Londonderry dog owners packed the Council chambers Monday night to debate the merits and language of a proposed amendment to the Town’s existing leash law.
As proposed, the amendment would prohibit any dog from walking or running on a public or town property unless secured and restrained by a leash.
Dog owners whose pets are found to be running at large, fouling or creating disturbing noise would be issued a notice of violation and a $25 fine.
“This came forward because of the fouling from dogs up on new rail trails and fouling reported in cemeteries,” Chairman John Farrell said.
Police Chief Bill Hart said the proposed ordinance is an attempt to marry the existing ordinance, last revised in 1998, and the new concerns heard from residents, noting the “scoop the poop prohibition” is a new addition to the existing ordinance.
Comments from residents during the April 18 public hearing focused primarily on distinguishing responsible dog owners from negligent dog owners.
Beulah Himes of 23 King Henry Drive said she would like to see the language of the proposed amendment permit dogs under voice control to walk on the Town’s trails off leash.
“Dogs need exercise and mental stimulation. Walking on a leash is not enough,” agreed Louis Nackman of 29 Woodbine Drive, whose wife is a veterinarian.
Nackman noted he and his wife have never had a problem walking their dogs off leash in the Musquash Conservation Area.
“When we come across other people, we grab them, leash them and make sure they’re okay as we pass other people,” he said. “Obviously, if you’re walking in a public neighborhood or you’re at the town fields, where it’s crowded, you have to keep them on leads.”
“The leash is one of the tools dog owners have,” said Robert Maxwell of 3 Otterson Road. “I have been around house pets that are not even under control on a leash.”
Sean McNamara of 49 Sherwood Road, who works for UPS and has offered workshops to fellow employees on dog awareness, said the debate “goes to the heart of most families who have dogs.”
McNamara told the Council the ordinance should focus on defining negligent dog ownership.
“Negligent is, ‘I don’t know where my dog is, I don’t know what he’s doing and I don’t care.’ That is the crux of this issue, in my opinion,” he said. “There are a lot of open areas in town and a lot of responsible owners out there. We need to define to people who lack common sense what a negligent dog owner is and put it out to the public on the Town website and at time of registration. I really, truly hope you keep this in consideration. There are a lot of us out there who care about our pets, their exercise and their outside time.”
Hart told the Council a police officer mentioned as they were drafting the amendment that many owners are able to maintain voice control with their dog and said he would look at revising the language to reflect that.
But not all residents who spoke were in favor of dogs being permitted to run off leash.
Lisa Jennings of 28 Woodbine Drive said she has an intense fear of dogs and has trouble enjoying her neighborhood because of the barking and the dogs that run in the neighborhood and into her yard.
While walking on local trails, Jennings said dogs often run up to her, licking or jumping on her, while the owner offers reassurance the dog is friendly.
“I know every dog is nice and won’t bite, but that’s not the case,” she said. “I hope you respect the people’s rights more than those of dogs.”
Hart said Jennings or any other residents having issues with dogs running loose or fouling on their private property should call the police.
And while the police are responsive to such complaints, Hart recommended the Council increase staffing for the Town’s animal control program, which has been reduced to one part-time officer.
“If the Council does approve a ‘scoop the poop’ law, we can and will assist with solving the problem. If we’re looking at this as a long-term thing, we need to restore to some degree the animal control program,” he said.
Hart reported the Department responds to about 350 animal-related complaints per year, mostly for dogs, of which about 30 are for bites.
The Council additionally considered calls to install locations around town that offer bags to residents to clean up after their dogs.
Councilor Tom Dolan said the amendment also raises the issue of the Town’s lack of a dog park.
“A lot of these issues are coming to a head because we don’t have a legal spot (for dogs to run freely). We have been wrestling with a dog park, a large open area for dogs to run off leash and play with other dogs. If we could accelerate that process, it would take some of the pressure off these issues and provide a place for people to let these dogs run free without fear of police violation or a fine.” he said. “It’s not a silver bullet. It doesn’t fix every issue, but it would certainly provide relief to owners looking for a place to let their dogs run free off the leash.”
In addition to the “scoop the poop” law, some residents called for the Council to prohibit all dogs, except service dogs, from town cemeteries.
Farrell said the Council will work before its next meeting to come up with a plan around the issues of dogs fouling in the cemeteries.
“The answer is definitely not disrespecting someone else’s grave,” he said. “I don’t know if there is a middle ground, but we need to explore the issue more deeply and come up with some better ideas on what to do.”
The Council continued the public hearing to its May 2 meeting, at which they will revisit the issues raised in the hearing Monday night and work to come to consensus on the amendment to the ordinance.