Frances Volkmann: Northampton needs to retain place where dogs can run
NORTHAMPTON — The guest column of Sept. 30 by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas saddened me in many ways. First, I was saddened to hear of her terrible accident when confronted by an unleashed dog and the costs associated with it that she describes. It was an awful experience and I wish her a rapid and complete recovery.
I was also saddened that her conclusion from her accident was that all of our dogs should be leashed, presumably at all times, in the area informally referred to as “the dog park” near Smith College and Village Hill. I was a regular runner in that area for 30 years (I am now a walker), and for many of those years was accompanied by a dog. It is a special place for people and dogs alike, a place to be enjoyed by all.
About 10 years or so ago, a group came forward urging that dogs be leashed at all times there; a meeting was held at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, attended by runners, dog people and city officials. An informal agreement was reached that there were special times when the area would be reserved for runners’ groups and school and college cross-country teams, and that the rest of the time dogs under the control of their owners could run and play there.
Having a place where dogs can run freely is critically important to the hundreds of us who share our lives with them. Many of our dogs come from herding or working stock. They are genetically programmed to need hard exercise — to run. When they can’t run they become stressed, sad, fat and sick. Our veterinarians’ offices are filled with them.
It is important to realize that the place of all of our domestic animals has changed dramatically just over the last few decades as we have become an increasingly urban, human-centered culture. Not so long ago, dogs were a part of most people’s lives. They were our workers, our protectors, our steadfast friends.
And the level of our understanding of our dogs’ needs and requirements, and how we should respond to them, was better than it is now. It has often struck me as ironic that some runners, who understand so well the importance of running for themselves, would not allow that need to be met readily for our dogs.
Here in Northampton, we have a situation where dogs must be leashed everywhere in town except in the area above where the informal agreement is in effect. Runners can go anywhere at all. Every park, road, sidewalk, bikepath and trail is available to us as runners. Dogs can run in only one area. And of course, runners are welcome there, too. They just need to understand that if they go there they will encounter free-running dogs, because that is the only place in town where the dogs can be off leash.
Perhaps it is also important to reiterate the behaviors on the part of both dog-owners and runners that make for a safe and happy experience for everyone. It goes without saying that dog owners need to be sure that their dogs will come when called and that they can snap on a leash rapidly when necessary. And runners need to learn to do three things if and when they are approached by a free-running dog.
First, stop running. A herding dog will not try to herd a stationary object. Second, drop your hands to your sides. Hands in pockets or raised are signals for many dogs that treats may be forthcoming. And finally, turn your back abruptly on a dog that starts to jump. By this time the dog’s owner should be there with the leash.
Over the years I’ve seen many things in my treks at the Smith/Village Hill area. I’ve seen some serious accidents when people tripped over rocks and roots; I’ve seen people annoyed and frightened by dogs who tried to herd them while they continued to run. I don’t happen to have seen a serious accident caused solely by a dog. Mostly what I’ve seen is the joyful play of people and dogs enjoying together an open and beautiful place.
Frances Volkmann lives in Northampton.