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Park etiquette I: Opening the discussion

Last week, while going through fan email, I came across a note from a dogless mother of two in Locust Point — unusual because (A) she doesn’t have a dog, (B) she was reading my blog anyway, and (C) she managed to complain about off-leash dogs with a sincerity and civility that rarely accompanies such concerns.

She was seeking an answer, as opposed to grinding an axe, and I thought her concerns were valid, reasonable and so well-stated that I’m reprinting — with her permission —  the whole thing.

I offered her a couple of pointers (not the dogs), and suggested that — If it’s solutions she wants — why not throw it open to the readers, a couple of whom I know for a fact are smarter than me. She was game.

On top of that, her letter serves as a reminder for those of us who sometimes put our dogs needs above everyone else’s. I’ll give you my opinions tomorrow, but for now, here’s Jen:

The family and I are sorta new to the area (about 1.5 yrs coming up). I’m currently a stay-at-home-lose-my-mind-some-days Mom to two girls 2.5 yrs and 15 months respectively.  I’ve had a few troubling incidents with unleashed dogs in Latrobe Park (our ‘hood)  and have been browsing around looking for tips on how to approach the situation. 

Now, before you get all bentoutashape, asking yourself “why are you emailing the author of a dog-centric blog?…let me first say that I am most definitely one of those people who are middle of the road on everything and I try to see everyone’s point of view before taking a stance on something.  I say this before soliciting your opinion/response/advice regarding my predicament:

1.  I support the Locust Point Dog Park – signed the petition when they came door to door.

2.  I love dogs. Grew up with them. Not afraid of them.  Would like my girls to adopt one for their own. We don’t have one right now.

3.  I support the idea of all Dog Park Free Run areas in public parks in case that wasn’t clear in number 1.

Here’s my dilemma:  My 2.5 year old is no longer keen on dogs after being knocked down last summer (she was about 17 months old at the time) in Latrobe Park.   She has been getting better, mostly through my working with her and reacting very positively when we see a dog (which is often, this is a very dog and kid friendly neighborhood). 

Also, her little sister adores all things canine – she would probably lick back if we let her. So we are working on it. What parent wants their child to grow up with a fear of anything, most especially ‘man’s best friend’?  

Latrobe Park is our hangout spot. You are likely familiar with the layout. There is an enclosed playground and then the general park surrounds. We utilize both. There are unleashed dogs in the park every single day.  I try to do the best with the situation – using common sense. Like, maybe we don’t leave the playground right now while there are dogs at play, or we take the long way round out of the park. 

But sometimes encounters are hard to avoid.  It is in these situations where I’m not sure what approach to take with folks and their canine companions. Two very large sheepdogs ran up to my little girl on our way out of the park the other day – it’s hard for me to convince her that this ok when they are more than double her size and moving toward her at a pretty fair speed.  

This also doesn’t do much for my efforts to reintroduce to her the idea of dogs as friends not threats. In fact, it undoes weeks of work in a single incident. And it’s these incidents that get me frustrated. I want to coexist with dogs and I want the same for my girls. But don’t you think there need to be ground rules for everyone? 

I don’t understand how the leash law is applicable to one dog owner but not another? How are we to differentiate between which dog owners have very well trained dogs (that will respond to voice commands) and which dog owners have poorly trained dogs?

There are people who have deep seated fears re: dogs. Like my mother in law. Bless her, she’s terrified of dogs. Why? Because as a child, the neighbor’s dog bit her ankles and chased her every single day on her way to school. Not an exaggeration, unfortunately. But it’s the dog’s caretaker that’s at fault here and in cases where the dog is unleashed in a public park. 

Hey, and it’s not just me and my skittish toddler here.  There are other dogs in the park that are leashed – and unleashed dogs running up to it can’t be appreciated by other caretakers….how are they supposed to evaluate in that split second whether or not this animal is going to attack their precious Fido? 

But hey, maybe I’m not educated enough on the inner working of the canine pysche. I’ve got enough to do trying to maneuver through the terrible twos.

