Think before letting your dog off leash, part two

Here we go again.

Last week, I wrote about why I think people absolutely should to obey leash laws in public places such as parks and preserves. Basically, if the rules say “dogs permitted if on leash,” then I think you need to have your dog on a leash, without exception, at all times.

(If you didn’t read the post, you might want to start there. Here’s the link.)

Before I pushed the “publish” button on that blog post, my editors warned me that I was writing about a controversial issue.

“Be prepared to get some flak for this,” they said.

So after work, Derek (my hiking buddy and boyfriend) and I grabbed a beer at Marshall Wharf Brewing Company in Belfast. About half way into my Weisse Grip Hefeweizen, I decided to check my blog by cellphone. The “leash” post had been up for several hours.

I took one look at the post and almost spit out a mouthful of hefeweizen.

The post had “1.7K likes” on Facebook.

(I remember having a high school math teacher who used to tell us ways to be “cool” in college. “Don’t say ‘one thousand’ in college; use ‘K,’” he told us once.)

Well, I didn’t take his advice, and I don’t use the term “K,” but I knew what it meant — it meant my blog must be broken.

Actually, it wasn’t broken. Thanks to people who care about dogs and public safety, my blog post spread through social media like wildfire. And now, one week later, the post has been viewed more than 10,900 times, received 3,400 Facebook likes, 37 Tweets, and nearly 200 comments, many of them lengthy. In addition, I received 50 emails about the issue.

What does it all mean? People — not just from Maine but from all over the country — care about leash laws and believe that it’s a topic worth discussing.

Oreo, my pit bull mix, on his leash on the trails of Cutler Coast Public Reserved Lands during summer 2013.

At the end of the blog post (which was also published in print), I asked for people to share their stories and opinions, and many did just that. Not everyone agreed with me, of course. Some dog owners voiced their belief that their dog is perfectly fine off leash and should be able to run free on public trails, regardless of trail rules. But the vast majority of the responses agreed with my stance that leash rules should be obeyed, and further, if you don’t have control of your dog (are able to call them to you at an instant), they should be on a leash whenever in public, even in places where there are no leash laws.

After reading all of the comments and emails, I’d like to share a few excerpts. While I received responses from all over the country — Las Vegas, Washington, Colorado, Louisiana — I’ll stick with Maine stories and opinions, simply because I think it’s more meaningful to hear about this issue from your neighbors. As you can see, some of these responses aren’t strictly about public trails that require leashes, but they do relate to the dilemma all dog owners face when bringing their dog into public spaces: “to leash or not to leash.”

“I long ago learned to leash my perfectly trained dog when we are out in public out of respect for other people, many of whom are afraid of dogs, usually for very good reasons. And I have given up taking my dog on the Benton River Trail, because almost no one there leashes their dogs. I also used to run over there. One day (when I was not accompanied by my dog) a big Lab ran up to me, hackles raised, barking ferociously. He was very close to me. The owner was 25 yards behind, chatting with another woman and paying absolutely no attention to her dog, who was threatening me. I called out and asked her to call her dog. Still, she paid no attention to me. Finally, when they were practically right on top of me and the dog, I asked her again, she called him, and he turned away. As they continued down the trail, she said loudly, “C’mon, Fido, not everyone is nice.” Huh! I was nice. Especially since I did not pepper spray her dog.”

-Sally Melcher McKeagney, Fairfield

“The less thoughtful and less responsible dog owners are a continuing problem here at Acadia [National Park] for other hikers, for wildlife, and for responsible dog owners and their dogs. Leave No Trace ethics and the leash law are not part of the picture for them. I guess I hold out some hope that your piece may change a few minds.”

-Charlie Jacobi, Acadia National Park ranger

“There are some breeds that need free running. I have salukis, and even with a sizeable portion of my land fenced with 6-foot-high fencing, they need the gallops. There are plenty of places one can run dogs without going to parks. You have to ask permission to run along the edge of farm fields, or in sand pits, but if you really want to free run without dealing with the inherent dangers of dogs and their irresponsible owners, that’s an option. Hunting season does hamper that, but there is always Sundays.”

-Patty Pendergast, Thorndike

Mack on his leash at the top of Chick Hill.

“I have two labs. Gunner is 8, and weighs 78 pounds … Mack is just over a year and is 67  pounds of pure muscle and energy … Last fall we did Blue Hill Mountain with both of the boys on one Y-shaped leash. Playing brakes to 145 pounds of dog was difficult, but we managed. It was extremely rewarding to spend that afternoon with my boys.

