Here in this Sonoran Desert city called Phoenix -- where on the first day of fall this year the temperature climbed past 110 -- the lion's share of dog sports training and trialing is done outdoors. Right here you're thinking I'm about to launch into a treatise about the tribulations of training dogs in the blast furnace called Phoenix Summer. But I'm not. Those of us who are serious about excelling at dog sports have come to grips with that, and not to the detriment of our dogs. Call us the Dawn Patrol. You learn early in your dog training career how to outfox the heat or you park Fluffy on the couch and take up stamp collecting or quilting.
Heat, schmeat! There are more insidious problems out there. One of them is the leash. Or, more to the point, the off-ness or on-ness of the leash. I'm not talking about the anguish when it's time to take Fido off leash and hope he heels in the same area code. That's one of the passages in competition obedience training guaranteed to give the neophyte handler a galloping case of the hives.
What I am talking about here is the on-leashness or off-leashness of dogs in public places, particularly urban public places such as city parks. An issue that can generate major heartburn.
If you train outdoors, in a city park or any other large area of inviting grass, you know the scenario. The person with her dog off leash may be 200 yards away (if you're lucky) but you know that all too soon that dog is going to break away and come charging into your training setup . . . pausing only long enough to pee on your equipment. And 100 yards behind, here comes the woman, lumbering along, shouting, "He's friendly! He's friendly!" That's swell, lady, but when Adonis gets here my dog is going to excise his Adam's apple.
It's a never-ending problem, one that can get quite nasty. Years ago a park ranger warned me. "Willard, be careful. In my career as a ranger the ugliest confrontations I've had have been with people whose dogs were off leash."
Something must have made that situation boil over. Though I've had wonderfully close relationships with folks at high levels in the City of Phoenix parks and recreation department for the better part of two deades, no one has ever come clean about what precipitated the action that Phoenix City Council took early in 2004.
It was mid-April of that year when I received a phone call from a competition obedience buddy who was a policy analyst with the City of Phoenix police department. He had been looking up something in the Phoenix City Code when he came across a new page (Section 8-14, Dogs Not Permitted at Large)
Did I know that on February 11 of that year -- without hearings, without public input of any sort -- council had passed a draconian new leash law? And that it had been passed as an "emergency" measure, which meant it was effective the minute the vote was taken , as opposed to the usual 30-day waiting period? Did I know that the new law said, "each dog shall be confined within an enclosure on the owner's or custodian's property, or on a leash not to exceed six feet in length and directly under the owner's or custodian's control when not on the owner's or custodian's property" ? Period. No exceptions. Which effectively restricted dog sports training to our backyards. (Try that with your agility course, or even your directed jumping practice.) And did I know that the penalties for violating what I began to call the new "under-cover-of-darkness ordinance" ranged from a stiff fine to giving the law enforcement officer authority to confiscate your dog on the spot?
No, I knew none of that. And neither did anyone else in the dog sports community. We had been blindsided and we didn't even know it. Although two months had passed with the new ordinance in effect, none of us had been challenged. Clearly, though, there was no way we could train in Phoenix city parks without violating the law.
On the other hand, no one was bothering us. None of us had been approached by a park ranger in a long, long time. I was inclined to ignore the whole thing, let sleeping dogs lie. Until I talked to Billie Rosen.
Billie has long been a strong, positive influence on dog sports in Arizona. She's the "godmother" of agility in our state. And she got me started in competition obedience. Billie is retired from a career where, as one of the superstars in the office of the Arizona attorney general, she prosecuted Medicare fraud, Hell's Angels, the Mexican Mafia and chop shop operators. An assassination attempt a few years ago didn't slow her down one bit.
I told Billie about the new ordinance and shared my thought of just cooling it. Billie responded in her best prosecutorial, courtroom voice: "Willard, GET THE LAW CHANGED!"
Next: Rallying the Troops