A woman called me to say she was concerned about people not controlling their dogs on the Benton rail trail.
She loves the recreational trail and takes her dog there often, but what is intended to be a relaxing foray into the sunshine and fresh air often turns frightening when they encounter other dog owners who let their dogs roam free, she said.
Her experience goes something like this:
She is walking her dog and suddenly a large dog comes bounding their way, its owner nowhere in sight.
She has no idea whose dog it is or whether it is vicious or friendly. When the owner finally catches up, she asks him to maintain control of his dog, but he ignores her plea.
I’ve learned since talking with her that it is a big problem, not just on the Benton trail but also at places like Quarry Road Recreation Area in Waterville.
“This is a real issue,” Waterville Parks and Recreation Director Matt Skehan said.
A related problem is that many people do not clean up after their dogs.
“Dog waste at our city parks, playgrounds and trails is out of control,” Skehan said recently. “It’s horrible. We had an Easter egg hunt at Head of Falls last weekend, and it was just unbelievable.”
Waterville has about 30 recreation areas, including athletic fields, playgrounds, parks and trails, as well as Head of Falls on the Kennebec River off Front Street. Not one area is immune from the problem.
“It’s so frustrating for me because these people are going to those areas because they love them and they’re nice,” Skehan said.
Equally frustrating is that when he asks people to clean up after their dogs, they look at him like he’s crazy.
“Unless you’re wearing a uniform or a badge, they don’t care,” he said.
Waterville has an ordinance that requires people to immediately remove and lawfully dispose of dog waste on streets and sidewalks, as well as on public property and property owned by another person.
Failing to do so is a civil violation punishable by $50 or more for a first offense and $100 for a second and subsequent offenses.
The city’s animal control officer and police are charged with enforcing the ordinance.
Waterville Animal Control Officer Chris Martinez spent time up at Quarry Road last summer and saw people whose dogs were not only off the leash, but yards away from them. Martinez approached them and talked to them about it.
“There is a sign there that says a dog has to be with you or on the leash — it can’t be trotting up ahead of you,” Martinez said. “If the dog’s ahead of you and another person comes along the opposite way with a dog, who’s to say those dogs aren’t going to get into it right then and there?”
The response he often gets from people is that their dog is a nice dog and would not hurt another dog or human being.
“They just think it’s an open wilderness, and they can just let them go,” he said.
Martinez has summoned people, mostly in town, who allowed their dogs to go at-large.
“If the dog’s way ahead of you, there’s no way you can control that dog,” he said. “And that’s a violation.”
The city’s ordinance says any dog running at-large may be seized and impounded. It is a civil violation for which a fine of $25 to $100 can be imposed.
State law says it is illegal for a dog to be at-large except when it is used for hunting. A violation carries a fine of $50 to $250 for a first violation and $100 to $500 for two or more violations.
Martinez advises people to use extendable leashes when taking their dogs out.
“I have an extendable leash for my dog. What I like about it is, if another dog approaches and it looks like it is going to be aggressive, I can pull my dog back. It’s not just about control of your animal, it’s also protection of your animal is what you need to be cognizant of.”
He notes that it is illegal and dangerous to tie a dog outside a store and go inside.
“You can’t do that,” he said. “It’s considered a dog at-large. The owner may say the dog won’t bite anybody, but that’s beside the point. What if a kid decides to kick it or another dog comes by and bites it? A dog you don’t know could turn on your ‘good dog.’”
Martinez says there is a misconception that Maine has a “leash law” requiring people to leash dogs everywhere, but there is no such law.
“State law says you have to have control over the dog, physical control, voice control or with a leash.”
David Huff, animal control officer for Benton and several other towns, echoes Martinez and Skehan’s frustrations about irresponsible dog owners. He sympathizes with the woman who encounters dogs at-large on the Benton rail trail.
He recommends a sign be placed on the trail that says people must leash their dogs. Then, if he sees someone whose dog is not on a leash, he can warn that dog owner, he said.
“But I can’t enforce it until the park or trail people have a rule,” he said.
Huff has received complaints about dogs on the trail, but says that by the time he gets there, the dog and its owner are long gone.
He recommends people who report dogs at large try to get a name, address or vehicle registration plate number of the person.
Huff shouldn’t have to be chasing down violators. We could alleviate the problem by merely following the rules — and being respectful of others.
This is a great time of year for getting outside, exercising and breathing fresh air without having to worry about uncontrolled dogs or stepping in dog do-do.
It’s as much our responsibility to be good animal owners as it is to be good shepherds of the places we frequent with them.
And what about just plain, common courtesy?
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 26 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]