TRURO — One of the prickliest issues in town government is the regulation of dog owners and their pets, especially the question of when and where canines may run off leash. With the board of health proposing changes to the town’s leash law, 144 people signed onto its March 7 online meeting to protest any changes to the status quo.
The board has proposed removing the section of the current bylaw that allows dogs to be off leash if they are “under the immediate and effective voice control of a handler.” The wording left in the bylaw would require dogs to be leashed at all times except when being used for hunting.
Fines for violations would be increased from the current $50 to $100.
The town’s health and conservation agent, Emily Beebe, proposed the change. She opened last week’s meeting by saying its purpose is to ensure dogs are leashed in public places so that they aren’t running up to people who are uncomfortable with dogs or approaching other leashed dogs. It is also to curtail interaction between dogs and wildlife, she said.
“This is just the first step in trying to have a good conversation,” Beebe said. What she was looking for, she said, was “some middle ground, where we can make it clear that leashing is the standard but there will be opportunities to have your dog unleashed.”
If the board of health approves a draft amendment, it will go to the select board to decide whether it will be placed on the annual town meeting warrant.
The March 7 meeting got off to a rocky start, with the first half hour devoted to getting people connected. The wrong Zoom connection number had been posted. Once the meeting opened, the chaos continued as many participants appeared not to understand how Zoom works. They couldn’t find the “hand raise” icon to signal that they wanted to speak. The result was a parade of speakers just giving a shout when they had something to say.
Participants also appeared unable to mute themselves when they weren’t speaking, so the discussion was accompanied by the squeak of chew toys, crinkling of paper, random background conversations, a bit of barking, and even a short guitar riff. Health board Chair Tracey Rose halted the meeting every few minutes with unsuccessful pleas for participants to mute themselves.
During an hour-long public comment session, opinion was solidly against any fiddling with the current leash law. Besides allowing dogs to be off leash if under voice control, the bylaw allows dogs on beaches at any time in the off season and from 6 to 9 a.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. in summer. Dogs are typically off leash during those times and frolicking with other dogs, and commenters said these periods serve as an opportunity for dog owners to get to know one another as well as allowing their dogs needed freedom.
Eugenia Porges, a dog owner, said she “follows the rules of the road,” picking up after her dog at the beach and in other public places. “Mostly, I want to keep my dog safe and let her have the enjoyment she deserves,” Porges said. “She doesn’t deserve to be a dog on a string at all times. That’s no life for a dog.”
Susan Kurtzman said she walks her dog on a fire road, and until she gets to that road she keeps her dog leashed. “I can tell you that fire roads in Truro are not well inhabited by people with dogs or people in general,” she said. “I don’t understand the logic behind this at all.”
Rose said the board of health has had complaints about dogs running up to people and to leashed dogs. Such encounters can result in medical bills, she said. There have also been concerns about dog poop, which she said interferes with the town’s work to improve water quality. There have also been complaints about dogs disturbing wildlife.
Kathleen Hull said if the purpose of the bylaw is to reduce avoidable risk to the public, “We need to know what the risk is.” Several others asked for statistics related to dog incidents.
“How far do we go to reduce the risk?” Hull asked. “We can do this by disallowing any dogs in Truro, and if we want to reduce the risk of people getting bitten by sharks, we can close the beaches, and if we want to reduce the risk of people having accidents on Route 6 we can lower the speed limit to 25.”
One resident asked whether the town planned to hire more police officers to enforce the new rules if they passed. Beebe explained that she, as the animal inspector, works with the police on compliance. The town currently has about a half dozen dog bites each year, she said.
“I’ll tell you, as the agent who responds to these things, one dog bite is enough,” Beebe said. “It’s not fun, it’s not pretty, and it’s not necessary.
“This isn’t to have a zero-tolerance policy,” she added. “This is to try to make an improvement.”
While the board of health has been considering updating the bylaw for some time, a citizen petition by residents Shaun Pfeiffer and Violeta Villamil is already on the upcoming annual town meeting warrant. In the petition’s introduction, they write: “There is a real need for individuals to be protected from unrestrained dogs on beaches, along roadways, within business locations, in town-owned locations, and everywhere within the boundaries of Truro.”
But Pfeiffer and Villamil’s rule would go further than what Beebe is proposing. Their amendment would require dogs to be leashed unless they are inside cars “or on a dog owner’s property and behind a fence.” It would allow people to demand that a dog be kept at a distance of 20 feet, and if that demand is not met, to “use any means necessary to stop the dog” from approaching.
Beebe reiterated at the March 7 meeting that her purpose was to open a conversation. She said she has been looking at what other towns have in place and is particularly interested in Provincetown’s bylaw, which provides a list of places and times that dogs can be off leash.
Dozens of letters have been sent to the board of health about the rules dog owners must follow; most express strong opposition to changes of any kind.