Photo: The public meeting on the town’s existing off-leash regulations.
Just how passionate many (or is that most) dog owners are of their pets can be found in the phrase from the famous wildlife writer Roger Caras: “If you don’t own a dog … there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.”
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that nearly 60 dog owners and their friends jammed into the Board Of Selectmen’s Room at Town Hall on a beautiful first day of summer, Monday, June 20, to speak at a public meeting on the town’s existing off-leash regulations.
Belmont Board of Health Chair David Alper called the meeting to hear from all sides on the permit program that allows pets to run unencumbered.
“We three are here to listen to you,” said Alper, referring to his board colleagues, Donna David and Julie C. Lemay. “We want as much information as we can get about the current situation … plus or negative.”
The off-leash program requires dogs and their owners meet with Belmont’s Animal Control Officer, John Maguranis, for a pet behavior assessment and a review of the regulations. While the Board of Health sets the rules, the program is run through the Recreation Department, which has a strict 200 permit annual limit while the town has more than 1,600 registered dogs.
Alper said the nexus for the meeting was a steady stream of letters to the board expressing “unhappiness” of the program which dogs were becoming a nuisance to pedestrians or scaring children in playgrounds and open spaces around town.
Those complaints were joined by the ever-present issue of dog “waste” on playgrounds shared by youth sports and residents seeking passive enjoyment.
For dog owners, the status quo is far more satisfying than any conceivable alternative. Many of the owners told how their pets are becoming more socialized and easier to handle by being taken to the open parks.
“This is one thing that Belmont does better than any town around us … where owners can take their dogs to run and play and chase balls,” said Susan Demb from Louise Road, who spoke for many in the audience.
But for one meeting participant, the program is “not always amazing,” Azra Nelson of Vincent Avenue said over 12 years of using Belmont parks she has found some dog owners “rude and expect their dogs can run to anybody and anywhere, not picking up while pestering kids and other people” where now her children are now scared of dogs.
“I pick up this sense of entitlement that ‘My dog can do whatever and that should be, OK because they are friendly,” said Nelson, who suggested “clearer rules” be set for owners who are socializing or ignoring situations when their pets are jumping on people.
In an apparent act of contrition, owners admitted that there were some “bad” owners operating “on the fringe,” who don’t collar their pets or pick up after them. It is those few outliers that owners say are hurting the doggy community.
“When I see a dog misbehaving, I’m more mad than someone else who’s not a dog owner; I feel like you’re threatening my dog’s ability to have fun and my ability to have fun and you’re harming my park. And that irresponsibility doesn’t belong in our town,” said Scott Abrams of King Street.
Abrams said there were plenty of examples of youth sports participants who are just as ambivalent to rules concerning picking up after them or of residents to shot off “fireworks” at PQ Park, “so everyone can be a little bit more responsible.”
While dog parks – fenced in enclosures set aside for unleashed canines – are popping up in many communities (Arlington, Waltham, and Cambridge) surrounding Belmont and garnered some support Monday, most owners said the facilities are not large enough to allow for the amount and quality of running and socializing their pets need.
“They end up becoming hard-packed dirt patches where there’s not enough room for a dog to run and play,” said Johanna Swift Hart of Hull Street.
For many residents, the program is more than just for their pets.
“We were drawn to this area because it seems to be both common to people who have children and people who like [dogs] and this would be a great place to have both,” said Rachel Kilmer, who with her husband, have discovered the owners have bonded and have formed friendships through their use of the parks.
“It’s a really important thing to have in the community that brings people together,” said Kilmer.