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Leashless Dogs Have Their Day : 'This is Dogdom--dogs rule here,' says a regular of Laurel Canyon Park, where people bring pooches who yearn to run free. Area neighbors call it an intrusion. But for the moment, dog owners prevail.

March 05, 1987|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

Dogs again roam free, beyond the reach of leash or chain, at Laurel Canyon Park. Life there is calm now, the way it used to be.

On a typical Saturday afternoon, choruses of crickets sing from the hills above the park and the winds this time of year can blow cold up the canyon from the city below. Dogs, 40 or so at a time, play in packs or pause alone to sniff at scattered, winter-barren trees or dash off suddenly, madly, across four acres of lawn.

For years this park, hidden just below the spine of Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains above Studio City, has been known as a haven from Los Angeles' leash laws, a place where dog owners from all over the city could set their pets free for an hour or two.

And that had brought bad, angry times to Laurel Canyon Park. Neighborhood residents complained to the city that the place had been overrun by dogs.

Battle lines were drawn between dog owners and the Los Angeles Animal Regulation Department. Animal regulation officers regularly raided the park, writing hundreds of $46 tickets and, occasionally, making arrests. Dog owners claimed harassment. There were protests and counter-protests. There were heated City Council debates over what should be done.

The problem still hasn't been resolved, at least not officially. In September, 1985, the City Council voted to establish experimental leash-free areas in Los Angeles parks and the Recreation and Parks Department subsequently recommended Laurel Canyon Park as a pilot site. The program has been dormant for over a year, awaiting funding.

In the meantime the anger, the citations and protests have faded away. Animal regulation officers rarely visit the park anymore. Dog owners continue to let their pets off the leash. Neighborhood residents have resigned themselves to fight their battle quietly, through meetings with politicians.

The dogs reign over Dog Town.

So on a weekday afternoon, or anytime Saturday and Sunday, a quartet of Dobermans can prance freely through the center of the park. A convention of retrievers, terriers and mutts can congregate at a mud puddle, away from the humans. The dogs can run, bark and howl oblivious to owners' cries of "Sammy, get out of there," or "Bruno! Get the ball!"

"Look at all these dogs out here," said Denise Zimmer, who had driven up the hill from Hollywood with her dogs Peaches, Remington and Kizzie. "They're like kids. They love it."

It can be an amazing sight at first--some 40 or 50 dogs running wildly in this one, small place.

And lest the scene appear idyllically playful, animal regulation officials warn that it is also potentially dangerous. With so many different breeds of dogs put together, and in such numbers, the dogs are bound to fight. And, they say, someday a dog is going to bite someone.

There have been complaints of children being knocked over by running dogs and of dogs ruining picnics. But the Animal Regulation Department has not heard of any reports of dog bites at the park, said Robert Rush, the department's general manager.

Over several weekends last month, the dogs played peacefully. There were isolated standoffs, a couple of fights that were quickly broken up by owners.

"This is perhaps one of the happiest parks in the city," said canyon resident Tom Kelley, who visits every day with his Doberman, Ginger. "It's one of the parks that is truly used."

If you watch just one dog over the course of an afternoon, it will periodically play with other dogs and then run on its own. Packs of dogs form and quickly dissipate. Some dogs remain at one end of the park, others move about. And there are the "runners," the dogs that tear off across the field for no apparent reason. These dogs attract the "chasers," who for some reason pursue the "runners" playfully growling and barking.

Harmony Not Unusual

Such harmonious demeanor shouldn't be surprising, said Leslie Larson Cooper, a resident at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital of the University of California, Davis. She specializes in animal behavior.

"It's something that hasn't been studied, but I've run into a number of cases where dogs were more aggressive on leash than off leash," Cooper said. "They aren't so territorial."

Both Cooper and animal regulation officers agree that dogs who are taken to the park regularly are usually well behaved.

"The kind of dog that goes there is a socialized dog used to that kind of thing," Rush said.

And playing freely with other dogs may be beneficial to a dog's mental and emotional well-being.

"Dogs are gregarious," Cooper said. "They are pack animals and they like to be with their own kind."

Indeed, the dogs tend to ignore the humans at Laurel Canyon Park.

Occasionally an owner will be called upon to operate the special "doggie" water fountain at the park or clean up after his or her pet with "pooper scoopers" provided at the park's entrance.

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