Bob Dennis of Potomac was walking on the C&O Canal towpath last month when a trio of unleashed dogs ran toward him. One of the dogs bit Dennis on the hand, and Bob Dennis spent several days in the hospital with toxic blood poisoning. He later was released and returned to work, albeit on antibiotics.
"He was in the middle of a doggie melee," said his wife Peggy Dennis, and this was not an isolated incident. "This happens frequently." The couple lives on MacArthur Boulevard, right across the street from the park, and they are regular visitors.
PARK REGULATIONS REQUIRE that dogs be kept on a leash of six feet or less, and violators can be fined. "We receive a lot of complaints about people whose dogs are off their leashes," said Bill Justice, chief of interpretation and acting chief of resource management at the park. The primary problem area in the 184-mile-long park is the portion between Georgetown and Swains Lock, an area that sees 1 million visitors a year, said Justice,
"Voice control is not enough," said Justice. Even dogs that are ordinarily obedient can find the thrill of a chase too much to resist.
Beyond the potential for dogs biting fellow park visitors is that dogs that chase birds or other animals through the woods can wreak havoc on the ecosystem. The dogs may carry diseases that are harmful to fauna in the park, or vice versa — there are raccoons with rabies throughout Maryland at this time of year.
For similar reasons, there are also parts of the park where pets — leashed or unleashed — are forbidden, including Olmsted Island near Great Falls Tavern, and Section A of the Billy Goat Trail.
Park rangers walk the towpath and Billy Goat Trail, but it often comes down to the volunteer bike patrol or trail stewards to deal with visitors who aren't complying with the leash law.
Georgeann Smale, who co-founded the Billy Goat Trail Stewards, said volunteers will approach anybody they see with a dog in, escort them to the nearest trail exit, and remind them that they're permitted to walk their dogs on Section B and C of the Billy Goat Trail.
"We approach dogs from a Leave No Trace standpoint. We like to explain why dogs aren't allowed there, and explain that dog owners have other options," Smale said.
Smale said that since the Park Service first prohibited dogs on Section A in February 2003, there has been a decrease in dogs there that has more or less held steady, but the stewards still encounter dogs from time to time.
Smale has also been a member of the C&O Canal Volunteer Bike Patrol since 1999.
"I thought that I had seen a much greater compliance with the leash laws over the years," she said.
Even in remote portions of the towpath, far from any park entrance, Smale said that the majority of dogs she encounters are on leashes.
LAST SUNDAY, on a hike between Old Anglers Inn and Milepost 15 (between Great Falls Tavern and Swains Lock), all but two of the dogs on the towpath were on a leash. That's about the rate of compliance observed by Alicia Joseph, a visitor from New York who walked her dog Lucy.
"We saw one unleashed so far, and all the others have been leashed," she said.
Curtis Jones of Rockville estimated he’d seen about 15 dogs on the canal last Sunday, and all of them were on a leash. The Park Service, he said, couldn't possibly make things clearer. "When you walk in, the first thing you see is a sign telling you the rules," Jones said, pointing to a sign across the pivot bridge by Great Falls Tavern.
Near Old Angler's Inn, however, Scott Lucas of Rockville said he sees violators dogs every time he comes to walk his yellow Labrador Grady.
ULTIMATELY, COMPLIANCE is as much of a matter of the human's character as it is the dog's. Peggy Dennis described getting dragged along by her dog he was attacked by an unleashed dog who came running out of the woods. When Peggy Dennis confronted the instigating dog’s owner, she said, "he turned on us and chewed us out, and told us to keep our animals under control."
Each park visitor who brings a dog can help minimize the chances of such occurrences by following the regulations and keeping their dogs leashed. "It is just a good, polite thing to do … for other people who are enjoying the park," Justice said.
Jones, a Rockville resident, pointed out that this won't solve all problems on the towpath. "I’ve seen a couple of kids that should be on leashes," he said.