So anyway, I don’t want to be that asshole neighbor that calls 311 or what have you –  to report another neighbor’s dog off-leash. But what am I supposed to do? I want to be a good parent and a considerate neighbor. I do my part to turn a blind eye to unleashed dogs running in the park (because I understand the need to run free and I agree with it). But it is not fair to ask me as a parent to continue to do so when it is at the detriment of my child. I’m supposed to have her best interests at heart. Right?  Dude, I like your dog – but I don’t want it licking my kid’s face. Don’t take it personally…. I don’t want you licking her face either.

Give me some pointers, will ya?  To say that you appear to be a dog lover and advocate would be an understatement. So in theory, you might be able to provide more unbiased advise than say, my mother in law.

Sorry to rant,

A mother of two in Locust Point


Comment from Anne-n-Spencer
Time September 4, 2008 at 10:17 am

I think Mom of Two is right on point with everything she says, and I wish I had some advice.

People: If you’re walking your dog off-leash in a public park in a city, you had damned well better be sure he’s under your complete control. That means (a) that he’s adequately trained so that he will sit, stay, heel, and come when you call; and (b) that you’re watching him every minute of the time anyway. If that’s not the case, then keep him on a leash.

To whoever owns the dog that knocked the toddler over: You’re really, really lucky that this mother didn’t call the cops or animal control or decide to sue you.

It’s really, really easy to socialize even a big dog to small children, as long as the dog has been well disciplined all along. Just have the dog on a leash, have the dog sit, and facilitate the introductions quietly. Encourage the child to allow the dog to sniff, and remind her to keep her face away from the dog’s and to pat “very gently.” Reward both parties with quiet praise, and be prepared to move in at the slightest sign of distress from either party. Mom, when your 2.5 year old is ready, you might try this in a nice, non-threatening environment. If she has some good interactions with “doggies,” it’ll help to overcome her understandable concerns. There are plenty of parents out there who feel their child can do no wrong. You don’t sound like one of those to me.

Dog owners need to be aware that places where some dogs are on leash and some are off leash carry the potential for real trouble. “Meeting and greeting” among dogs is a complicated ritual that involves deciding (among other things) who’s dominant. Dogs who are on leash are denied a whole array of instinctive behaviors that enable them to defuse potential trouble. They’re forced to react aggressively when they would otherwise do something else. It’s not a good thing. That’s why all dogs in a dog park are off leash.

All I can say is that it sometimes seems to me that there are a lot more A.H.’s out there these days–dog owners and otherwise. Either that or I’m getting old and cranky and my tolerance level is going down. It’s going to make it more difficult in the long run to get the needed dog parks. Mom of Two, if I were you, I’d have no trouble at all saying “Keep your dog away from my kid, or I’m calling the cops…”

Comment from hobbit
Time September 4, 2008 at 12:36 pm

Leash laws are leash laws. Dog owners must Obey them. I agree with Anne. “Keep your dog away from my kids or I’m calling the cops.”

I NEVER let my boy off leash in public unless its at the off-leash dog park. NEVER. He is a power breed and you never let your guard down with them, even the well trained ones. And I never let children approach him if they’re running or screaming “I wanna pet your dog!!! Can I? Can I? Can I?”

And yes, it does annoy me that some dog owners allow their dogs off leash in public contrary to the laws. Anything can happen. It’s foolish. They (or the dog) eventually pay a price.

I have a responsibility to my neighbors and their children.

Comment from Marie
Time September 4, 2008 at 12:38 pm

I have to agree with Anne. Mixing dogs on and off leash is asking for trouble and is the reason why it is so important to have dogs off leash in a secure dog park. We have dog leash laws for many reasons, safety being the most important. The author of the letter is being incredibly nice…. I love dogs too, but I would have no problem telling someone to watch their dog if it came charging at me or my fictitious child. Not all dogs are as great as their owners think- just like all children aren’t as great as their parents think. I certainly would not want a Daschund running up to me unleashed and out of control. Since everyone has a phone and a lawyer these days, you run the risk of the slightest perceived injury or threat costing you all of your possessions. It’s not a risk I am willing to take. I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I think leashes are important for a reason. One bad apple spoils the bunch and sadly, bad apples are easy to come by.

