On March 8, a local runner was bitten by an off-leash dog on the Crozet Connector Trail. The following discussion on the Crozet Nextdoor neighborhood chat room revealed that letting dogs run loose on the trails is fairly common practice. “Far too many people allow their dogs off leash,” the victim’s wife pointed out, “assuming that their dog would never attack someone.” Carolyn Brauner commented, “I’ve seen large dogs running off leash and out of sight of their owner.” Ann Mallek, White Hall representative to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, agreed. “We are seeing more on-trail unpleasant interactions. This topic came up at several town halls and at the Crozet Community Association (CCA) meeting this month.”
Albemarle County Code, chapter 4 “Animals,” section 225, states that “An owner shall not allow his dog to run at large in the County…. A dog is deemed to ‘run at large’ while roaming, running, or self-hunting off the property of its owner or custodian and not under its owner’s or custodian’s immediate control.” This policy became official in 2012, thanks to Ann Mallek’s leadership, in response to many citizen complaints about free-roaming dogs.
“The biggest change was adding the rural area and rural neighborhoods to the rules available to the growth areas,” Mallek explained. “This policy has helped us tremendously,” confirmed Larry Crickenberger, Animal Police Protection Officer. Crickenberger supervises a unit of four animal protection officers within the Albemarle County Police Department, who “are charged with protecting the public and the animals of the County of Albemarle.” “In 2018, we received 776 calls for service relating to dogs running at large, including strays. Of these, fewer than 10 percent were actually prosecuted. Usually, a warning is enough to change the behavior.”
Although on June 15, 2012, NBC 29 reported that “The BOS voted in April to make Albemarle a 100 percent leash law-compliant county,” the misleading term ‘leash law compliant’ does not mean on a leash. The county’s Pet Awareness brochure published by the Animal Control unit of the Albemarle County Police Department—currently in the process of changing its name to the Animal Protection Unit—clarifies that a dog need not be on a leash while off your property in Albemarle County “as long as your dog is in your presence and under immediate control by voice command. If your dog fails to respond to voice command, you may be charged with a violation of this ordinance.” Mallek commented, “People try to say under voice control is as good as a leash.” But as Judy Townsend pointed out on Nextdoor, “‘Under voice control’ is not a guarantee. NO dog is reliably under voice control if there’s a barking dog, running child, or other distraction.” Crickenberger agreed that the term “leash law compliant” is worse than confusing—it’s nonsense.
The full leash law in effect for park and school property is less wishy-washy. Albemarle County Code, chapter 11 “Parks and Recreation Facilities,” section 120, states that “All pets shall be kept on a leash and under control while on park lands except in designated areas clearly identified by authorized signs allowing pets not to be leashed”—such as the fenced Dog Parks at Crozet Park, Darden Towe, and Chris Greene. Section 11-100 in turn defines “park” as “any parcel of land owned by, or under the control of, the county or the county school board, which is used or designated to be used by the public for recreational purposes.” This is the key passage of the code, which answers the Nextdoor question: are trails—specifically the Crozet Greenway—considered park land?
“All public trails are park land,” answered Dan Mahon, Albemarle County Greenways Supervisor. “It’s important to understand that County Greenways are in fact ‘linear’ parks, and park rules are trail rules. We have posted signs at the entrance to all of our Greenways that list the most important rules to consider, including “Pets must be on a leash and under control.” Section 11-120 of County Code requiring dogs to be leashed in parks applies on all Albemarle County trails, including the Crozet Connector Trail, because a) trails are built on easement property owned and controlled by the County, and b) they are “designated to be used by the public for recreational purposes.” Crickenberger defines “on leash” as the leash is both on the dog and in the hand of the owner or guardian. In other words, a dog running free while dragging its leash is not enough.
So what should you do if you encounter a dog off-leash on a county trail? Report it to the police by calling the Emergency Communications Center at 977-9041 (rather than calling 911). “Try to take a photo of the dog, especially the name on its collar,” Crickenberger advised. Also try to identify its owner. But even if you can’t get this information, report the incident with a good description of the dog and the location where the encounter took place. The owner, if known, will be warned of the code violation. Repeated offenses would result in a criminal complaint, which would go to the County magistrate. The magistrate would issue a summons, set a court date, and the complainant would be asked to testify in General District Court. Finally, the dog owner might be found guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor, carrying a fine of $25- $250, plus court costs. “We go into the parks looking for violations as a matter of routine. We’ve been called for many dog versus dog attacks in the parks, such as Mint Springs and Darden Towe.”
The same procedure of calling ECC applies to any dog running at large in the County and clearly not “under voice control.” Code 4-225 continues, “Any dog observed or captured while unlawfully running at large shall be seized, impounded, and disposed pursuant to Virginia Code § 3.2-6546(B), (C), and (D),” with “impounded” further clarified as “confined in a public animal shelter.” “We’ve charged people whose dogs ran out in the road and knocked people off bikes,” Crickenberger said. According to the Pet Awareness brochure, “Complaints will be investigated on a case by case basis, depending on staffing, workload, and availability.” The Albemarle County Police Department has only four officers assigned to its Animal Protection unit, who are responsible for 725 square miles of territory. “Enforcement becomes difficult when there are so few of us and we have so much area to cover,” Crickenberger explained. “If we get a call that a dog is, say, walking down the road, and only two of us are on duty elsewhere in the County, the dog will be gone by the time we get there. We try to prioritize calls, with public safety and the welfare of the dog being most important,” Crickenberger explained. However, “A dog shall not be considered at large if during the hunting season it is on a bona fide hunt in the company of a licensed hunter.”
Being bitten on the trail results in a more serious violation. If you are injured by the dog, you should definitely report the incident to police. If you see a doctor, Virginia state law requires that the medical facility report the incident to the Jefferson Area District Health Department who might test for rabies. They would report it to the police as well, and the responding officer would write a report, look at how significant the bite is, and determine whether the victim wishes to pursue a charge of dangerous dog— which incurs further penalties and may require the dog to be confined or muzzled.
One useful piece of advice was offered on Nextdoor by Judith Davis. “My dog has been attacked twice on leash on our daily walks at Crozet Park,” she said. “Because I always carry the Sunbeam Sonic Egg in my pocket, I was able to intervene, and both attacking dogs—who were off leash—ran off in response to the sound produced by this anti-bark device,” which can be ordered online from Pet Smart, among others. “I recommend this as an inexpensive and humane approach to deterring aggressive off-leash dogs—and other animals, for that matter…. Great for joggers, bicyclists, hikers, and dog walkers.”
Note that Animal Protection does not generally deal with wildlife such as bear, deer, and fox. If they are called for an injured bear or a trapped raccoon, they will respond only to ensure the safety of county residents, but generally they refer these calls to the two Game Wardens (aka Conservation Police Officers), state employees with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries who cover Albemarle County. If you encounter a problem with wildlife, you should call the Game Warden’s office at 804-367-1258. More information on handling bears may be found at www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear/.
Returning to the dog issue, “If anyone has a grievance or wants to argue that the Albemarle County policy should change, they should contact their County Supervisor,” Mahon advises. “If the rule is not being enforced well enough, then repeated calls to the ECC might prove the need for more concentrated enforcement.” The bottom line? Report every incident, especially if the dog is aggressive or bites; county police can’t enforce the code if they are not even aware of the violations. And if you own a dog, please be considerate of your neighbors and keep it on a leash whenever it leaves your property—especially on our public trails and greenways!