Dog danger: Accident, citations highlight leash law debate
The city recently began enforcing the leash law along the Greenbelt Trail after a slew of citizens complained about unruly dogs and their law-bucking owners, but Linda Owens says she wasn't one of the complainers. In fact, she'd never given the leash issue much thought. Until the accident.
A marathon runner, Owens, 69, frequently ran the four-mile round trip along the paved portion of the Rivanna Trail from Riverside Park to the VFW Lodge and back accompanied by a friend and the friend's dog, which was often off-leash. But on Tuesday, May 22, Owens says, the reason for a leash law became clear. Painfully clear.
Owens says she had passed two teenagers obedience training an approximately six-month-old puppy in the field near Costner's auto repair. The first time past, the mixed breed puppy came over to sniff her running companion's dog, then returned to the field without incident.
As the two runners and the dog approached again on their return trip, the friendly puppy seemed to recognize them, Owens says, and raced over. Owens says she has often had to stop or step over dogs in her path, but this time, the puppy ran so quickly under her feet that she lost her balance. She fell, landing hard on her left arm. "I immediately knew that I had a very bad injury," says Owens, who could see from the angle of her wrist that it was severely broken.
"I couldn't get up," she recalls. "I was in so much pain."
Her friend raced back for the car– nearly two miles away– then picked Owens up from the Costner's lot and took her to Martha Jefferson Hospital. Her wrist, x-rays revealed, was shattered and required surgery to insert a steel plate and 13 screws. The bill: a whopping $25,000 and counting.
Fortunately Owens, a property manager, has health insurance. She doesn't blame the dog or its owners– whose names she never asked.
"It was an accident," she says. Owens says she loves animals and understands why many people– her friends included– like to have their dogs accompany them on their trail runs. But the multitude of uses for the Rivanna trail, she now believes, makes it unsuitable for dogs running free.
"There are too many runners, people with strollers, people riding bicycles," she says. "Anything can happen."
She also believes the current leash law arrangement– dogs are allowed off-leash on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on the trail "short loop"– is "confusing." In fact, Owens says she didn't realize the dog accompanying her and her friend should have been leashed that day on that portion of the trail.
Kevin Cox says he's also witnessed problems with off-leash dogs. His 8-year-old son was recently knocked off his bike when a dog ran in front of him in a leash-required area, and his wife, who is blind, was nearly knocked to the ground by a dog who ran into her on a leash-required day.
Such stories prompted the crackdown, says city spokesperson Ric Barrick, who says the city is now enforcing the leash law in all parks. "There was renewed interest in the issue," he says.
Dog owners who let their dogs run in verboten areas face a class four misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $250. And if in the past the law was more bark than bite, that's not the case any longer.
"We're going to enforce it," says Charlottesville Police Sergeant L.A. Durrette, "and city and county residents need to understand that the city does have a leash law."