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Neighbors snap, snarl over dogs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Donna Helinsky said she wasn't trying to be offensive. She just wanted her neighbor's attention.

Fed up with her neighbor's disregard for the county's dog-control laws, the Columbia resident complained to Howard County animal control officials in February about his dog running free -- in more ways than one -- behind her house.

In a county with more than 10,000 licensed dogs and perhaps hundreds -- if not thousands -- more unlicensed canines, Howard Animal Control officials receive an average of five pet defecation complaints a month. But many residents say that dogs -- and their waste -- are at the center of often personal, emotionally charged conflicts within their neighborhoods.

County townhouse association officers and Columbia village managers and board members say dog waste is the source of some of their communities' deepest divisions -- divisions not unlike the tensions between smokers and nonsmokers.

"I tried kind words, kind letters," Tim Foresman, of Elkridge, said in recounting his frustration in trying to persuade his neighbor to control his dog.

Mr. Foresman even invited his neighbor to his house for dinner. But finally he felt forced to call the county. "I tried to do everything amicably," he said, "but neighborliness is a two-way street."

The manager of Columbia's Long Reach village, Sarah Uphouse, believes such neighborliness is harder to find these days. "It used to be easier to ask your neighbor to do something," she said. "People are so defensive now."

As Wanda Hurt, head of the board of Columbia's Owen Brown village, put it: "It's a matter of catching those people and embarrassing them. It's unhealthy, unsightly and unsanitary."

Some dog owners say they are the victims. Dog-owner Claudette Ruen of Guilford claims her neighbor made a "bogus" claim against her three months ago to county Animal Control: "I think she wanted me to go to doggy jail or something."

At least one responsible dog-fancier doesn't understand what the fuss is all about. Michelle Taylor, owner of an Ellicott City pet sitting service, said dog waste just "takes 20 seconds to clean up. I always have a bag with me when I'm walking dogs."

Typically, offended residents say, they've ignored dog deposits for a while before taking action -- first with verbal complaints and then letters. But Linda Hitzelberger, chairwoman of the board of Columbia's Hickory Ridge village, said she once resorted to a tactic of her own.

When a neighbor's dog left its waste on her lawn, she scooped up the droppings, put them in a bag with a decorative bow and attached a note that read, "You forgot to take this with you." Ms. Hitzelberger then hung the bag on the neighbor's door.

"It was very polite," she said. And apparently successful. Her neighbor now carries a bag while walking the dog, she said.

Even though some dog owners' believe their charges should be allowed to roam free, county laws says it's their responsibility to keep them leashed when off their property and to pick up their waste, said Brenda Purvis, the county's Animal Control administrator.

Violations of any part of the law can result in fines that range from $25 to $500, criminal penalties, pet impoundment or mandatory appearances before the hearing board, Ms. Purvis said.

Despite the county law, some say other actions often are needed.

"There's always a handful of people who won't ever comply to the county law," said Anne Darrin, manager of Columbia's Dorsey's Search village. Her village board sends out letters to dog owners on behalf of complainants before calling county Animal Control, she said.

"We really don't tolerate it. We're just trying to keep the neighborhoods looking nice," she said, adding that on several occasions she's confronted people failing to pick up their dogs' waste. "First they gasp, then they comply," she said.

Last year, the Kings Contrivance village board provided residents with signs that they could stick in the ground at problem locations to remind offenders about the county's law.

Guy Guzzone, Kings Contrivance village board chair, said the program works. "I live on a corner where there is a huge sidewalk," he said. "I was having big problems. Sometimes 15 droppings in any given week. The signs curbed the problem."

The Wooded Ridge community in Long Reach, which includes 120 townhouses, has set up two dog-walking areas on the common grounds between the homes, said Amy Modarressi, vice president of the homeowners association. "Usually all of our dogs are leashed," Ms. Modarressi said. "Our problems tend to be more dog barking than defecation."

But George Kalb, president of the Marble Hill Condominium Association in Elkridge, said that the problems with inconsiderate pet owners are much more acute in townhouse communities. Unlike single family homes, he said, townhouses often have more common land than privately owned land -- common property that some dog owners may mistakenly use to walk their animals without scooping up the resultant waste.

"So many people make the assumption someone else will clean up after them," Mr. Kalb said. "I'm at a great loss to figure out what the solution is."

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