In 2007 Michele Wan was in grad school at Columbia University. But she and her husband were tired of New York City living. They searched the tri-state area for someplace nice and green.
An acquaintance suggested Westport. It seemed far, but they checked it out anyway. It was autumn; a realtor took them to Compo Beach.
“Dogs were playing,” Michele recalls. “They looked so happy. So did all the people.”
Michele and her husband were sold — and the realtor had a sale.
Michele’s focus on dogs at the beach was not random. She’s finally finishing her Ph.D. in psychology — and her dissertation is “The Dog-Human Relationship and Individual Differences in Behavior and Social Cognition.”
She makes her living as the study coordinator for Columbia’s Studies on Dog-Human Communication. (She also works as a private behavior consultant. The number is 203-227-DOGS.)
Some folks are “dog people.” Michele is a dog expert.
In Westport, she’s come to the right place.
“I immediately sensed that this was a dog-lover’s town,” Michele says. “It was not only the beach — cars had dog bumper stickers, and of course there’s Winslow Park.”
Westport seems much more “doggy” than her native New Jersey, the dog-human researcher says. The reason may be related to “the family focus here. Kids and dogs go together.”
Michele was not around for 2 iconic Westport/dog controversies: allowing dogs off-leash at Compo and Winslow Park.
“I understand both sides,” she says. “Not every dog is appropriate for every situation. I know not everyone likes dogs. Maybe someone had a bad reaction to dogs when they were younger.”
The compromise at Compo — letting dogs in some, but not all, areas of the sites, and during only certain months at the beach — “sounds smart,” Michele says. She is irked by people who open their car door at Winslow and allow Fido to run around; the area near the parking lot is not off-leash.
With her background, it was natural for Michele to join Westport’s “dangerous dogs appeals board.” She was thrust into a famous case, involving a dog and its owners in the close confines of Old Mill.
“That was very emotional for everyone,” is all she says.
Michele is happier talking about a trend she notices here: “There seems to be more attention paid to the behavioral health of dogs.” Referring to “puppy socialization,” she says that “people are getting help when they need it” — either through a professional trainer or a veterinary specialist.
Despite the recession, she says, demand for pet services remains strong.
What’s her favorite dog? “The one in my lap,” Michele answers instantly. It’s a Maltese named Tiger.
Are there any dogs she does not like?
“No!” she says. “I love them all — all breeds, purebred, mixed.”
Even the difficult ones?
“I really love working with them,” she replies with passion.
Not — perish the thought — that there is such a thing as a difficult dog anywhere in Westport.