A dog owner at Keizer Rapids Park pulls her pooch off another canine when the two got in a bit of a scuffle. Dog owners say it’s natural for their pets to sort out who is top dog, but the problem lies with owners who don’t watch their dogs and won’t stop a fight once it starts. (KEIZERTIMES/Jason Cox)

By JASON COX

Of the Keizertimes

Since it opened nearly two years ago, the off-leash area at Keizer Rapids Park has been a haven for dogs and their owners.

But like any amenity, its very popularity has caused some problems – one of which is the conflicts arising between dogs, and sometimes their owners.

Terry Witham, a parks specialist for the city, said most dog owners supervise their dog closely and make sure any scuffles end quickly. But others, he said, aren’t doing their part to avoid conflicts – and are sometimes escalating them.

“There’s been complaints,” said Terry Witham. “Quite a few, actually.”

Witham told the Keizertimes that complaints indicate “we’re getting more and more aggressive … dogs, and aggressive owners as well. We’ll have an issue with the dog, and the owners kind of get into it.”

Ideas bandied about at the March board meeting included finding ways to supervise the park, but the primary problem is money.

“There was never anything put into the budget to help take care of it,” he said. “It makes it hard. We’re spread really thin. … Short of having enough funding to be able to hire someone to be out there full-time, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot we can do.”

Terry Witham tells people who feel threatened to call 911, and an owner with an injured dog should contact Marion County Dog Control.

“But by the time police get a complaint and someone gets out there to respond to it, people are already gone,” he said.

Keizer Police reported responding to only two specific incidents of aggressive dogs at Keizer Rapids Park in 2009, both of one dog attacking another within the dog park. Keizer Police Capt. Jeff Kuhns indicated his department doesn’t believe it’s a big issue.

“What has occurred at the dog park at Keizer Rapids Park doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Kuhns said. “When dogs are taken off leash and allowed to run with other dogs, common sense tells me there is going to be an incident from time to time.

“When such incidents do occur, especially those that result in the injury of a dog, we encourage the owners of the involved dogs to work together to resolve the issue.”

Shane Witham, who is Terry’s son and also works for the city of Keizer, is the park caretaker, living on premises with his family.

He said he hears anecdotes not only about aggressive dogs within the park, but about people on the parks trails being bothered by off-leash dogs. The city’s parks regulations state dogs must be on a leash unless they’re in a off-leash area like the dog park.

Sonya Beard, Marion County Dog Control’s office manager, said her office will respond to dogs acting aggressively towards people, but doesn’t get involved when there’s an incident within an off-leash dog park.

“Neither dog is trespassing because every dog is allowed to be in there,” Beard said.

“If one dogs acts aggressively to another dog, the other dog may react. It’s hard to say a dog has done something wrong if you have a group of dogs in an area that are all allowed to be there, and dogs are being dogs.”

She said Keizer Police should be called for dogs off-leash or running at large, but aggressive canines fall under the county dog control jurisdiction.

On a recent afternoon there were about a dozen or so dogs in the so-called “large dog” area of the park.

Matt Aquino of Salem counts himself as one of the regulars, bringing his nine-month-old Maya, a Labrador and collie mix to get some exercise about twice a week.

He and Dale Shuart of Keizer, who brought his dog Gus to the park, said dogs who don’t know each other will often test each other to determine who is dominant – the leader of the pack.

The problems start when conflicts move past that stage – and owners aren’t doing anything about it.

“I’ve seen dog fights (at the park) where one draws blood,” Aquino said.

During the discussion, Shuart’s dog was jumped by a pit bull while its owners scrambled to get it under control.

“I would say 75 percent of the problems between dogs are preventable if the owners are paying attention,” Aquino said. “Most of the time it’s the owner – they’re not paying attention or they’re texting.”

Shuart used to come to the park around lunchtime, but stopped because he “observed that’s when a lot of the trouble comes.”

He said owners who frequent the park get to know each other and figure out who they gel with and who “grates on each other’s nerves.”

Another man at the park said owners can have a bit of a short fuse, like getting angry when a dog jumps on them within the dog park.

The park has two gates – one on the northern end and one on the southern end, which is where the parking lot is. Shuart said a lot of the trouble starts at the southern gate because the dogs get excited. To avoid the logjam and risk to his dog, he often parks away from the park and enters through the northern gate. But large boulders block the area from being used for much parking.

Clint Holland, a parks board member, said the majority of conflicts happen at the northern end of the park.

“A lot of dogs have a tendency to stay close to the gate,” Holland said. “… Maybe part of that is their parents won’t walk that far. If we can open that (northern area) right now, it will cost nothing.”

Currently dog owners can bring up to three dogs with them to the off-leash dog park. Some at the park suggested that’s too many dogs to control if something goes wrong.