Records show few Northampton ‘dog park’ attacks 

Most dog attacks occur in other parts of city

  • A new sign at the entrance to the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School farm fields in Northampton. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Neal Robinson of Northampton holds his dog, Heidi, as she checks out Mark Choquette’s dogs, Champ, Maggie and Gordy, during a walk at the Smith Farm Fields, Wednesday morning, in Northampton. CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jesse Watkins, of Northampton, and his dog Rudi play with other dogs Wednesday along the trails at the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School farm fields in Northampton. —DAN LITTLE

  • The Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School farm field trails in Northampton. —DAN LITTLE

  • Jesse and Natalia Watkins, of Northampton, walk with their son Oliver, who is almost two-years-old, and dog Rudi on Wednesday along the trails at the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School farm fields in Northampton. —DAN LITTLE

  • Dogs cool off in the Mill River off the trail at the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School farm fields Wednesday in Northampton. —DAN LITTLE

  • People walk their dogs along the trails at the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School farm fields Wedneday in Northampton.

@mjmajchrowicz
Published: 5/18/2016 7:46:59 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In recommending Tuesday that dog owners be required to keep their pets on leash in the network of fields and trails commonly known as “the dog park,” the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School board of trustees cited “dog attacks” as a central reason.

Given “the number of dog attacks that have occurred, it is clear that many owners have little control over their animals in this environment,” asserted the trustees.

That statement echoed ones made by other critics of the current practice of allowing dogs to run off-leash on the 282-acre Smith Farm Fields west of downtown. At Tuesday’s trustees meeting, Sue Grant, an organizer of a weekly foot race on the property, said “fewer and fewer people are courageous enough to run on their own.”

Are dogs attacks a common problem at the park? Northampton Police statistics suggest the answer is no.

Of the 34 instances of dogs attacking people reported to city police since 2010, at most two occurred at the complex of trails and farm fields, according to police reports and statistics examined by the Gazette. All the other dog-on-human attacks occurred elsewhere in the city.

The dog attacks that are recorded are “unfortunate” but not representative, said Judith Fine, the dog walkers’ liaison to the school trustees.

“I would say that less than 1 percent of dogs and/or owners have bad behavior,” she said. “I don’t know why you would punish 99 percent of users for that 1 percent.”  

Even one attack is one too many, counters Michael Cahillane, chairman of the Smith Vocational trustees.

“All I need is one,” he said.

Five years of records

To get a fuller sense of dog-related issues handled by police at the fields over the last five years, the Gazette requested records on all such calls from January 2011 until this spring.

Of the approximately 800 police responses for various issues at the fields between 2011 and 2016, two involved people who complained of being harmed by dogs.

In a December 2015 case, a woman said a dog jumped on her leg, leaving scratches and prompting her to get rabies shots. And in March 2016, a woman standing with friends and a group of dogs said one of the dogs had knocked her over while playing with the other animals.

In two other cases, police received reports of dogs attacking other dogs; none resulted in injuries to the animals or their human companions.  

Here are details from those reports:

2011: No incidents reported.  

2012: No incidents reported.

2013: According to a May 3 report, a caller complained about a “bulldog which started a fight with her dog.” The caller said she pulled the dog off of her pet and there were no injuries.

2014: No incidents reported.

2015:  Two incidents reported. One occurred on Oct. 16, when a woman said she was walking her dog at the park and an unleashed Alaskan Husky attacked her dog. There were no injuries, the report indicated, but she “wanted to have it on record.”

In the second report, 58-year-old Christina Petersen of Northampton said she was running on the trails Dec. 15 when a dog jumped on her, leaving “a bunch of its drool” on her leg.  

After the incident, Petersen said she could not immediately verify the dog was up-to-date on its vaccinations, so police advised her to get rabies shots.

Police later talked to the owner of the other dog, identified in the report as Sarah Jung. While Petersen told police the dog was unleashed, the owner said the dog was a 2-year-old that  had “jumped on Petersen, in a playful manner, scratching Petersen” while on its leash. 

Jung told police she felt badly about the incident, had apologized to the other woman, and that all of her dog’s shots were current, the report states. Jung could not be reached for comment.

Petersen supports requiring dog owners to keep their pets on a leash. “I think the incidents of attack are not large,” she said in an interview. “But dogs running away from their owners happens all the time.”

2016: One incident was reported, although it’s unclear whether it would qualify as an “attack” or an accident.

On March 26, police responded after a 31-year-old woman, Annie Sollinger, reported being with a group of friends and their dogs at a spot near Mill River where dogs often play in and out of the water. One of the dogs — she did not know which one — ran into her, knocking her over and injuring her knee and ankle.

She was transported to Cooley Dickinson Hospital for treatment. No bite was reported. Sollinger could not be reached for comment.

Other incidents

There may have been more incidents than are reflected in police records.

Grant said that, sometime in the fall of 2014, a dog leaped up, scratched her and drew blood while she was running the trails.

“I don’t go up there that much because I’m afraid of getting jumped by a dog,” she said in an interview.

Grant added that one of the racers in her Tuesday series last summer was attacked when a dog came from behind and bit the man on the back of his leg. She said, “He didn’t want to make a big deal.”

Grant said neither incident was reported to police.

Dog owners say that given the large numbers of animals that walk the trails every day, the frequency of dog troubles is far less than some have claimed.

Mark Schoquette echoed that view in an interview at the park Wednesday. He drives 25 minutes from his Chicopee home each day to walk his three dogs at Smith Farm Fields. Schoquette said he has never had a bad experience letting his dogs roam off-leash at the park.

"I don't understand it," Schoquette said. "All these years, I've never had a problem with my dogs bothering a runner."

Michael Brouillette of Holyoke said Wednesday that he has been running at Smith Farm Fields for years. Not a dog owner himself, Brouillette said he has never had a bad encounter with a dog roaming freely on the property.

"Sometimes you might encounter a dog away from its owner, but dogs are part of the experience here," Brouillette said. "There aren't very many places where dogs can go off-leash, so I think it should stay that way."

Gazette staff writer Stephanie Murray contributed to this article.

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at mmajchrowicz@gazettenet.com.




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