Careful What You Ask For

Open water in February, spotted along the trail while out with The Dog. We encouraged him to step in for a drink, he refused, being he’s kinda wary of the unfamiliar. It was his first time on this trail.

For over thirty years Happy Wife and I have walked, hiked, biked and skied with dogs on trails all over the Anchorage bowl. There must hundreds of them. Usually the dogs are off leash, with certain exceptions (e.g. when moose or porcupines are about). Recently, there was a kerfuffle in the opinion section of our local newspaper over off-leash dogs on the trails. The outrage bubbles up every five years or so. The existing ordinance says all dogs must be leashed on the trails, except for dogs under voice control or those wearing some kind of electronic collar. Certain “activists” about town want the ordinance strengthened, such that every dog must be on a leash on every trail (except in designated off-leash dog parks), and they want animal control to step up enforcement.

Full disclosure: even under the current ordinance we are technically out-of-law. We don’t now, and never have, put an e-collar on our dogs, and coming when called has never been their strong suit, especially the Airedales. What has been a feature of all our dogs is non-aggression, certainly towards uprights, but also towards other dogs. I simply won’t stand for an aggressive dog in my company.

Again, we’ve enjoyed the trails in this way for over thirty years. We’re not alone. There are hundreds of trail users doing the exact same thing with their dogs, peacefully minding their own business and dealing with infrequent conflicts where they arise. If there were a crisis number of conflicts with dogs out there we’d know about it by now. There is no problem to solve. And even if there was, if it hasn’t been solved by the existing ordinance it won’t be solved by a stronger version. More on this below.

So what’s the clamor this time? Nothing new really.

The reasons cited in the comments to the op-ed were: “I’ve been bitten by so many dogs on the trails I’ve lost count!” or “I’ve been knocked off my mountain bike countless times when a loose dog has run in front of me!” or “The mountains of poop not picked up by irresponsible dog walkers are polluting our streams, causing disease, and it makes me sick to look at it!

This kind of lame reasoning annoys me. If you’ve been bitten so many times you’ve lost count, I’m sorry you’re a magnet for dog aggression, but please don’t make my dog and the hundreds (thousands?) of other non-aggressive dogs the target of your activism.  And bikers, please slow down and be aware of sudden changes on the trail. As an avid cyclist myself I understand the importance of trail ethics. Next time it may be an alacritous child who darts out in front of you. Should they be leashed too? Remember: these are multi-use trails – get it, Multi-. Oh, and the poop complaint, trust me, leashed dogs poop too.

And one more thing: As anyone who has used the trails as much as we have knows, dogs on a leash pose a greater obstacle to other trail users (runners, bikers, etc.). It makes it much more difficult to go around when leashes are extended across the trail. And as dog people will tell you, leashed dogs tend to exhibit more aggression compared to unleashed dogs. So aiming your ordinance at unleashed dogs, to get them “under control” to increase the net safety of all trail users, may actually make the perceived problem worse.

Alas, here’s a vignette from the comments section of the op-ed, where pointing any of this out can get you smeared as a no-good scofflaw – scofflaw?! – or chided as some kind of closet anarchist who doesn’t believe the law applies to them 🙄

Who knew the simple activity of walking a harmless dog off leash on a trail, as we have for three decades, actually poses as big a risk to public safety as a red light runner! And down the moral rabbit hole we go…

Tom says:

“Under voice command” is not the (current) law, so you are a selfish scofflaw. Can you run red lights because your car is under your command?

I reply:

Tom, if a trail user steps off the trail to pee, is she an irresponsible trail user, and/or a selfish scofflaw? If a cyclist has not registered his bike with the city or has not clearly marked it as such, is he an irresponsible trail user and selfish scofflaw? If so, by all means, help us identify these individuals so we know where to send the fine(s).

Another reply to Tom by Shawn (no doubt another scofflaw):

I love all these holier than thow people on here, because im sure you obey all traffice laws, bikers never break rules either, skiers always ski in control, i mean get serious. If his dog is not attacking anyone and is behaving who cares? There is no room for well behaved dogs because of bad behaved dogs?

The loopy “logic” of people like Tom makes it clear to me and others this has nothing to do with off leash dogs threatening public safety. That’s a joke. Has a dog never bitten a trail user? Of course it has, and there are existing laws that give the victim recourse, if need be. More likely the conflict is resolved by the parties involved. I know, one of my dogs years ago was badly injured when another dog attacked it on the trail, unprovoked. The dog’s uprights were appalled and did everything possible to make sure I sent them the vet bills. So yes, shit happens. Point is, it’s rare, really rare. Camaraderie rules the day. Something you might appreciate if you’d used the trails regularly for, oh, I don’t know, maybe thirty years or more?

What this is really about is a special-interest minority of trail users who 1) don’t like dogs, period, and/or 2) want to limit other trail user’s activities to favor their own. Combine that with an officious-minded worldview and you get activists weaponizing ordinances.

These are multi-use trails the city is obliged to maintain for the benefit of all users – skiers, bikers, skateboarders, roller bladers, tourists, stroller pushers, and yes, dog walkers. And of course your criminal element is out there as well –  many of the trails run through heavily wooded areas. Illegal drug use and physical assault, even murder, are unfortunately not unknown. But let’s not talk about that. No, the real bugaboo to public safety is unleashed dogs 🙄

Nothing will change on the trails, passage of the ordinance or not. The existing one hasn’t been enforced. Never in thirty years have I been stopped by an animal control officer and ordered to put my dog(s) on a leash, not once. The state is broke, the city is broke, there’s no money for increased enforcement. Crime in the city (including on the trails) is increasing. Why make more criminals with a new ordinance?