Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ April 2021

The Problem with Unleashed Dogs in North Four Corners

By Karen Devitt

Our neighborhood is gifted with a tremendous natural resource, the Northwest Branch Trail.  The pandemic has increased the popularity of this trail (along with other green spaces) and, now that spring is here, public use has really picked up.

According to the “All Trails” website, “the Northwest Branch Trail is a 7.4-mile, heavily trafficked, out-and-back trail located near Silver Spring, Maryland, that features a river and is good for all skill levels.  The trail is primarily used for hiking, walking, nature trips, and birding and is accessible year-round.  Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on leash.”  The trail is part of the Rachel Carson Greenway and the Anacostia Tributary Trail System.

A recent walk revealed such wonders as the vernal pond with the cacophonous symphony of mating frogs, geese flying overhead, ducks calmly floating by.  In times past, I have seen beavers, owls, deer, chipmunks, squirrels, and great blue herons.  Oh, and of course, dogs.  Big dogs, little dogs, old dogs, young puppies, friendly dogs, not-so friendly dogs, leashed dogs, unleashed dogs.  Nature abounds.

In spite of posted signs and laws on the books in Montgomery County, the majority of dogs I see on my walks are unleashed.  What gives?

Value in Leashing Your Dog

There is value in leashing your dog, which is why the law is so clear.  Leashing reduces:

  1. the danger of bodily harm to people and other dogs;
  2. the intimidation some people feel being around and approached by unleashed dogs, which deters and curtails their use of the outdoor space; and
  3. the emotional distress caused to some dogs who can be freaked out when approached by another dog.
Dogs react instinctively, no matter how well-trained.  It’s their nature.

Unleashed dogs can also be a threat to wildlife.  And when an unleashed dog poops in the woods, who is there to pick it up?

This sign appears on Lockridge Drive at the entrance to the Northwest Branch Trail.

I know people who won’t visit the park because of the dogs, and I’ve heard first-hand and read numerous stories of injury and trauma due to dog-on-dog and dog-on-human altercations.

Recently, there has been quite a bit of chatter on the local forums (NextDoor and both NFCCA and Takoma Park listservs) about the issue of unleashed dogs.  Dog owners who leash their dogs may often feel they cannot control the dog when approached by an unleashed dog.  “Reactive dogs” can be spooked by other dogs.

Long-time North Four Corners resident Cait James recalled for me her difficulty in trying to restrain her rather large dog who has become agitated when approached by unleashed dogs.  According to Cait, “I would just call out to someone with an off-leash dog and ask them to put the leash on so my dog wouldn’t pull, and, in my experience, people have always been responsive to that request — if they had time to leash the dog before it reached us.”

What Can We Do?

It is my hope in writing this article that the situation might improve, allowing people, and especially children, who have been deterred from using the park, to feel safer.  The accepted norm (by otherwise law-abiding friends and neighbors) is to allow dogs to be unleashed, in spite of the law.

The dog owners I talked with love their dogs and consider them a part of the family.  Some, such as my friend I.C., had very good suggestions, one being that Montgomery County invest in more, and better, dog parks.  There are currently two dog parks nearby:  Ellsworth Urban Dog Park in Silver Spring, and Wheaton Regional Dog Park in Wheaton.

Another dog-lover friend of mine, K.R., is a proponent of having some off-leash time on the Rachel Carson Greenway Trail, preferably in the early a.m. when it is less crowded.  She also reports that, on her walks in Sligo Creek, most dogs she sees are leashed.  More signage throughout the park was suggested as one way to raise awareness.  There is currently a sign at the entrance to the park on Lockridge Drive (seen above).

For detailed coverage of Montgomery County Leash Laws, visit the Montgomery County website, and check out two excellent articles in the archives of the Northwood News.  The first, from February 2006, is entitled “All Dogs, Cats Must be Leashed in Public” by Beth Ginter and Jacquie Bokow.  The new law, which became effective 27 December 2005, states that “an owner must not allow a dog or unaltered cat to be at large” (Section 5-203).”  Some pretty hefty fines are threatened, but not enforced enough to be a deterrent (in my opinion).

From the April 2017 issue, “Montgomery County Pet Leash and Scooping Laws,” author Sam Salisbury-Jones ends on an optimistic note:  “When neighbors abide by pet laws, everyone — creatures included — can better enjoy the warmer weather and our beautiful community.”

Like most municipalities, MNCPPC (Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission) works to achieve a balance between the “demand for recreation with the need for conservation.”  There has been much research on dogs in public parks and the negative impact on the environment and wildlife.  In one article I read, entitled “Impacts of Dogs on Wildlife and Water Quality,”* the author states, “The evidence that dogs negatively impact wildlife is overwhelming.  It is clear that people with dogs — on leash or off — are much more detrimental to wildlife than people without dogs.”

The Way Forward

Here are two things I have started doing:  (1) when I see a person walking a leashed dog, I thank them for leashing their dog.  (2) When I see a person walking an unleashed dog, I ask them to please leash their dog.  I remind them that it is the law.  If they then leash their dog, I thank them.

I recently came across a phrase that I had never heard before.  In a Washington Post column helping to explain why New Zealand has dealt so well with the pandemic, the writers noted the indigeneous Maori custom behind New Zealand’s COVID-19 response.  The custom is Manaakitanga and it is now taught in New Zealand schools.  It holds that “others have importance equal to and even greater than one’s own.”  Manaakitanga is about understanding the power of the collective.  The Maori proverb “He waka eke noa” expresses these sentiments:  “We are all in this canoe together.”**

Happy Spring and Happy Canoeing!

An Aside

Our neighborhood has a long and distinguished history of honoring its pets.  Check out the Northwood News from December 2020 to read about the first Annual House Decorating and Pet Costume Contest.  The Pet Costume Contest had 25 entries!  By searching on “Pitting of the Pooches,” you can read about this highly successful event, which ran from 2008 to 2013.

* Impacts of Dogs on Wildlife and Water Quality, Technical Report, Lori Hennings, Metropolitan Regional Government, Portland, Oregon, April 2016.
** See The Washington Post Global Opinion column from 11 March 2021 by Matthew Milner and Richard Ngata entitled, “The Indigenous Custom Behind New Zealand’s COVID-19 Response.”  If you would like to read the column but don’t subscribe to The Post, let me know.

[Devitt is a long-time resident of Cavalier Drive.]   ■

   © 2021 NFCCA  [Source:]