Willoughby: Big dogs, small children, fear and the lessons of leash laws | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Big dogs, small children, fear and the lessons of leash laws

Tim Willoughby
Legend & Legacies
One b/w photograph of Elli Iselin and her dog Mumbo with his front paws on her shoulders. She is dressed in ski pants and top with mittens on her hands. Circa 1955.

Big dogs may scare small children. Imagine meeting a snarling beast eyeball to eyeball, its mouth full of flashing canines. As one of those small children, it seemed to me that too many big dogs lived in Aspen. No laws required leashes. Many dogs roamed freely.

When I walked to school or friends’ houses, I encountered large huskies, German shepherds and occasionally a St. Bernard. During summer, dogs would chase me on my bicycle. Owners taxied dogs in the backs of their Jeeps and trucks, and the dogs would bark and lunge toward me when I passed them.

I learned where the dogs lived and modified my routes to avoid them. Encounters may have totaled in the single digits, but the outsized fear never ended.

More people than I encountered the threat, and not only in town. Sherriff Lorain Herwick posted a warning in The Aspen Times during 1953, “Due to the fact that sheep-killing dogs are wandering over the countryside, dog owners are advised to keep their pets on their own premises and preferably on leash at night. Dogs prowling in or about bands of sheep in Pitkin County may be shot on sight.”

The problem grew throughout the decade because newcomers owned or loved dogs. Debate of solutions began in earnest during 1960 with a Bill Dunaway editorial, “Everybody, including themselves, seems to be in a roil about the extraordinary quantity of roving dogs in town.” Somewhat sarcastically he noted it would be difficult to contain the dogs, but the town should dissuade newcomers from looking at free puppy ads.

The city passed an ordinance that required licenses for dogs. It also enacted a leash law that was not enforced.

At an Aspen City Council meeting in January 1962, Mayor Mike Garrish read a letter from a concerned citizen to the city attorney about dogs and the safety of children. He mentioned he had heard of two examples, within a few days, of huskies that killed smaller dogs. He pushed for the city to take action. Garrish touched off another debate between owners who allowed their dogs to roam free and the rest of the community.

Aspen still had a sense of humor in those days and applied it to the most serious matters. Pete Luhn sent a letter to the editor about “drastic cosmopolitan action” by the city. “Virtually all the dogs I’ve seen hereabouts do not chew on people unless provoked in some manner such as being approached too closely around a vehicle, in a yard or being teased,” he wrote. Virginia Chamberlin echoed the thoughts of many when she wrote, “For 13 years my dog has had the freedom of Aspen, and I, for one, would resent having to leash him now.”

The debate continued and Luhn leaned in, “unattended dogs will soon begin dropping into the crater-like pot holes now forming in the streets of Aspen and they’ll starve down there.”

The city asked the police department to enforce the leash law. The police reported a new difficulty. Many abandoned dogs had no home or guilty owner. Huskies and other large dogs slept outside, in their yards. Lacking a fence, these dogs would join any pack that ran their way.

Police chief Roy Baker reported to council during 1963 that he averaged 10 calls about roaming dogs daily. He announced that owners would be fined $5 to $300 if the police picked up their strays. Notwithstanding, the police felt uncomfortable subduing dogs, despite their training.

Over time the problem subsided. The wild packs trained ranchers to shoot better. Neighbors and the dog catcher apprehended a few remaining problem dogs. And vicious barkers taught children to better navigate the streets of Aspen.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.