City Wilds

Bill Sherwonit

I had only a vague awareness of the push to more stringently control Anchorage’s epidemic of unleashed and unruly dogs until early February, when word began to spread widely via social media and other means. For instance word of mouth.

The news must have spread widely to reach me, because I don’t closely follow social media platforms and it found me before any stories, commentaries and letters began to appear in our local daily (both daily and weekly newspapers being a primary place I get my news, along with public radio and TV). But I digress.

I suppose “epidemic” might be an exaggeration, but it’s clear that some local residents believe there’s an urgent need to better “curtail loose animals in public and altercations with loose animals,” including members of the Animal Control Advisory Board. Thus a proposed ordinance to amend Anchorage Municipal Code Title 17, which apparently deals with animals.

I couldn’t find a definition of “animal” in the ordinance, which would add new requirements for “animals in public places.” But I assume it doesn’t apply to creatures that by nature (and state regulations) run wild and free, for instance moose and bears and squirrels.

I also assume that the animals causing the current ruckus are dogs and not hamsters or goldfish or even cats—though I would argue that free-roaming cats are actually a much bigger problem than loose dogs in the damage they do, particularly the killing of songbirds and small wild mammals.

I have long pondered the need to write a commentary that addresses the problem of free-ranging cats and, more specifically, the problem of “cat people” who let their pets run free. But I’ll save that for another time—though perhaps this issue of “loose animals” will spur me to do so sooner rather than later.

As for dogs . . . From what I can tell, two different groups of local (human) residents are upset: those disturbed by the abundance of unleashed and disorderly dogs; and those dismayed by more restrictive leash laws.

To be honest, I think the former group has more reason to be upset. And I say this as a “dog person” who often lets his canine companion walk unattached on local trails and in municipal parks. (Regular readers of this column know that my stories often include Denali and of course she’s also part of my City Wilds “mug shot.”)

I should emphasize that Denali and I normally spend our time in places where we’re unlikely to aggravate or upset people who either don’t like dogs (whatever their reasons, which may very well include previous bad experiences) or are frightened by them. And when on rare occasion we encounter people who express their discomfort, I’ll respect their wishes to keep Denali away, whether by leash, herding, or “voice control.”

I will also note that Denali is generally good-natured with both people and other dogs; she’s friendly and well behaved. In fact she’s often complemented for her gentle demeanor. Still, she has her moments. Sometimes, feeling rascally, she’ll charge another dog and/or get into snarling exchanges. I know she’s not dangerous. But the other dog person doesn’t know it (though I assume the other dog knows better). So that’s a problem.

There have also been a few incidents when a person’s behavior has surprised Denali and put her in a defensive mode, and she’s barked loudly and fiercely. Of course that didn’t go over well (though this makes her a good “guard dog” at home).

When any of that happens, I intervene and apologize. Almost always, that settles the matter. But I can understand why some folks would say my dog is part of the problem. And I suppose that if you take a black-and-white attitude, she is. Or rather I am.

I’m the one who allows her off leash, lets her roam. And I’m hardly alone. And that is the real issue here. I’d say that well over half the dog walkers (and runners, bikers, and skiers) I meet in town allow their dogs to run free. And on some local trails, almost every dog walks or runs off-leash.

I’m not defending this behavior. But I’m saying that’s the “dog culture” which has evolved in Anchorage. As long as “leash laws” aren’t enforced—and from what I’ve witnessed, they’re not and haven’t been for a long, long time—many people are going to set their dogs free, at least when they’re out recreating in local parks and along greenbelt trails.

For all of that, there certainly are “problem dogs.”

Both of the dogs who have been part of my life here in Anchorage, first Coya and now Denali, were attacked by other dogs and bitten, fortunately not severely. Once, the human companion of a large husky simply watched his much bigger dog chase my scared, yipping dog, then pin her to the ground, and bite her. Fed by adrenaline, I in turn chased that husky and body blocked him off Denali, then smacked him in the rump while shouting loudly, and finally he retreated. It wasn’t very wise behavior, I suppose, but my protective instincts took over; and the husky never acted aggressively toward me. The guy who watched all of this never apologized and in fact disappeared while I tended to my frightened, shaken dog.

I’ve also kicked at two dogs that were aggressively harassing Coya and I’m sure would have attacked her if given the chance, never mind that all three of the dogs were leashed. While kicking to protect my dog, I had to repeatedly shout at the owners to pull their dogs away. Finally they did, but the incident left me angry and shaken.

I’ve signed a petition that’s been making the rounds, asking municipal officials to put more emphasis on enforcing the existing ordinance, rather than add new restrictions. To be honest, the added restrictions don’t bother me that much; they don’t seem especially onerous and won’t change my recreational habits. But I do think the greater problem is enforcement, or the lack of it—and also people who don’t take responsibility for their dogs. No leash laws are going to solve that problem, which leads to the dog issue that annoys me the most: people who don’t clean up after their dogs.

The amount of dog poop along some local trails is disgusting. I’m not sure what portion is left by unleashed dogs, but I suspect that people traveling fast—bikers, runners, skiers—with loose dogs leave more than their share. Again, it’s a people problem. It seems too many people don’t care enough to act responsibly, whether it’s taking care of their own animals or doing what’s necessary to live respectfully with wild critters. But don’t get me started on that . . .

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at

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