Originally published August 11, 2005 in the Seattle Times
Forgive the pet metaphor, but the people of Seattle have got to stop pussyfooting around about dogs. Seattle boasts some of the nation’s…
By Ann Hedreen
Forgive the pet metaphor, but the people of Seattle have got to stop pussyfooting around about dogs.
Seattle boasts some of the nation’s most progressive dog-ownership laws. We have a leash law that allows owners to take their dogs just about anywhere. We have nine off-leash areas where owners can run their dogs freely, and we’re about to have two more. We have a successful scoop-it campaign that makes our streets far more foot-friendly than many cities (been to Paris lately?).
Seattle also is endowed with some of the nation’s most beautiful parks, including half a dozen pockets of true urban wilderness, giving dog owners an endless supply of beautiful places to exercise themselves and their pets.
But something’s happening here that could upset the whole idyllic picture. Our parks and the people who visit them are at risk because of a growing minority of dog owners who are choosing to break the leash law.
Over the 15 years I’ve been running and walking in Seward Park, I have seen more and more dog owners choose to run their dogs off the leash. They know our animal-control agency is woefully understaffed and it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever get a $54 ticket. They know that there is an off-leash dog area a half-mile away at Genesee Park.
What they may not know is that their dogs are trampling native plants, allowing invasive ivy to take over the forest floor and slowly choke some of Seattle’s oldest trees. They may not know that the city, with the help of several small volunteer organizations like the Friends of Seward Park, spends more and more time and money every year trying to save the parks from their carelessness.
They may also not know that no matter how well-behaved their dog is and no matter what breed, their dog can terrify people who don’t know from a hundred yards away how friendly and harmless it is. And their dog, even if it has never misbehaved before, can bite someone, and when it happens, it happens in the blink of an eye.
The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that nationwide, 4.7 million people a year are bitten by dogs. Eight hundred thousand require medical attention. Injury rates are highest among children ages 5-9. The younger the child, the more likely they are to be bitten on the head, face or neck.
The Seattle Animal Shelter’s executive director, Don Jordan, says that our city averages about 300 reported dog bites per year and one to two reports of aggressive or menacing dogs per day, but that many bites and incidents go unreported.
On the list of breeds that account for most of the reported dog bites in Seattle are some that you would expect, such as pit bulls, and others you might not: Labs, retrievers and spaniels.
“This isn’t a dog problem, this is a people problem,” Jordan told me. “Dog owners need to behave themselves. Having a dog off-leash is not an entitlement.”
Dave Patterson, head of the Division of Rehabilitation Psychology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Harborview Medical Center, concurs, noting that, especially for children, the trauma of a severe dog bite carries with it a greater risk of long-term post-traumatic-stress disorder than most other kinds of trauma.
“There’s a primal brain response to the notion of being attacked,” Patterson explained. “These attacks can create phobias in children that may last for the rest of their lives.”
It’s time to protect our children and our parks. We need posters, yard signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts that bear a simple message: I LOVE OUR PARKS. I LEASH MY DOG.
We need Seattle’s many conservation groups — the Mountaineers, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation — to get behind an education campaign.
And if education campaigns, generous leash laws and off-leash areas don’t work, then maybe it’s time to create “off-dog” areas where people can play, picnic, walk and run freely, without fear. At the same time, we can give old-growth trees and open meadows freedom from dog abuse.
Three decades ago, Seattle set an example for the nation when it embraced recycling. We can do this, too. We can be a city that is dog-friendly and park-friendly.
Ann Hedreen is a filmmaker and writer who lives in Seattle.