- Rachel Mullis
There's nothing better than watching a dog run for the sheer joy of it.
Or is there?
My dog, Zoe, is 40 pounds of lean muscle and seems born to tear across the landscape. She scales steep cliffs and fallen trees with ease, her black lips curled in a grin, her body a copper blur as she crashes through the brush beyond. I can't help but smile along.
However, not everyone feels the same way about free-ranging dogs.
Burlington is a dog-friendly city. You can go to almost any park or public space and find a pup (or 10) to greet. Sometimes, the pup finds you first. Only 3.5 of the city's 520 acres of open space are designated off-leash friendly: the dog park at Starr Farm Park, Waterfront Dog Park and Texaco Beach. Elsewhere, though, not everyone follows the rules.
I know, because I used to be one of them: a generally responsible dog owner who was sometimes prone to letting her dog run free in places where it's technically verboten. But after some soul searching — and a little research — I've recently come to embrace the leash.
"A lot of people feel like, if their own dog is so-called 'friendly,' that it's OK for them to let their dogs rush up to other dogs," said Maria Karunungan, owner of Fetch the Leash, a Burlington-based dog behavior and training company. "It's a really common misconception."
Karunungan also chairs the Burlington Dog Task Force, which the city council set up in 2021 to address a slew of complaints about unlicensed dogs, poop unscooped — a particularly foul offense once the snow begins to melt — and dogs off leash. A formal report is expected from the group this fall.
"Not everybody is comfortable with dogs running up to them," said Abbey Duke, chair of Burlington's Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission and former chair of the task force. "A lot of people, some for cultural and religious reasons, are uncomfortable with it. I wish all dog owners understood and respected that."
And some people are genuinely afraid of dogs, regardless of their behavior. (I used to be.)
Burlington resident Valerie Lodish said she's generally happy taking her dogs to off-leash areas. But she also thinks "a lot of dogs are off leash in areas where they shouldn't be, or aggressive dogs [are] out with owners who aren't in full control of dogs who perhaps need more training," she said.
So is it true? Is it time for dog-friendly Burlington to tighten the leash?
Pondering that question, I reflected on my own journey as a 14-year Burlington resident and dog owner. I'd always considered myself a representative of responsible pet ownership: I socialized, I trained, I scooped, and I leashed.
On the other hand, I didn't have a dog license. And, truth be told, I didn't always leash, either (see the above wistful description of my dog crashing through the underbrush). I had a system for walking Zoe in Burlington's more remote natural areas: I would let her bound around until I saw another person, at which point I'd call, "Wait!" Zoe heeded the command and got a treat out of the deal.
- Rachel Mullis
- Dogs and their owners at a Burlington dog park
Of course, sometimes the person found us before I could spot them, in which case Zoe might freeze or run up to them, especially if they had a dog. Sometimes she saw a squirrel, and all bets were off. Sometimes she was leashed and someone else's dog ran up to us.
"Don't worry; they're friendly!" was the invariable call.
But sometimes the dog wasn't actually friendly, and it wouldn't leave us alone. Some owners had no voice control over their dog, and we had to wait for the dog to tire of the situation. Other times, my dog was the instigator.
My leash-free indiscretions came to an end when I applied to be a trail steward for Burlington Wildways in January. My online training course gently reminded me that dogs exhaust wildlife with their boundless, kibble-fueled energy. It was an argument I'd never considered, and it was the one that stuck. I've been leashing Zoe in natural areas ever since.
But if leashing is best for the ecosystem, is it best for our four-legged BFFs? Domesticated dogs spend a lot of time cooped up indoors. Don't they need to run free sometimes?
In short, yes. Off-leash dogs get better cardiovascular exercise and a positive way to channel their excitement, according to Karunungan. But there are options besides letting dogs run free where they shouldn't.
I spoke with one dog owner at Starr Farm Park who agreed. Julianna Battig lives in a Colchester condo with no yard, so she brings Nala, her 8-month-old Australian shepherd and Catahoula leopard mix, to the dog park regularly.
"She's a good dog when she's had sufficient exercise," Battig said. "But if she hasn't been exercised, she'll destroy things in the house. She requires a lot of stimulation."
Dog parks aren't for every dog, though. Besides the risk of dog-on-dog aggression, they can be a hotbed for viruses such as canine influenza.
"Although a lot of dogs enjoy dog parks, some dogs do not. It is important to recognize a dog's preference for socializing and to respect his/her limitations," Pamela J. Perry wrote in an email. Perry is a veterinary behaviorist at Peak Veterinary Referral Center in Williston and a current resident at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
She suggested that owners should learn to recognize signs of fear, anxiety or arousal, such as cowering, tucking the tail, backing away or lunging forward, barking, and growling.
Owners who aren't fans of dog parks, Perry noted, can exercise their dogs on a long leash to give them more freedom to run and explore while obeying local leash laws and keeping everyone safe.
As for Zoe and me, we are fortunate to have a fenced backyard, something I didn't have with my first dog. Zoe is smaller and less social than my last dog, too, so the yard works better than the dog park for us. She's happy playing with the neighbor's dog, Mowgli, and the fur friends she meets at Play Dog Play doggy daycare. I've also licensed her, which you can now do online for $27 a year, to help the city better account for dog owners and allocate funds appropriately.
Queen City residents whose dog-related needs aren't being met will soon have a chance to voice them. After publishing its report this fall, the Burlington Dog Task Force will solicit feedback from residents.
Will the city ever open more unfenced off-leash dog areas?
"I think it's not a yes-or-no question," Duke said. "It's 'Well, what are the details? What are the expectations? What is the enforcement?'"
For now, the onus remains on dog owners to be responsible for our dogs. I'm learning that that responsibility involves more than a judgment call; it means respecting the ordinances and the process, too. As someone who can't imagine life without a pup, I now follow the leash laws to protect the dogs' place in our city — and everyone else's.