Swampscott has a plan to bring off-leash dogs to heel

SWAMPSCOTT — As a little league coach, Joe Ford spends a lot of time on public fields. He’s seen the dogs romping around those open greens — and what they leave behind. Now the town plans to help Ford keep the fields a little cleaner for his players.

It’s not just the dogs and their waste causing the problem, Ford said. Most of the dog owners he talked to about putting their pets on a leash became “very nasty” with him, he said. The constant conflict became a growing part of his former job as Swampscott Little League president.

“It was one of the reasons, out of many, why I decided to step down as president,” said Ford. “I saw on a daily basis a group of dog walkers that I called the ‘dog mafia.’ They walk around like they own the area and no one can say a word to them. It’s ignorant and disrespectful for them to allow their dogs to go to the bathroom where children are rolling around.”

The issue of loose dogs and dog waste on town fields and school properties is not getting any better, according to town officials and a number of frustrated residents. Until the Board of Health can modify the town bylaw, they released a memorandum to empower youth and school sports staff to “act immediately if they see something or are having a problem with an individual regarding these issues.”

“We are now aggressively enforcing it because of the blatant disregard by some to abide by the current laws,” said Board of Health Chair Marianne Speranza-Hartmann. “As a Board of Health member, I hear about this issue constantly from residents and I think the only way that people will pay attention is to hit them in the pocket. The majority of people are responsible dog owners and do the right thing, but for those who are not there will be tickets issued.”

Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald said the board will soon have a more regulatory role in updating the town bylaw regarding dogs and helping to promote and protect public health standards. Fitzgerald said, just last weekend, Speranza-Hartmann handed out flyers at town fields reminding residents of their responsibilities as a dog owner.

Along with bylaw changes, Fitzgerald said the town plans to increase the current $50 fine for folks who don’t pick up after their dogs. He called it a “serious public health threat” and noted the concern of the various forms of bacteria found in dog waste.

“The Board of Health is looking to evolve a greater understanding of the threat impact that dog waste has on public health,” Fitzgerald said. “This is a chance for the board and the town to be more responsible.”

Ford said dog waste is all over the town’s fields, most notably on the ones that are unfenced. He said, even when they are bagged and thrown away, they’re tossed in barrels that are next to dugouts and the snack shacks where food is served.

“It’s amazing how there are no people that are guilty but there is dog poop everywhere,” said Ford. “As soon as the baseball season is over, it’s like the floodgates open where people go to parks and let their dogs do their business.”

Giving some dog owners the benefit of the doubt, Ford said he understands that, when off their leashes, dogs do get out of their owners’ vision sometimes. He said he’s in favor of a dog park where dogs can be free and get off the field so players aren’t “picking up a pile of dog poop” when they go down for a ball, which, according to him, happens quite often.

“Unless there is enforcement, the behavior is not going to change,” said Ford.

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