unleashed aggression: how leash laws protect mother nature

by nikki meredith

Six months ago, after a no-dog hiatus of more than ten years, my husband and I got a puppy – a half golden retriever, half poodle. (Yes, I’m trying to avoid writing Goldendoodle. Owning any kind of doodle in our location (Southern Marin) and in our demographic (empty nesters) is an ubercliché.) Cliché or no, we are both amazed at how much we adore this little creature. I don’t know if it’s because of her qualities – sweet, funny, easygoing and easy on the eyes – or because the last time around we had children sopping up our parental love but something is different this time around. Every time I look at her she makes me happy and she touches me in such a deep way it almost scares me. I tell you this to demonstrate that my dog-adoring credentials are solid. But….

I recently discovered that I part company with some, perhaps most, of my dog-adoring brothers and sisters when it comes to The Leash.

I’d been minimally aware that a battle was raging over the Golden Gate National Regional Park plan to eliminate off-leash dogs from Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I listened to a debate on NPR – it was Michael Krasny’s Forum – and while I could see it from both sides – who doesn’t love running along the shore with an unfettered pooch? – I had to come down on the side of science. Scientists are saying that dogs on that beach are bad for the survival of shorebirds. I haven’t done the original research just as I haven’t conducted any experiments on climate change. I look to the majority of experts and the majority of experts say the climate is changing profoundly and the experts say dogs are hard on wildlife; dogs off leash are especially destructive to beaches, the desert and to the woods where I live.

But those were machinations of my rational self. My emotional self was an agnostic on the leash question. Until recently.

Every day I hike on a trail in the canyon where I live. The trail is part of Marin County’s Open Space and there are some rules. No smoking. No bicycles. No firearms. No unleashed dogs. But, as we all know, there isn’t much money for parks these days. Paying a staff of rangers to patrol the area is prohibitive. As a result, most dogs are walking sans leash on this trail and a small percentage of those off leash are aggressive.

Two weeks ago a friend and I were stopped by a jogger who, her hands in a prayer gesture bowed her head and said: “Thank you, thank you, thank you for having your dog on a leash.” She explained that the week before an unleashed dog chased her and bit her on the leg. While she was blotting the bloody wound with a tissue and trying to calm herself, the dog owner said accusingly, “He must have sensed your fear.”

She really said that?

Yep. She really did.

The other day a black Lab, his hackles up, came running up to me, growled and lunged. I managed to pull my puppy out of the way. At that point, the owner called the Lab and the Lab left us alone. And then the dog owner and I conversed:

Me: Please put a leash on your dog.

Dog Owner: Why should I?

Me: Your dog just charged us, growling.

Dog Owner: He would never hurt anyone. He just likes to growl. You’re overreacting.

Me: I’m asking you to obey the law.

Dog Owner: Dogs need socializing. (His dog? My dog? Him?)

Me: Please put your dog on a leash.

Dog Owner: Look around lady. Most of the dogs aren’t on leashes.

Me: But your dog charged…

Dog Owner: How dare you accuse me of not being respectful (Huh?) I’m a very respectful person.

Me: Then please use a leash…I…

I stopped. I noticed that he was very red in the face and his eyes were bulging with fury, so much fury that I worried that he might have the same antagonism to the ban on firearms. But, I didn’t think he had room in his running shorts for a gun and anyway he looked to be as much of a Southern Marin cliché as I am. He probably supported the Brady Bill and has a “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper sticker on his Prius.

He didn’t brandish a weapon but he did have a parting shot as I walked away. Before I repeat it, I want to tell you that it was one of the most astonishing things anyone has ever said to me. Actually, he screamed it at me:

“Don’t walk on this trail any more!”

The next day I called the Marin County Department of Parks and Open Space and talked to the Open Space Ranger. I said that perhaps it would be a good idea to dispense with the rule since so few people were obeying it. He said, no, it wouldn’t be a good idea. He talked about the fragility of the Redwood forest where the trail is, a forest he described as one of the most beautiful in Marin. He talked about how the off leash dogs pollute the stream that runs through the canyon – a stream that wildlife is dependent upon, especially in the summer when there is so little water. He said he loves dogs. He owns a dog but unleashed dogs increase stress on wild animals – from the tiniest salamander to birds and foxes and can significantly impair their ability to care for themselves. And then he thanked me for calling. He said they do have serious budget constraints but when people help out by alerting them to areas that need attention, they can do a better job of managing an area. (I’ve always been amazed at how quickly his department removes fallen trees from the trail. He says it’s because of people like me who call and report fallen trees.)

The next day I ran into him on the trail. He had just issued three citations — $175 each – to owners with off leash dogs. He promised to be back soon to issue more. I thanked him and as I and my leashed puppy said goodbye, I said a little prayer that one of those citations would go to a man with bulging eyes a growling black lab — a man who is respectful of all living things.