Comment from dog
Time September 4, 2008 at 12:54 pm

The problem is, and I see this all the time, that people think if their dog is friendly, then it is perfectly fine for them to run off leash in public places. So the dog runs up to the kids, scares them, knocks them down, etc. The owner is running behind them, yelling “Fido, come!” and of course the dog is not listening. So then the owner says “it’s ok, he’s friendly!” as if that makes everything ok. As the other posters said, there are so many reasons why this is not ok. Not to mention, if your dog will not come when called at ANYTIME, then you are really putting your dog in danger. I’ve seen this happen, when their dog (who is friendly), runs up to a dog that is on leash. As the other poster mentioned, dogs on leash often react differently than they would off leash. So the dog on leash may get offended and act out against the off leash dog. The off leash dog gets hurt and they blame the person walking their dog, obeying the leash law. I could go on – I’ve had off leash dogs follow my dog and I out of parks, while the owner is calling and calling, and the dog just follows us right into the street.

Comment from carey
Time September 4, 2008 at 2:32 pm

I also agree that dogs should not be off-leash unless 100% under owner’s voice control. Unfortunately, they are animals, they have instincts, and no matter how well they are trained, there is always something that could divert their attention and cause them not to listen.

I also think that America is suit crazy and if my dog so much as scratches a child, I could be left homeless and my dog euthanized (extreme, but possible.)

In addition, leashed dogs and off leash dogs are a bad, bad combination. A dog on a leash feels tied down and threatened when approached by an off leash dog. Not to mention the energy it’s getting from it’s owner (most likely fear) and the instinct to protect it’s owner. I have seen more fights start this way than any other way, including over food and toys.

All of that said, my advice to “mother of two” is to familiarize her children with dogs in more controlled situations. Places where dogs are on leash and with the owner’s permission. Perhaps this will help more with their apprehensiveness. While at the park, if there are dogs off leash and they come over, I would not hesitate to tell the owners that they need to better control their dogs. And I would be stern about it. Even though they may think their dog is good with children, both are unpredictable. You don’t know what a child is going to do when it sees a strange dog nor how that dog will react to that specific child. *Tell the owner this*. Bottom line, the dog owner is in the wrong in that situation.

One of the suggestions at the City meeting regarding more dog parks was the option of “off leash hours”. No fences, no boundaries, just hours when dogs could run free. I opposed this and gave them the reasons I mentioned above.

Hopefully, the plan to build 4 new off leash dog *fenced* parks in the city will happen sooner rather than later. My only request is that parents with small children understand that when in those off-leash parks, the tables are turned.

Comment from julie
Time September 4, 2008 at 7:44 pm

This is such a tricky issue. While I usually obey leash laws with my dog, there is one park that we visit (right across from our townhome) where I do let her “off leash.” That being said, we do so very responsibly. I do not allow her anywhere near the kiddie area, and if there are kids (or other dogs for that matter) out in the main area of the park, we either don’t go out into the park at all or else we just keep to one small corner of it, away from everyone else. I can do this because my dog listens very well, and knows that if she doesn’t follow the rules, she’ll have to go back on a leash and we’ll head home.

Along with that, I also discourage kids from patting her until they are calm and she is sitting quietly. And even then, I try to make sure I get an “ok” from a parent or responsible adult before I let them touch her. Because well, you just never know.

That being said, I wholeheartedly support leash laws, and it was my biggest pet peeve in my last neighborhood that so many neighbors would let their dogs out loose and they would cause trouble for my dog when we would go out for a walk – to the point that eventually we stopped taking walks, which ruined the neighborhood for both of us.

It is the people who let their dogs off leash who assume that everyone else is a dog-lover who wants to be jumped on/slobbered on/whatever or worse that their kids want this – these are the people who ruin off-leash play for the rest of us.

Hayle knows the rules in a dog park are different from the rules in our neighborhood park. She listens and she obeys. And so when neighbors get all upset about dogs in this park, it makes me angry, because I feel that we have just as much a right to be there as any other “mom” and her “kid” – but ONLY because my “kid” knows to leave the other kids alone.