“A couple of weeks ago, it was sunny and I needed to get out of the house. I’d heard Chick Hill had a great view. I really wanted to take both boys, but at 3 months pregnant, I figured out it was going to be more than I could take on. As much as I hated leaving Gunner home (and as sad as his eyes were  when I put his brother in the vehicle and told him to go back inside), I knew one dog was going to be all I could handle, and Mack desperately needed to blow off a bunch of energy … I leash my dogs because I don’t harbor any illusions that the people I meet on the trail will like them, or that all the dogs I meet on a trail are friendly, or that my boys are the best behaved dogs in the world. I do everything in my power to keep my dog in control and out of the way of others, and if I don’t feel I can do that, I leave one or both dogs home, no matter how badly I want to have that hiking experience with them. It bothers me when others don’t show the same consideration. At best, it’s not fair to me or my dogs, and at worst it’s straight up dangerous. After I put in considerable effort and sometimes a little sacrifice to make sure that my boys are well-behaved on a public trail, I sometimes get a bit bitter when folks disregard the rules.”

-Jenn Dykstra, Old Town

“I have a ‘reactive’ dog whom I can no longer walk most places because of loose dogs. Friendly or not, dogs should always be on a leash when in public places (except in areas posted otherwise), for their safety and that of others. I have a sweet 6-year-old nephew who loves dogs but is so allergic that he needs medicine if he comes within just a few feet of a dog. It’s a shame that he has had to deal with rude or thoughtless dog owners many times as they call out ‘It’s OK, he’s friendly!’

“There is a wonderful movement called the Yellow Dog Project that is trying to get the word out that if you see a dog wearing a yellow ribbon, this dog needs space. It could be that the dog is reactive, afraid of other dogs, healing from an injury or any other reason.”

-Karen McNerney, Bowerbank

“I am severely allergic to dogs. I don’t like dogs. I never had and will never have a dog. I can understand that other people have and love dogs very much, and I admit that a great many of them are loveable creatures, but the negatives of the creatures far outweigh their positives for me … So my ‘issue,’ my ‘beef’ is like you mentioned ‘people don’t like dogs. Gasp. Yes, they do exist.’ I feel like I do such a good job of putting myself in other people’s shoes. When my kids were younger, and even now as 7 and 10 yrs olds, I recognize that not everyone thinks a toddler is cute, or that kids are funny. I try to keep them in control when we are out and about and I didn’t just assume that when my adorable toddler wandered up to someone, that they would think the sticky hands, runny nose, slobbery teething mouth, and stinky diaper smell were sweet and wonderful … I have so many dogs run over and “greet” me while XC skiing, which I don’t enjoy, which has interrupted my rhythm and workout and the owner usually just assumes it’s ok. It is not okay! I don’t let my kids run in front of you, say hi, and wipe a booger on you, and stop your workout/hike/run/bike. Don’t let your dog do that to me. Please.”

- Heather Mackey of Rockport

“We have two dogs (and two cats) and always have them on leashes. The one time we didn’t, our dog got into a porcupine. Not fun — because most dogs will want to kill all porcupines henceforth, not having learned any lesson except that they caused pain. Ours was no exception. I have heard of people who put down a perfectly wonderful dog because they couldn’t be bothered to control it and it loved to hate porcupines. Now, that is sad and unconscionable.”

-Jane Keegan, Winter Harbor

“Here is something I have always wondered about. At the City Forest, and occasionally other places, the signs say, as you noted, “A leash is required on this trail.” I have never figured out why they word it that way except to give people some room for interpretation. If they really mean ‘all dogs must be on leashes,’ why don’t they say that? I have usually taken the position that they mean you have to have a leash with you in case you need to put the dog on it. You may find this outrageous, but I think I have a point.”

-Katherine Crosby, Maine

“Just because the loose dog may be very friendly and greet other dogs well, does not mean that a dog on a leash will feel the same way. In fact, there is a type of defensive behavior called leash aggression, which occurs when a dog is restrained on a leash, and meets another dog who is free to walk behind the leashed dog. The leashed dog can feel vulnerable since he can not freely sniff the new dog, or protect his backside. In effect, the unleashed dog can encourage aggressive behavior from a leashed dog who feels trapped by the leash! But many owners of “friendly” free roaming dogs, do not know their dog can come off as a threat just by being loose, and sniffing freely. Which just goes to show that there is a general lack of education in park/trail politeness when it comes to dog walking. So many people would never mean for their dog to make other people uncomfortable, and yet often an untrained loose dog can do just that.”

-Linda Shockley, Brewer

A sign that symbolizes that dogs must be on leash is at the beginning of the Birch Point Trail of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge Petit Manan Division during summer 2013.

“Certain trails that allow dogs on leash could very easily become ‘no dogs’ trails if people continue to abuse the privilege of hiking with unleashed dogs. I worry about this in the Midcoast area, where I live and where Coastal Mountains Land Trust has several preserves that currently allow dogs. Only one time in my 14 years of dog ownership have I ever met a dog who was off leash “illegally” and truly under voice command. And yes, it was a beautiful thing to behold … For some reason, I can’t bring myself to scold bad owners when I meet them on the trail … It’s hard to be the hard-ass, and it’s frustrating to be put in that position by people ignoring the rules.”

-Wendy Higgins, Appleton

This is just a sample of the many stories I received, and I think they all bring up important things to consider before letting your dog off leash.

Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below. Differing opinions, stories and perspectives are welcome.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.