Molly Hale: A plea for bike path civility in Northampton

Friday, December 27, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — One morning this month I witnessed an incident that provoked me to write this plea for responsibility and civility.

I was walking with my leashed golden retriever on the Northampton bike path between Bardwell and Bridge Road. I heard a woman’s voice a couple of hundred feet behind me calling her dog to come back to her.

I looked back and here comes a lean, short-haired dog rushing toward us, hackles up. The commands obviously had no effect on this dog. Luckily the encounter turned out to be a neutral one and my dog and I headed off the bike path on a trail stomped in the snow, and this dog and her owner continued along the bike path. When I was well off the bike path, I happened to look back and see a runner on the path approaching behind the same dog and her owner. The runner was wielding a 6-foot long stick or branch, apparently having had prior experience with this or other unleashed dogs.

From my position looking up at the bike path, I couldn’t see what the dog was doing during this time, but as the runner continued down the path, brandishing the stick, he yelled sharply at the dog and its owner, “Back off! Back off! Put your dog on a leash! I have every right to run on this path! Back off! Control your dog! G-D liberals!”

Except for the epithet at liberals, I side with the runner. I expect he was fearful of an attack based on previous experience and angry at the dog owner’s lack of responsibility and lack of respect for other bike path users.

I’m guessing his feelings were intensified and compounded with frustration because of having been in this situation more than once. Meanwhile, the dog owner knew not only that her pet was not under her control, but that the dog had just run up to me and my dog in a possibly threatening way. While the sight of the large stick was alarming, the runner was justified in defending himself, if this dog was threatening him.

In my opinion, dog owners should make themselves aware of approaching runners, walkers or bikers and make sure to have their dog leashed at those times.

Even if a dog is super friendly, as mine is, and likes to run up to people for the sheer joy of greeting them, some people are afraid of dogs. Consideration dictates that they should not be forced into a situation that is scary to them. Also, an aggressive or merely enthusiastic dog can force bikers to swerve, possibly injuring them or others.

After the encounter, I heard this dog’s owner (with her pet now leashed) repeating to herself in a tone perhaps vulnerable, bitter, or bewildered: “G-D liberals!???” She wasn’t using the initials.

I wonder if she is still thinking, “What a jerk!” or “G-D Republican!” Such lingering thoughts would be regrettable because they mirror and give undue weight to a reactive comment the runner made while in an adrenaline-steeped moment of fear.

I hope that after the shock of the incident wears off, the woman and the runner alike will recognize that one’s responsibility as a dog owner is a separate issue from whether one is a liberal or conservative.

Responsibility and respect are fundamental values shared by liberals and conservatives alike. Speaking as a liberal, and a progressive one at that, but not a “G-D” one, I also appreciate compassion, honesty, equality and other values I expect the runner also shares.

I resent the runner’s accusation that irresponsibility and liberalism go together. I hope he recognizes that many in the community, both liberal and conservative, regret that his need for safety and consideration was violated today.

May all of us in this community work towards understanding each other and finding common ground.

Molly Hale lives in Florence.