At 7 a.m. on a crisp June morning, Burns Park was deserted except for four dogs romping freely off their leashes, running and playing with one another while their owners stood nearby talking. Even though a city ordinance requires that dogs be leashed in city parks unless in designated dog play areas, the group gathers every morning to socialize and exercise their dogs.

A month earlier, Paul Ward and his wife, Laura Lamps, were walking their corgi, June. As they headed into Burns Park, three larger dogs–a bernedoodle named Bernie, a border collie named Bader, and an English shepherd named Betsy–ran over to June. Lamps crouched down and shielded June with her body.

Ward says he screamed “No!” while the other dogs circled. Within a few minutes, the owners arrived and started to leash their dogs, but “the more it went on, the more Bernie thought it was a game,” he says.

“Neither of us are afraid of dogs,” Lamps says. “It’s just when they’re running at you full speed, it’s very scary.” Once the dogs were leashed, Bader’s owner apologized, and the couple continued their walk.

The next day, Ward posted on ‘ “Unleashed Dogs Attacked Us in Burns Park.” As the dogs headed toward June, he wrote, “ignorant humans were chasing and calling their dogs with limited success.” Though “no creature was hurt, just scared,” he wrote, in such situations it’s unclear whether dogs want to “attack and kill or just play and explore.” He asked: “Do people walking their leashed dogs need to carry defensive weapons?”

In an interview, Ward says he wrote the post to warn others who might wander into the park in the early morning. And, he says, “I was mad at these people for flouting local law.”

June, an eight-year-old rescue they got in February, is their seventh corgi. Clearly they’re devoted to the breed. Photographs of two previous corgis hang on one wall, and “Blue Dog”–a portrait of three corgis by George Rodrigue–sits above their fireplace.

Lamps says she loves her neighborhood and loves dogs. But she and Ward have been previously hurt by other dogs, and “we don’t want anybody to get hurt … There aren’t many dogs who are so well-trained off leash that they are 100 percent predictable.”

Ward’s post ended up garnering nearly 300 comments–many of them vitriolic. “If you thought local folks’ views on the election, Covid, Fauci, Trump, or China were extremely polarizing, you haven’t been fully exposed to what people think about unleashed dogs,” says Joshua Pincus, a Burns Park resident who has taken his dogs, August and Valiant, to the off-leash gathering.

Linda Young, a clinical psychologist and owner of Bernie, sees both sides. “We care passionately about our dogs,” she says. “Yet people feel they have a right to walk in a park and not be frightened.”

The issue has intensified during Covid, as isolation and stay-home orders prompted many to adopt dogs–some for the first time. One or two puppies adopted during the pandemic have joined the Burns Park morning group, says Ellen Rabinowitz, who helped organize the gathering after getting her red fox Labrador, Rio, four years ago.

Ed Wier, the fourth dog owner at the park that morning, says he used treats to entice his black Labrador, Liesl, to stay with him. He believes that Ward’s reaction was out of proportion to the threat and that he may have agitated the dogs and made it harder for the owners to control them. “He was just making a scene, yelling, ‘This is why dogs need to be on a leash,’ and it escalated the situation,” Wier says.

Young, who readily admits that Bernie was “one of the dogs who went up to say hello” to June, has been taking him to the gathering since he was a puppy. “Socializing your dog early on with other dogs is extremely important for their physical health and their mental and emotional health,” she says.

“I get it that people want to be able to walk in a park and not have an unleashed dog come towards them,” Young says. Yet she also believes that if all dogs had opportunities to play off-leash with other dogs “we’d have much healthier dogs.”

Walt Swanson says he takes his nine-month-old English shepherd, Betsy, to the gathering because walking her on a leash isn’t enough exercise. Carrie Cosola, a veterinarian in Ann Arbor, agrees that unless a dog is geriatric, walking isn’t adequate. And off-leash dogs, she says, are better socialized and less likely to feel ‘threatened–and so less likely to be dangerous or bite.

Michele Heisler, who takes her sheltie, Freya, and Welsh corgi, Artemis, to the early morning gatherings, has become close to people she otherwise wouldn’t have known. “Dogs have a way of bringing people together,” she says. She says the dogs usually engage in friendly play. “We’re very cognizant of sharing the space.”

Dave DeVarti, Rabinowitz’s husband, says that incidents like the one in May are rare and the off-leash gathering is normally a safe situation where “dogs learn to socially interact in a way that isn’t aggressive.”

Ward counters that if the dogs were well-behaved, “they wouldn’t have run after our dog.”

Heisler sympathizes with Ward’s concern. “It’s absolutely unacceptable for an unleashed dog, no matter how friendly the owner thinks it is, to ever approach anybody without being invited. One time is too many,” a sentiment echoed by the others attending the morning gathering. She says since the Nextdoor posting, owners have practiced more self-policing.

“We have been rather vigilant about watching out for people and leashed dogs,” Young says. “We are constantly scanning the park, leashing our dogs when we see runners or people walking on the perimeter with leashed dogs.”

But Burns Park isn’t the only place where off-leash dogs have caused conflicts. Elena Wakeman says her two dogs, a pug and a golden retriever, were attacked by two pit bulls last fall. Wakeman, whose home backs up to the Pioneer Woods Nature Area, sees neighbors walking their dogs there off-leash every day. That’s dangerous, she says, and it keeps people who follow the law from using the public space.

