Dog Days Of Westport

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.”

Michele Wan and Tiger.

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.”

Ya gotta love it -- right?

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.

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