The Magazine

Crime and (Doggie) Punishment

A tale (or tail) of lost freedom.

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By ANDREW B. WILSON
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On a beautiful day in late October, Gus and I were enjoying a rare moment when our only companions in the large and hilly park in front of St. Louis’s Concordia Seminary were nut-gathering squirrels and the birds in the trees.

Dave Clegg

Dave Clegg

I was sitting on a Coleman camping chair reading a book and Gus, a beautiful black-and-tan Gordon setter, was doing his favorite thing—chasing birds. This is something Gus does at high speed, in narrowly zig-zagging and broadly circling patterns. The chases go on for as long as eight or nine seconds. I have never seen him pluck a bird out of the air, but he is right on their tails the whole time—forcing many a low-flying wren or robin to go into a steep climb.

It is a sight to behold. People stop and stare in disbelief. The birds seem to enjoy the game as much as Gus. Why else would they be so willing to come out of the trees and play catch-me-if-you-can? Sometimes, Gus begs them to do it—in short, staccato steps under a tree. Nose down, he dances to the sight of moving shadows signaling movement above. On a good day, Gus has dozens of bird chases.

On this particular day, my sense of perfect contentment was broken when I looked up and saw Gus at the far end of the park in the company, but not the grasp, of a policeman. It looked as if my grand-dog thought he had found something rather interesting and was happily escorting the policeman into my presence. Gus was off leash, as, too, of course, was the policeman.

As Gus pranced about the policeman, I grew increasingly annoyed thinking about what was about to happen. Wherever you go in today’s America, the nanny state, in its all-encompassing wisdom, has declared there shall be no dogs off leash—anywhere and everywhere, with the possible exception of your own basement.

If people who were alive a hundred years ago were to return today to our parks and open spaces .  .  . and find that no one is allowed to let a dog run free because of a widespread horror of dog poo, and fears that house pets might turn into killers .  .  . they would be appalled at our conformity, timidity, and stupidity. They would feel sorry for the dogs and wonder why we as a people weren’t already extinct.

As my mood turned sour, I also wondered—as a legal point, and I am no lawyer—what gave the policeman the right to come marching up to me on a private college campus.

So I did not politely get out of my chair to greet the officer, or even look up from my book, until he was hovering over me.

“Do you know there’s a leash law?” he asked. I answered his question with one of my own:

“Do you know this is private property?”

“Is it your property?” he countered.

I know my dog and I are welcome here,” I answered. “My wife and I have been here many times. We have come to know several of the faculty members. No one has ever asked us to put this dog on a leash. In fact, our dog has played off leash with their dogs.”

At this point, the policeman claimed the school administration had asked the Clayton police department (Clayton being a close-in St. Louis suburb) to enforce Clayton’s leash law. He pulled out a pad and started to write a ticket—asking for particulars not just about me (my name and address) but also the dog (name, breed, and weight).

The policeman was not unpleasant. An older cop (55 or 60), he was probably assigned to the easiest duty, and what could be easier than sitting in a parking lot on a super-safe college campus and getting out of his car to write a ticket on a dog that befriended everyone, himself included? He sympathized with the fact that my wife and I had been keeping this very sporty dog, now three-and-a-half years old, for our daughter and her family ever since he had been a puppy, and this was a dog, as he could see, that should not be cooped up in an empty house for 10 hours a day while its parents were working. We keep Gus on weekdays and he goes back to Elizabeth’s house on weekends.

So the policeman and I talked a bit about what to do with a dog that really needs at least an hour of hard exercise a day to be fit and happy.

There were several dog parks in the area, he volunteered.

“And they’re all like prison yards,” I told him—places where the more aggressive dogs are forever preying on less aggressive. It’s hump-o-mania all the time in crowded dog parks. Gus could stand up to the aggressive dogs, and would often, good-heartedly, come to the protection of weaker ones, but he didn’t like dog parks. Birds don’t much like dog parks either.

Maybe you could buy a farm, the policeman weakly suggested. He left me with a ticket and summons to appear in court on December 4.

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