My school has a large, fenced field. Traditionally, people have been free to let their dogs run off leash in this field. I’ve taken advantage of this resource myself. However, my school is considering the possibility of closing the field, because some dogs have menaced or attacked people while in the field. My school is fearful of liability — if a dog severely bites someone while loose in the field, the school could be sued. In this economy, simply being sued is something for a cash-strapped school to be very cautious of, even if they are found not to be liable in the end.
In my opinion, the responsibility for a dog which might bite falls squarely on the shoulders of that dog’s owner. And there are currently some potential consequences. The owner of a dog which bites may be sued; the dog may be destroyed if it is judged to be a public menace. I imagine that these consquences do deter some people from letting their unsafe dogs run free in public, but apparently not enough people.
In a perfect world, owners of reliable, safe dogs would have full access to resources such as large fields, and would not lose access to these resources because of the behaviors of owners who do not manage their dogs responsibly. I don’t know the specifics about what happened in this particular field, but it is my strong suspicion that the owners of the dogs in question suspected that the dogs were not completely reliable, and took them to the field anyway, hoping for the best.
This is a bigger issue than just setting a policy for my school’s field. I believe that keeping large spaces open to the public is important. It’s good for humans to have green spaces to walk in. It’s good for dogs to have large spaces to run in. It’s good for humans and their dogs to spend quality time together, for walks to not be a chore. Neither we nor they get enough exercise as it is. It’s also good public relations for institutions which own these spaces to let the public use them.
How can we make the owners of unsafe dogs take responsibility for their pets? It’s a problem society is really struggling with right now. Some people feel that the right answer is to ban particular breeds. I don’t believe breed specific legislation is effective, because I believe it’s not the breed that’s the problem, it’s the owner. How do you ban irresponsibility? How do the owners of a privately owned space control who uses the space, short of disallowing all access?
One solution that comes to mind is that owners of private spaces (or towns with public spaces) require some proof that a dog is reliable before it is allowed off leash in the space in question. For example, a dog might have to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, administered by the American Kennel Club, to prove that it has basic obedience skills. The CGC isn’t an off-leash test, but it’s a start, and more appropriate tests could easily be designed. However, obviously the overhead of such a system would be prohibitive. The owner of the space would have to maintain some sort of registration system, perhaps even give out tags with proof that access is allowed. They would also have to police the space to make sure unregistered dogs weren’t being allowed into it.
The other extreme is to push for punishment, after the fact, of owners whose dogs dangerously misbehave. The space owner could sue such owners themselves. (Is there any precedent for this, I wonder? What grounds would they have?) They could declare that the owners of dogs which menace or bite while in the space will be fined. (How would collection of such fines be enforced?) Perhaps simply posting that the owners of the space are not responsible for any altercations, and then hoping not to get sued if something happens, is the only practical course of action besides closing the space.
I like the idea of having consequences for irresponsible owners. Hopefully such consequences would encourage owners to think before they act, so that no one else gets hurt. Public spaces where dogs are let off leash might be very good places to post advertisements for off leash training classes! But I just can’t figure out the mechanism for what these consequences would be, or how they would be applied. I’m very sad to see open spaces gradually closing, as people are unable to behave responsibly in them.
What about you, Blogosphere? Any ideas?