by Art Howe

It was troubling to read the police report this morning that a person walking his dog on leash in South Philadelphia last weekend was attacked and killed by another dog owner after he was asked to restrain his dog.

I walk my dog regularly in the Wissahickon and Wyndmoor and constantly encounter similar cases of leash-rage. The problem: a large number of dog owners view the Wissahickon (or Wyndmoor’s Agriculture Center or Mermaid Park) as giant dog parks. They fervently believe that the park’s wilderness terrain and Wyndmoor’s open space give them permission to unleash their dogs. City law and suburban laws require all dogs to be on a leash no longer than six feet, but these regulations don’t apply to them, they believe. Plus, they argue, the laws aren’t enforced and they’re rarely posted.

But the overwhelming excuse I hear from these people is “my dog is friendly.” This is the universal illusion held by naïve dog owners who fail to understand that a leashed dog is immediately threatened when confronted, playfully or not, by another off-leash dog who has more mobility. Inevitably, a frantic scramble occurs, with the leash-free dog trying to confront/engage the restrained dog. Usually, owners lamely apologize and then walk away, blaming the encounter on the leashed dog’s temperament.

Or, they start muttering obscenities at the owner who is obeying regulations. And a few numbskulls, like the one in South Philadelphia, offer to fight.

Requesting Wissahickon park guards enforce regulations is a hopeless task. From years of observance it is obvious these city employees prefer to spend their time driving their government-issued SUVs along Forbidden Drive, windows up, staring at their cell phones. City police, already dealing with vast problems of the city’s drug abuse and homicide rate, show zero interest in hearing about a dog off leash. Springfield police don’t consider leash laws important either. I was recently admonished by a Springfield officer to be more “neighborly” after a local resident’s rambunctious German Shepard charged my dog.

The problem of leash-less dogs in the Wissahickon and Wyndmoor is clearly growing, and is especially evident on weekends. Horseback riders are under constant threat. Dog owners walking in the Wissahickon post report regular attacks and injuries. Runners, including a Springfield Township commissioner running on the high trails, are attacked and bitten by roaming dogs. And now, a reported death from leash-rage has “shaken” a South Philadelphia neighborhood.

It’s time to do something. The Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW), who do an amazing job protecting the Wissahickon, might make leash law enforcement a central goal for 2019. We need more signage and actual enforcement, attached to serious fines. The FOW could lobby City Council to dramatically increase fines for unleashed dogs. Springfield Township Commissioners could pick up this issue as well – particularly after one of the commissioners was personally attacked by a dog.

Let’s do something before leash-rage “shakes” our neighborhood.

Art Howe was a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and former newspaper publisher. He lives in Wyndmoor.