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Off-leash dogs common on Bellingham, Whatcom trails. Are their owners just confused?

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The CDC reports that “dogs bite 4.5 million people” annually. And one particular group of people faces the threat of dog attacks on a daily basis; letter carriers. Each year, more than 6,000 letter carriers will be victims of dog attacks.

"Leash your dog..." are fighting words in the city of subdued excitement as unwelcome trail interactions prompt anger from hikers and walkers with and without dogs.

Other than a few trails in Bellingham, it's not legal for dogs to be off leash, animal-control officials said.

And, except for specific areas and designated trails, man's best friend must be leashed at all times in city, county and state parks.

It's annoying to others and potentially dangerous for the dog.

"Too many times when walking the trails winding through the woods around Bellingham we would have large dogs run straight at us. The owners would be far behind," said Larry Walter Illman of Ferndale, in response to a social media inquiry.

"Who knows when you have large dog running straight at you what will happen," Illman said. "The owners always seem to say — even if the dog is menacing — something along the line of, 'Don't worry, he is harmless.' Maybe the dog is harmless, but the owners never seem to understand that the person being menaced has no way of knowing that the dog is harmless."

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Leashed dogs walk on the trail around Squalicum Creek Park. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Jim Schmotzer of Bellingham also hates that attitude. "I walk daily, often in parks," Schmotzer said.

"I like dogs in general but have no desire to be bothered by other people's dogs when I am walking in my community. Seems so many dog owners see their pet as the exception. "

Mike McFarlane, director of the Whatcom County Parks Department, agreed that the leash laws can be confusing across various jurisdictions.

Whatcom County, for example, requires dogs on leash in all of its parks, and dogs are prohibited at Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve near Birch Bay, at the Samish Park beach, and at the Stimpson Family Nature Reserve near Sudden Valley.

"That's primarily because of sensitive habitat," McFarlane said.

Whatcom County's only off-leash area is an open field at Hovander Homestead Park near Ferndale.

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A sign at Lookout Mountain Forest Preserve near Sudden Valley offers information about dogs in the park. The park is open to leashed dogs, horses, hikers and bikers. Bags and a trash can are provided for dog waste in the park, where creeks drain into Lake Whatcom. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

McFarlane said parks workers prefer to remind dog owners about the law and usually get compliance, but will ask the Sheriff's Office to cite repeat offenders and flagrant violations.

"We try to do as much education as we can. Enforcement is the last resort, " McFarlane said.

"We do do spot enforcement out there sometimes," McFarlane said. "Where we really get involved is when those dogs get into trouble with other users. Most people are pretty good if you talk to them and ask them to leash their dog."

Signs are posted about the leash laws in county parks and removing dog waste is required, he said, and the county provides bags and trash cans near trailheads.

All dogs are supposed to be leashed at state parks, including trails, parking lots and other areas, said Fern Jaquish Shaffer, a volunteer at Larrabee State Park south of Bellingham.

"However, many owners do not adhere to the law," Shaffer said. "Not all dogs are compatible in every situation. Unleashed dog owners are subject to a citation as well. And on another dog-related issue, dog waste is to be picked up and put in the trash, not left in colorful bags on the trails."

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Dog feces — especially bagged poop that owners leave along trails — is an important issue for Steve Janiszewski, director of park operations at the city of Bellingham.

"We want people to understand the rules and why the rules exist," Janiszewski said. "We know that fecal matter is getting into the water."

Janiszewski, a dog owner himself, said the city is adding 30 new waste stations with poop bags and trash cans along various trails.

He said dogs can run off-leash, but must be under voice command, at Arroyo Park, Sunset Pond, the Waterline Trail at Whatcom Falls Park, a single trail at of the main one at Lake Padden, at Lower Padden Trail around the Post Point water treatment plant, and on secondary trails at Sehome Arboretum.

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A sign shows dog walkers entering Whatcom Falls Park at the Waterline Trail that dogs can run off-leash, but that they must be under voice command and that owners are responsible for the dog's behavior.. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

Dogs can be off-leash at dog parks in Squalicum Park and Lake Padden Park; at Little Squalicum Park, but not the beach; and at Maritime Heritage Park from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. daily; and the waterfront at Blodel-Donovan Park from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. daily.

According to the Bellingham Trail Guide, dogs should be "under control" in off-leash areas and "leashed and under control" in other areas.

"We want them to have voice and sound controls," Janiszewski said. "That doesn't always work. But we expect that for everyone's safety."

He said it's important to note that some dogs don't get along, and that off-leash dogs can chase wildlife, poop without the owner seeing it, harass other hikers, eat something they shouldn't, or get hit by a car.

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Dogs chase a tennis ball at the off-leash area at Bloedel Donovan Park on Lake Whatcom. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

"It's always important to keep them within eyesight and earshot," he said.

Laura Clark, director of the Whatcom Humane Society, agrees.

“Few dog owners have 100 percent verbal control over their dogs and allowing their dogs to run off leash in leash required areas can cause injury to people, other dogs, native wildlife and themselves,” Clark said.

She offered advice to hikers who encounter someone walking a dog in violation of the law.

“If you encounter an off-leash dog in a leash required area, please alert the owner and request they leash their dog," Clark said. "Be considerate, but firm. If necessary, notify the appropriate parks department staff and the Whatcom Humane Society animal control department. As resources allow, both agencies can increase patrols of problem areas to educate dog owners and if necessary, issue a citation to the offending dog owner.”

Clark urged dog owners to learn what areas, parks and trails are dog-friendly and offer off-leash areas.

She said dog should be licensed and the owner should carry a leash and waste bag. She also recommends training classes.

Citations can run $250 for the city of Bellingham and $50 for Whatcom County, Clark said.

In addition, she said owners could face other penalties as well as civil consequences if their dog attacks someone or causes other damage.

Dog-lover Amy Buchanan of Sudden Valley dislikes off-leash dogs and doesn't hesitate to speak her mind.

"I consider myself a dog person," Buchanan said. "We had a dog, I like dogs, I like other people's dogs. But I am done with off-leash dogs. I will tell people they should use a leash. Yup, I'm one of those people."

Trisha Adelstein of Bellingham is another dog-owner who believes in the leash.

"I would love to take my dog on walks but have come across too many inconsiderate people with their dogs off-leash on trails clearly marked as dogs on leash only," she said.

"They come barreling around corners and send my dog out of control, and have had dogs run up to me and jump on me with muddy paws, Adelstein said. "I love dogs, but when I go for a walk I prefer to walk and not have to put my clothes straight in the wash upon returning home."

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty
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