Saying that you're willing to be part of that community I think is also humanizing.”

Harper saw firsthand the community aspect of the dog park. Yes, it’s humanizing, but it’s also politically valuable, he said. The participants are talking amongst themselves, too.

“I mean, they probably first say ‘he's got a really cute dog,’” Harper said.

“And then they probably say he’s got some good ideas, some interesting ideas. That definitely is the case. These are really tight communities that really want to protect and preserve this aspect of their community.”

The Nenshi-effect and authenticity

Young said that outgoing Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi could have also influenced the dog park phenomenon.

His lost pups tweets or the snow day dogs really thrust canines into the realm of political capital.

“I think that people who've been following municipal politics in Calgary, on Twitter, have probably sort of stored away the notion that being seen to love dogs is not a bad thing,” she said.

What about authenticity? Knowing Calgarians love their mutts like their children, perhaps there’s a danger a non-dog-loving candidate might hit the parks hoping to scoop up votes.

Probably not, Young said.

“If a candidate is seen out in the dog park and doesn’t like dogs, that’s terrible,” Young said.

“They’d better be prepared to muddy paw print on their clothes.”

Still, candidates are posting selfies with pets, invitations to come campaigning with Fido and there’s a risk, albeit small that it might be perceived the wrong way. Perhaps even pandering.

Branagan said she’d be more than happy to roll around on the ground at a park and lap up the dog kisses. But, posing for pictures?

“Yes, there’s likely a line where it crosses over into inauthenticity,” she said.

“Calgarians are smart, and they’ll know it for what it is.”

Meeting people where they’re at

Sandra Barnaby was walking with her 11-year-old pup Maximus, or Max, for short at a pop up for Branagan in September.

She’s lived in Oakridge for 19 years and frequents the dog park along Oakmount Drive SW. Barnaby said it’s smart for candidates to explore places where they can meet with voters in comfort.

“I think it’s kind of smart. I don’t know if other people would be offended, but I’m not,” said Barnaby.

"It’s great. It’s my community, it’s her community and we happen to be walking by.”

Barnaby said if the doorbell rang, she probably wouldn’t answer it. Especially if she wasn’t informed in advance.

“If you really want to catch people it’s not a bad idea,” she said.

Winkler said her conversations with community members have been insightful. They’ve shared many of their concerns. They’re doing so in a place where they’re comfortable.

“It's one thing to write an email, it takes a lot of work. But to come up and talk to me in a dog park is a much more relaxed setting. Let me know what's on your mind and I put it on my radar,” she said.

Branagan said it’s flipping the script on the narrative that if a resident has a problem, they should go to their councillor.

“Instead, it's ‘I want to be a politician, and I'm here meeting you where you're at,'” she said.

There’s danger in going the canine route, Harper said.  It’s no longer a differentiator if everyone’s doing it.

Plus, you don’t want to put your collars in one basket. 

In 2013, Harper lost to Ward Sutherland by 86 votes.

“I often think to maybe that 86 votes that I lost by in 2013, maybe those are the cat people,” he said.