BURLINGTON -- The recent snipping and snarling at the Starr Farm Dog Park in Burlington's New North End hasn't just been coming from the four-legged critters. Some park regulars complain that the system for banning aggressive canines from the site is hasty, arbitrary and unfair. But dog-park volunteers and city officials counter that bans are necessary for maintaining Burlington's zero-tolerance policy on aggressive dog behavior.
Darrel Hade, 43, was a long-time dog-park regular until about a month ago. In May, Hade and his 5-year-old Shiloh shepherd, Cooper, were issued a no-trespass order after Cooper got into a fight with another dog. Hade admits that Cooper, a 95-pound non-neutered male, has a tendency to herd other dogs. But Hade calls that behavior typical of the breed, and has a letter from The Dog School of Richmond that supports his claim. More than 50 Starr Farm regulars have signed a petition asking that Hade and Cooper be allowed to return.
A similar incident occurred several weeks ago involving Winston Ochsenbein and his male Siberian husky, Ox. According to Ochsenbein's wife Julie, Ox got into a fight with a boxer named Blade. While breaking it up, both owners were bitten, and the two dogs were quarantined for 10 days. The Ochsenbeins are angry because Burlington Animal Control Officer Jody Harvey warned them that if Ox gets into another fight, he will be banned, too. "Ox is not an aggressive dog," says Julie Ochsenbein. "My husband had our dog under control. Frankly, we're dumbfounded at the level of stupidity here." She points out that almost any dog will fight back if it's attacked.
But Harvey says that part of the problem is non-neutered males like Cooper and Ox, which are more prone to exert dominance and fight. "If you're not real experienced with animal behavior, it's hard for most people to understand that," says Harvey. "It's not 'dogs being dogs.' It would be if we all lived in the woods and were a pack of wolves. But [for] domestic animals in a public park, we have a responsibility that a dog not behave that way."
Starr Farm Dog Park volunteer Sandy Bissonette says no-trespass orders aren't issued lightly and are jointly reviewed by the Parks and Recreation Department, the animal control officer and the volunteer Friends of Starr Farm Dog Park. "We feel bad when it happens and we try to do it intelligently," she says. "I love the dog park and want it to stay open. But we're trying to cut down on these incidents."
"I feel so stupid even talking about this stuff because it's a dog park," says Oschenbein. "It feels so second grade, like, 'He pushed me off the monkey bars.' But, like a lot of people, we don't have any other place to walk our dog."