It was an all-too-familiar screech of brakes followed by a sickening thud and yelp. I was walking my dog last summer when I chanced to see another dog get hit. The car continued slowly down the street before it pulled over, as if the driver struggled to figure out what had just happened. The large German shepherd rose, ran into a near-by yard and collapsed. By the time I reached her she was dead, as the shaken driver sprang from her vehicle in tears, cell phone in hand.
Later that same week, my dog Teak and I were walking again when a diesel pickup pulled up beside us. I glanced over to see a tattooed young mother and a toddler in a car seat next to her.
“Have you seen our spaniel?” she frantically asked. “She looks like this”—as she pushed a picture through the window of the truck.
“No, I haven’t,” I said. “But I’ll keep an eye out,” I assured her. “I walk a lot and I just may see her.”
She thanked me and drove away in tears. Over the next two weeks I was stopped by three more searching drivers. It was almost surreal: In the midst of this idyllic Western town there was a painful network of dog-induced emotion as familiar as the gravel roads that connected one house to another. A web of worry that spawned dog drama and launched gas-guzzlers in endless circles down dusty streets.
I walked to the park one night and an off-leash dog charged up behind me and mowed me down. My neighbor, Bill, told me he watched every morning as his neighbor let his dogs out of their fenced area. They meandered for a few moments and then made a beeline for Bill’s yard, where they pooped, turned around and trotted home.
This was reality TV at its most familiar. I wouldn’t be surprised if scenes like this didn’t play out in every small town in the West. Dogdom is probably the first line of arguable civility, the cutting edge of the “we-were-here-firsters” and the recently arrived. Most places with gravel roads have no rules for the mutts. Leashes don’t hang by the door and incessant barkers are called watchdogs. Then along comes more people, the dog numbers multiply and so do the clashes: Close neighbors like relative peace and quiet; the local laundromat bulletin board becomes plastered with missing dog signs as folks continue to let their pals run free.
I left town for a while this summer, and when I returned the streets were buzzing with news of a leash law and an ordinance so folks could complain about “nuisance and barking dogs.” I wasn’t completely innocent here. I was first to unclip the leash and set Fido free when the coast was clear. But I also carried a poop bag with me; and the moment I saw a human or dog coming towards us, I clipped leash to collar. There’s a reason a dog is called a dog: The word also means to plague, afflict, harass and bother. That’s what dogs do as they’re wagging their tails and slobbering hello on your leg. I understand it’s not for everybody.
No sooner was the ordinance due to go into effect, than the neighbor’s three little dogs embarked on a yap-a-thon long after the sun had gone down. I know these folks. We had friendly chats over the chain link fence. I figured I’d mosey over and let them know the dogs were a bother.
The women I knew weren’t there, but a man appeared and belligerently suggested I close my doors and windows. “I tried that,” I said, trying to sound neighborly. “Then too bad,” he replied, “my dogs can bark as loud as they want in this town.”
Suddenly, I abandoned my anarchist-leaning self and moved full-body into the realm of There Ought To Be A Law. Bellowing-Bob had no intention of taking responsibility for his dogs. Civility had to be forced with a sheriff’s badge.
But as it turned out, I never called the enforcers. I persisted and got some relief from the woman who lived next door. But now, the same law that gives me permission to complain about the barking dogs also says I can’t tie my dog outside on public property. That means I can’t walk to the bakery, tie up Teak at the fence and run in to buy a loaf of fresh bread without becoming a criminal. One of the best parts of living in a small town is gone.
Christine Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Mancos, Colorado.