AUGUSTA — Kato, a six month old husky, whined with anticipation when Coach, a German shorthaired pointer, and potential playmate, showed up on a recent afternoon at Mill Park, where the owners of both pooches planned to let them frolic off leash in the fenced-in Augusta Dog Park.

But the gates were locked. The fresh snow inside the dog park was untouched by paw or foot. The two dogs and their owners, Michelle Walsh and Jared Lawson, got back in their cars and headed off in opposite directions, their pets’ visions of a romp, perhaps a bathroom break, and some quality sniffing time with other dogs unfulfilled.

Signs posted at the entrance explained why:

“Due to the fact some folks refuse to pick up after their dogs and leave an unsanitary health risk mess for responsible folks to pick up, the Dog Park is closed,” the signs state. “Committee members are sick and tired of picking up dog messes (that are now showing up with worms in it). The Dog Park Committee has recommended the city to close the park for a period of time. We apologize to all responsible dog owners and your dog(s) for this inconvenience.”

Kato and Coach, and their owners, were not impressed.

“It’s frustrating because there is really no excuse to not pick up after your dog, especially here,” said Lawson, a Winthrop resident who owns a downtown Augusta business, Kennebec Chiropractic. “There are bags (for picking up pet excrement) right here. There’s a barrel to throw them in right here. It’s not that difficult to do.”

The park has two separate fenced-in areas, and there are dispensers filled with new bags for picking up pet waste in both of them, as well as a trash barrel where the bagged waste can be placed, just outside the park gates.

Walsh, also of Winthrop, said she came to Augusta specifically to let the young Kato run off leash, and socialize with other dogs, inside the park.

“Our yard isn’t fenced at home, so it has been great to be able to bring him here,” said Walsh, who had bags with her to pick up any mess Kato might leave. “It’s definitely disappointing.”

Bill Dunn, chairman of the volunteer Augusta Dog Park Committee, said when the park first opened there would occasionally be some people who wouldn’t pick up after their pets. But he said for some reason it has gotten much worse recently, with so much waste being left in the park he half-filled a 30-gallon heavy duty trash bag with what he picked up there about a month ago and then, when he came back three days later, it looked like he hadn’t picked anything up.

“You’re always going to have those who feel they don’t have to pick up after themselves — the same way they do it on the streets, or on the rail trail,” said Dunn, who used to take his chocolate Labrador and chow mix, Bedouin, to the park to exercise and socialize regularly until it closed last week. “But the last seven months, it’s like people decided, all of a sudden, they don’t need to pick up poop. Most people are really good about it. It’s a select, irresponsible few who, for whatever reason feel they don’t have to pick up.”

The breaking point at the city-owned dog park came, according to Leif Dahlin, community services director, when worms started showing up in feces left at the park. One pet owner, Dahlin said, got home from the park with to find worms in feces crawling between the dog’s toes.

“That’s a health hazard, when worms start showing up,” said Dahlin, a dog owner himself. “I don’t get it. Shame on those who do not pick up after their dogs. That’s got to stop.”

Dahlin said the park will open back up, likely in the spring, after it warms up and the park can be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected following Department of Environmental Protection guidelines, since the site is near the Kennebec River.

If and when the park does reopen, Dahlin and Dunn encourage anyone who sees someone not picking up after their dog to tell the owner they need to do so. And if they don’t, call Dahlin , at 626-2305, or police.

“If I can find out who is doing it, I’ll have them cited and no trespassed, because that’s not right,” said Dahlin, referring to an official order banning them from returning to the park. “The few are wrecking it for responsible pet owners.”

Dahlin and Dunn said volunteers have been picking up the waste left by others, but they haven’t been able to keep up with it. And they’ve become disgusted they have to keep picking up others’ pet waste.

City ordinance requires dogs on school property, at city parks, community centers or playgrounds, the Kennebec River Rail Trail, and other designated trails, to be on leashes.

The Augusta Dog Park opened in 2010, as a place where dogs could be off-leash on public property, with two fenced in areas — one, 9,600-square-foot area for all sizes of dogs, and a 4,900-square-foot area for petite pooches. The Augusta Rotary Club donated about $9,000 to create and enclose the park, which has been used heavily ever since.

“Some days, we’ve had as many as 20 or 30 dogs in there at one time,” Dunn said. “It’s funny, we thought, when it opened, with that amount of dogs, we’d have problems with some of them, behaving badly. We found it’s not the dogs we’re having problems with. It’s the people.”

Keith Edwards – 621-5647 [email protected]