By Meg Olson
A sudden uptick in off-leash dog citations has taken many local dog owners by surprise. While traditionally law enforcement and county parks staff have been tolerant of off-leash dogs, local sheriff’s deputies and new ranger Aaron Johnson are making strict adherence a priority.
“I know a lot of people have traditionally done it but a lot of people on the other side are coming up to me asking why all these dogs are off leash,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he had brought the matter to the attention of local deputies Jason Loreen and Tom McCarthy, who began issuing warnings and $74 citations.
“If it’s brought to our attention we tend to focus on it,” said chief Doug Chadwick with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.
While in the past, deputies have not focused on animal control issues, Chadwick said the deputies have the discretion to take enforcement action in that realm.
Whatcom County Code 6.04.060 (A) states that “except in exempt areas, the owner or keeper of any dog shall not allow it to be at large and not under control.” According to the code, under control “means that the owner, by means of a leash, restrains the dog to the owner’s immediate proximity, preventing the dog from trespassing upon property or annoying or chasing other persons, animals, or vehicles of any sort.”
Chadwick said deputies had focused more on education in July and August, warning people their dogs needed to be leashed. “They got little change in behavior from that so they started writing citations,” he said.
While their initial focus was in parks, they expanded their scope to all areas following a letter to the editor in the September issue of the All Point Bulletin complaining about dogs at large. The letter writer, Ian Furstrand, pointed out that “an uncontrolled dog puts everyone’s safety at risk, including the animal itself. However, I am not one for strict bylaw controls, or municipalities meddling in people’s affairs, so I don’t advocate getting the authorities involved.”
Chadwick said the two deputies had issued 10 citations for off-leash dogs in the last month.
Maureen Buckley received a $74 citation on September 13 as she walked her dog in the Maple Beach neighborhood where she lives. “Not under control? He was 10 feet from me, responds to commands and I had his leash on my body,” she said. “I have walked my dogs here multiple times a day for 11 years with no incidents. This is our normal way of being.”
William Dunnigan received a citation in Lighthouse Marine Park in late August after he took his dog off the leash to run in the large central field. “Technically he’s right I guess,” he said, “but there were no people, he was under control.”
Buckley and Dunnigan both added that deputies have been unreasonably brusque rather than focusing on educating dog owners about the change in enforcement of the leash law. “His presence has really unsettled people here,” Buckley said of deputy McCarthy. “We have older ladies who say they are afraid to walk their dogs, that they have nightmares!”
“There are lots of communities where, if a dog is ‘under the control’ of his person, all is well,” one wrote. “Let’s help them get their priorities in alignment with our community’s priorities.” Many brought up the greater need for traffic enforcement. “Here on APA at least a dozen cars are going by every day at 50 miles per hour, but no loose dogs,” another commenter said.
With no designated off-leash area in Point Roberts, many community members who contacted the All Point Bulletin, both those who oppose and those who support enforcing leash laws, thought this was the time to establish one.
The issue has sparked the highest number of comments posted on the All Point Bulletin website in 2015. A total of 24 comments have been posted with a clear majority either against the heightened enforcement action or suggesting there are more important issues for the deputies to concentrate on such as catching speeders on Gulf Road and Tyee Drive.
Pamala Sheppard, owner of Auntie Pam’s Country Store, said she favors balance in enforcing the leash law. “If there’s a grandma on the beach throwing the ball for her 8-pound poodle I don’t think she should get a ticket,” she said. “Some people have nice, well-behaved dogs who don’t run up to people or jump up or get grumpy with other dogs, but then there are people, like me, who don’t. I keep mine on the leash.” She added that unleashed dogs in her neighborhood made it a challenge to walk her dogs on the leash.
“They do need to run,” Sheppard said. “I’d do a fundraiser for a dog park.”
Designated off-leash areas, dog parks, or specified times when off-leash dogs would be allowed in certain areas are all ideas being suggested as the issue makes its way through local committees and to discussion at the county level.
Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) member John Lesow brought the matter to the attention of county council in a letter to councilmember Barbara Brenner.
He suggested steps be taken to establish off-leash areas on the Point, but also that sheriff Bill Elfo ask his deputies to temper their zeal and “refrain from handing out $74 tickets to responsible dog owners,” whose unleashed dogs are not posing a public safety concern.
Brenner responded that there had been complaints about loose dogs, and supported the idea of off-leash areas at Lighthouse Marine Park and Maple Beach. She forwarded the message to both Elfo and county parks director Michael McFarlane. Elfo responded to confirm the enforcement began after deputies received complaints and read Furstrand’s letter. McFarlane has not responded.
The issue will be on the agenda at the next PRCAC meeting October 13, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Gulf Road community center, and interested community members are invited to attend.
Sheriff’s deputy McCarthy has also been invited to the meeting.