When Old West Side resident Virginia Simon was a student in the 1970s, two unleashed dogs attacked and almost killed her leashed poodle. So Ward’s Nextdoor post caught her attention. Simon, who currently owns a cockapoo named Andy, called the Burns Park owners “entitled” and “selfish” in an online comment. In an interview, she adds, “they’re putting themselves, and what they perceive as their dog’s needs for freedom and running and playing, ahead of people who have their dog on a leash and perhaps may be frightened of unknown dogs running up and approaching them.” If people want their dogs to run freely, Simon says, they can take them to a dog park.

Off-leash advocates respond that the city doesn’t have enough dog parks, and the ones it does have aren’t safe.

Only three of Ann Arbor’s more than 150 parks and nature areas have dedicated areas for dogs: Broadway Park, Olson Park, and Swift Run (managed jointly with the county). Owners are required to get an off-leash permit and provide health and safety documentation, including current rabies vaccination certification.

But Barb McMullen says though the rules are posted, “there’s no requirement to actually follow them and no enforcement.” McMullen, who lives in the Maple and Miller area, no longer takes her twelve-year-old black Lab, Calamity Jane, to the city dog parks. She says the owners who use them don’t seem to understand the rules or what’s expected of good dog play.

Veterinarian Cosola calls the city dog parks “overcrowded dens of contagion.” After joining a neighbor at Swift Run and seeing pet owners ignoring blatantly aggressive behavior and one dog splattering diarrhea, she says, “I swore them off entirely and caution my clients to stay away as well.”

Jacqueline Kuehn lives on Braeburn near Swift Run, and says she initially loved to take her pit bull mix, Casey, to the dog park there. She stopped after Casey was attacked twice in one year by two different dogs. The first time, she had to take the owner to small claims court–and won–after the owner refused to pay her vet expenses.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation services manager, says that the dog parks have never been staffed–the city hasn’t employed park rangers since 2007. He says that while there are periodic complaints, “it’s not a systematic theme” and that he hears plenty of positive feedback. “Dog parks are imperfect but also provide a great opportunity” for both people and dogs to socialize, he says.

Maureen Michael, whose house backs up to Bird Hills Nature Area, used to like walking there in the early morning. After being knocked down by an off-leash dog, she left notes on car windshields asking their owners to take their dogs to dog parks instead. She no longer walks in Bird Hills on a regular basis.

Mayor Christopher Taylor says that he’s working with the Humane Society and city councilmember Jen Eyer on expanding the dangerous-dog ordinance, which currently applies only to dogs that are aggressive against people, to dogs assaulting dogs as well. He expects it will come before council this summer.

But Ward and Wakeman say that police seem uninterested in enforcing the current laws. Attempts to notify the police of the leash violation in her park “went nowhere,” Wakeman says. Having a dog off-leash is subject to a fine of between $25 to $500 for a first offense, but AAPD lieutenant Mike Scherba says the department’s first response is to educate dog owners about the law, not fine them.

Scherba says that while the department receives “a fair amount” of complaints about unleashed dogs, they don’t often hear about attacks on other dogs or people. With the department understaffed, enforcing the off-leash law “is not something that we would consider to be a priority,” he says.

The recent controversy has some members of the Burns Park gathering pushing for changes. In an email to Mayor Taylor and Julie Grand, council’s representative on the Parks Advisory Commission, Rabinowitz suggested creating fenced areas within neighborhoood parks that could work as dog runs or designating “off-leash” hours when there is little activity in the parks, like 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.

“The vitriolic dialogue on Nextdoor after the incident with the leashed dog is really what is motivating me to bring this forward,” Rabinowitz emails. “I’m trying to offer a solution instead of just listening to the divisive discourse.”

In New York, some parks allow dogs to be off leash from the time the park opens until 9 a.m. and from 9 p.m. until the park closes. Charisse Hill, a spokesperson for the New York City Parks, says that “off-leash hours are positively received and adhered to in parks across the city,” while dog owners are “respectful of the rules and good stewards of the parks.” Berkeley, California has two parks designated for off-leash activity at all times.

Conroy Baltzell, who used to take his dog, Amadeus, to the off-leash gathering, moved from Burns Park to Berkeley in November 2020. He says Amadeus sustained serious injuries when he was at the Broadway dog park in 2018–and the aggressive dog bit him, too, when he tried to pull it off. Baltzell says that because Ann Arbor has so few off-leash options, “you have all types of dogs that are forced into the areas that they’re really not best suited for.”

Ward opposes having off-leash hours at the parks, since he and Lamps want to be able to take their dog anytime without fear of being attacked. Ever since the incident they’ve had to start their walks at 6:30 a.m. to avoid encountering the off-leash group. He finds the idea of fencing less objectionable.

Group member Pincus believes erecting fencing shouldn’t be complicated, especially in larger parks, and suggests that the costs could be shared between the city and dog owners.

Another Burns Park neighbor, Kate Bauer, thinks that would create a safer situation and “would resolve these ongoing tensions.” The owner of Ruby, a goldendoodle puppy that she got in October, ‘Bauer says she felt “unbelievable” peer pressure to take her to the off-leash gathering and did so once, but decided not to let her loose: “The bottom line is that it’s illegal.”

Grand says similar proposals have surfaced before, but compromise is often elusive, since there are groups that are “just diametrically opposed.”

Some people who don’t have dogs are afraid of them, so “the idea of the city endorsing dogs being able to run loose in a public park is terrifying to them,” Grand says. Dog owners whose leashed dogs have been attacked by off-leash dogs don’t want that, either. And proposals to fence off areas in parks have been met with resistance as well. “It’s really hard to find a middle ground,” she says.

Smith, the parks manager, echoes her sentiments: “People are so split down the middle on this.”

Any new policy, Smith notes, would need to undergo an extensive review and public input process before being adopted. If and when that happens, he predicts, it will “be a contentious proposal.”