by Dante Zappala

I have a difficult relationship with my dog Maya. When I come home from work, I can count on two things. My kids will ignore me as they are still decompressing from the school day, and Maya will bark at me.

She’s a rescue. Wherever she came from, she must have been treated horribly by a man who looks just like me. Her instincts are good. She’s trying to protect my family from me. We’re over three years in with her, and she still sees me as a threat. The moment I go under the sink, however, and she hears the crinkle of plastic bags, her tail wags and I’m her best friend. By the time I get her on the leash, she’s ecstatic.

I’ve tried running with her. We’re working on it. Sometimes I can get her to run alongside me but other times she’ll cut in front of me and then slow down. She means no harm, she’s just incredibly skittish.

One thing I can never do with her is leave her off leash. It’s not an option because she’ll likely run away from me. When my wife is around, however, she’s generally very obedient and listens to commands.

What’s clear here is that I have a good sense of my dog, her tendencies and her personality. But I cannot predict with absolute certainty what she will or will not do.

It is possible that I project this same uncertainty when I encounter other dogs. After a recent snow, the trails were covered in a nice soft pack with just enough grip to entice me off the streets. I took the newly cut path along Cresheim Valley Drive that winds from Germantown Avenue up to Allens Lane and Lincoln Drive. I then picked up the trails across Emlen and took what my neighbor calls “The Bridge to Nowhere” over the creek and up to Mermaid Lane.

In that short span of trails, I encountered five dogs off-leash. In some instances, the dog was alone when I found it. In others, the owners were nearby. In each encounter, I stopped running. I wanted to assess the dog’s temperament. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t creating a potentially contentious scene by running abruptly between the dog and its owner.

In none of these cases did the dog owner acknowledge that I had stopped my run to manage the situation they were creating with their dog off-leash.

I’ve really struggled with this dynamic. I want to believe that I’ve grown beyond being self-righteous. It was a part I played well, and I found both benefit and detriment in indulging in it. But it’s not who I want to be. I have yelled at dogs while running to get away when they’ve approached me to sniff me in intimate areas and otherwise impede my path. But I chalk that up to reaction, not intention.

But to avoid that kind of conflict, I’ve taken to simply stopping every time I see a dog off-leash on the trails. I understand that this is my choice. But it also means that I basically cannot run on the trails.

The irony is that I know my dog runs around off-leash when she isn’t with me. My wife takes her to Pastorius Park, and a neighbor takes her to the woods. I’ve seen Maya at the park with the other dogs, and the socialization she’s experienced there has helped her tremendously. Maybe I’m psychoanalyzing a bit too much, but she’s found her identity among the other dogs, and that gives her more confidence to be who she is. She’s become a bit less skittish for it.

Still, it’s clearly illegal. Leash laws are in place for several reasons. Every dog that bites someone has at some point done it for the first time. So, when people say their dog has never bitten anyone, I take it with a grain of salt. It happens. And it usually happens because of circumstances. Dogs running off-leash are ripe to make a bad choice, or at least a choice their owner can’t immediately control.

I am not contending that every rule of Fairmount Park should be followed to the letter, although I am sure there will be people who disagree with me on that. I’ve waded in the creek with my kids. I have certainly been down there before the park officially opens at 6 a.m.. I routinely break the 7 mph speed limit.

So, am I a hypocrite for strongly wanting to see more dogs, including my own, on leashes? If I am, it’s not the first time.

The fundamental question resides in where one person’s personal belief and choice infringes on another person’s ability to act freely. This is played out in the large scale around issues of civil rights and abortion, to name a few. These are much more significant than dogs on leashes and running on the trails without having to stop.

But in the vein that all politics is local, it’s a proving ground for us in how we share our resources and interact with each other.

I would simply appreciate dog owners being more present when I am approaching. They should, for my sake, take stock of the situation and restrain their animal while I pass. I am not out there to satisfy the dog’s curiosity, and it’s not my job, ultimately, to instruct that dog on what to do in that encounter. It’s not my dog.

Where it is my dog, I can be a better advocate for Maya and make the case that she be kept on a leash. Hopefully, she’ll love me for it.