Loose-running dogs in parks haunt abiders of county leash law
Thu., March 9, 2017
“I’m so happy for the sunshine,” said Diane Sherman as she exercises her dogs Zara (running) and Benji in Corbin Park Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2012. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
People who let their dogs run loose with them in the Dishman Hills have prompted at least one neighbor to hike the trails packing bear spray – and sometimes a shovel.
“First, the amount of dog poop on the ground is staggering,” said Paul Flanary.
Living in a neighborhood next to the Spokane County conservation area has given him a front row seat to the litter as well as the danger posed by people who ignore the county leash law.
“I encounter off-leash dogs almost every time I go out on the trails,” he said. “You never know about a dog that’s running up at you. You have to expect the worst, because it happens.”
He was especially concerned last month as dogs menaced some of the area’s deer, which were already stressed from the prolonged crusty snow conditions.
But as winter wanes, the impact of loose-running dogs can be documented in another way. Melting snow is revealing all the “gifts” they have left at the trailheads to the Dishman Hills as well as at other city and county parks.
“Over the past year, my neighbors and I have done an informal poop survey,” Flanary said. “At our trailhead alone for six months, we counted an average of about 20 dogs a day coming in with their owners. On a nice weekend day there might be up to 100 dogs, many of them off leash.
“And those dogs poop in our neighborhood or at the trailhead. People don’t pick up after their dog. They think this is a wild area where they don’t have to do that. When we estimated the number of dogs and the amount of poop we went out and collected in our survey, we calculated 10,800 pounds of dog droppings a year, right here.”
The people who let their dogs run free rarely pick up after them, Flanary observed. “And I know that many of those dogs are not controlled. I’ve been attacked three times.
“I started carrying bear spray after the first attack and I’ve had to use it twice. Both times on the dog and then on the dog owner. It was absolutely frightening.”
Seemingly everybody who regularly walks a dog on leash in area parks has had an unsavory encounter with off-leash dogs.
Even Nancy Hill, director of the Spokane Regional Animal Protection Service (SCRAPS), has had incidents with uncontrolled aggressive dogs.
“Two different times in Liberty Lake’s Rocky Hill Park,” she said.
But even the head of the agency charged with enforcing the city and county dog ordinances (Spokane County Code 5.04.070) is at a loss for a perfect solution.
“For one thing, Spokane is under-served by off leash areas,” she said, noting that only three off-leash dog parks have been authorized so far in Spokane County. Hill said she’s conferred with city and county officials about establishing more places for dogs to be legally off leashes.
“Signs don’t seem to do the job,” she said. “The leash law is for public safety and to protect other dogs that walk on leash as well as to protect wildlife and the environment. But some people don’t think it applies to their dog.”
Citations can be issued for off-leash dogs, especially if they threaten people or property, if an officer witnesses the offense or if a citizen files an affidavit of probable cause, she said. SCRAPS has 10 animal control officers to cover the region.
“If there’s a problem, people can get give us the address or license plate of the person with the dog and we’ll talk to them or send them a letter,” she said. “We can apply restrictions to a dog in some cases.
“We’d rather talk to people and get them to understand, but it’s a big educational curve.”
Dog complaints start picking up with the first hint of spring, said Bryant Robinson, the lone ranger for Spokane County Parks and Recreation.
“We hear about dogs and the way people care for them year-around, but spring time brings the calls in plenty,” he said.
Robinson tries to coordinate enforcement with SCRAPS, the professional responders to domestic pet issues.
Allowing a dog to poop in a park and not picking it up would be a littering violation, he said. “When I see it happen, I tell the owners they can chose to clean up after the pet or we could pursue it further.”
He hands out SCRAPS brochures on becoming a better pet owner when he can.
“People who follow the law are frustrated by folks who don’t,” he said. “From my patrol vehicle, 90 percent of the folks I see are compliant. People tell me that as soon as I leave, the dogs come off leash.”
He almost always gives people he catches the opportunity to put their dogs immediately on leash to avoid a ticket. “I use the opportunity to provide some education,” he said.
Driving by a trailhead at the Dishman Hills, he saw a man get out of a vehicle with two dogs off leash. “I hollered at him, but he and the dogs took off into the woods,” he said. “In that case, I left two citations on his windshield.”
The fine for each ticket is $99, up from $76 when the leash law originated, he said.
“People are very passionate about their dogs,” he said. “It’s like dealing with their kids.”
Parks are popular with people who want to exercise their dogs, and also epicenters for dog complaints.
Hot spots for complaints called in to SCRAPS include the Dishman Hills and other county conservation areas and even urban parks such as Manito, Comstock, Lincoln and the South Hill bluff trails below High Drive, Hill said.
