Dog owners love their dogs. Some love their dogs so much, apparently, that they can’t foresee the damage an off-leash dog can do while romping with abandon through a garden, chasing a squirrel, a ball, or an imaginary cat. Love is truly blind. Blind and oblivious.
I discovered the results of such love recently when I came upon our beautiful, 5-year old Hydrangea quercifolia while working in the gardens of Carkeek Park. This beautiful shrub was a gift to the gardens by a local nursery that has supported our work over the years. I’d been warned by another steward that some damage had occurred to our prized Hydrangea but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Three of the shrubs’ main branches had been snapped off more than half way down the limb – jagged, ragged tears that spoke of a large, powerful dog having charged through the shrub at top speed. Two smaller limbs were severely bent and twisted. Nearby perennials were smashed or crushed and showed large paw prints in the crown of each plant. Mulch was disturbed and the roots of some plants were exposed. I bet the culprit slept well that night.
Such damage is painful to see, and we’ve seen it before in the gardens. Large open spaces in public parks are often assumed to be unofficial off-leash areas, regardless of what nearby signs say, and our gardens in Carkeek seem to invite this type of activity. Dog owners who allow their dogs to run wild through gardens and picnic areas will express irritation when reminded to leash their pet. “He’s fine! He won’t hurt anyone. Besides, I let him do this all the time.” A fellow steward sees this as indicative of the narcissism and sense of entitlement that pervades our society. She may be right. This sense of entitlement is difficult to reason with. Some years ago a visitor to my home garden brought along a friends’ dog she was caring for during that friends’ long absence. The dog was a large lab with an abundance of enthusiasm and curiosity. A really happy dog. My visitor allowed the dog to run free throughout the garden even though I had asked her to keep the dog leashed. She said the dog was well-behaved and obeyed commands and there was no need to leash it. Not true. Before long, the dog took a flying leap into our fish pond, damaging the fountain, tearing up the plants, and terrifying the fish. After the struggle of getting the dog out of the pond and cleaned of plant debris, no apology was offered. I did receive the standard comment, “He usually doesn’t act like this.”
I don’t blame dogs for their actions. Speaking as someone who owned a beagle for many years, I understand the desire to see my dog run free and unrestricted. But I also understand that doing so in places not designated as off-leash areas causes tremendous damage to property, some of which the dog owner may not even see. I doubt that the owner of the Hydrangea-trampling dog was even aware of what his/her dog did. And that is the problem.
I don’t know how to resolve this situation. I continue to thank visitors who keep their dog leashed for doing so, and I continue to politely remind owners of unleashed dogs of the park’s policy of leashing all dogs. However, it all comes down to the attitude of the dog owner. A true understanding of, and respect for, public spaces will alleviate the problem. When, or if, that happens, all will benefit.