The conservation areas are difficult to patrol because they include hundreds of acres where violators can easily disappear, she said. “We don’t have the staff to go hiking after after them,” Hill said.
Neither does the County Parks ranger. “Last year we had a grant for up to six rangers to patrol parks and watch over things and provide education,” he said. “People voiced their appreciation when they were around.
“But this year there’s no grant, and it’s back to just me.”
Even SCRAPS enforcement is driven by complaints with only the occasional patrols.
Robinson said he tries to be reasonable with people who have well-trained, focused dogs.
“There’s the county leash law and then there’s the gray areas, such as when a person is throwing a ball or Frisbee for the dog to retrieve and the dog is very intent on the task at hand,” he said. “That’s a lot different than a dog running ahead of its owner while hiking a trail.”
Complaints frequently come from the Dishman Hills, he said. “It’s a very urban setting with tons of use.
“Bear Lake County Park north of Spokane is another hot spot with a beautiful walking path that seems to invite people to let their dog off leash, and then somebody else comes along and it’s not so good.
“At Liberty Lake, people get there and think they’re in the middle of nowhere so they let their pets off leash.”
Dogs that chase wildlife also are violating a state law that’s enforced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “If a dog chases deer, that’s not a good deal,” Robinson said.
Staking out parks in civilian clothes to nab violators isn’t practical for the sole officer who covers all of Spokane County’s parks, Robinson said.
“Even in uniform, people tell me they just want to let their dogs run loose for a bit so they relieve themselves before they go on a hike,” he said. Dogs pooping at trailheads and parking areas is a significant problem, he added.
People should have bags with them to pick up dog droppings and a lined pack of some sort for carrying the deposit until it can be properly disposed, preferably at home, he said.
“The parks maintenance guys are thankful that volunteer groups tend to help pick up dog poop,” he said. “It definitely helps.”
While he writes few citations, Robinson said he knows there are limits to his attempts to educate dog owners. “People who’ve had bad encounters with dogs are frustrated,” he said. “I get it.”
Among those people are Patty Muncy, a neighbor to the Dishman Hills who’s had several encounters in the 40 years she’s lived there, two of which resulted in significant injuries to her dogs.
“It took a lot of money and time to get them well,” she said.
“Now I have a small dog, a 10-pounder. The last time I saw people with four dogs, none on a leash, I picked up my dog as one ran toward us.”
Nothing bad resulted in that case, but she was scared because groups of two or more dogs can form a pack mentality and be very aggressive as they feed off the frenzy, she said.
“The reaction is almost always the same in these cases,” she said. “The dog owner just looks at you and acts like you’re being rude for protecting your dog or being scared.”
Stephen Day, who lives in the same neighborhood, said he regularly encounters people with loose dogs. “Their dogs come running up to us and that gets our leashed dog excited and then they they cuss us out.
“One dog ended up biting my wife on the behind. The dog owner complained that we didn’t have our dog under control, but his dog was the one running free. That’s how stupid people can be.”
Flanary, also a long time resident of the Siesta Drive neighborhood, said he’s not proud to have resorted to carrying bear spray when he walks his dog on leash in county conservation areas.
“What choice do I have?” he said. “After being attacked once, I started carrying bear spray and it wasn’t long before I had to use it when my dog and I were attacked by two German shepherds.”
Two women with the dogs didn’t respond to his cries for help while the pair of shepherds lunged and bit at his legs as he tried to kick them away from his dog.
“I sprayed the dogs and that stopped that, but then the woman came running at me like a crazy person,” Flanary said. “She looked like a body builder. I didn’t have any choice but to spray her, too.”
He retreated and called 911. “When the dispatcher heard I used bear spray, they responded with several squad cars, a fire truck and a fire official’s vehicle,” he said. “They asked if I wanted to press charges. I said yes, and they took her away in handcuffs.”
Writing a few tickets dramatically increases compliance with the requirement to have dogs on leash in the experience of Jeff Lambert, Dishman Hills Conservancy executive director. While some of the Spokane Valley conservation area is owned by the county or state, the core is privately owned by the nonprofit conservation group.
“Education is important, but if you don’t eventually give a ticket there’s no deterrent,” he said. “Only a few need to be written. Word gets around.”
Noting that his wife was terrified of dogs after being bitten by a loose dog on a hike years ago, Lambert said he’s found little success in trying to explain that fear to the owners of off-leash dogs. “They just look at you as though you’re the problem,” he said.
“I’ve switched to simply thanking people who have their dogs on a leash and letting them know it’s appreciated. It’s a much more pleasant experience.”
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