A trail intersection at Two Mile Farm in North Marshfield.

My first child was born this past May, on the first sunny day after a week of rainstorms. The sun shone for a few more days after his birth, but not long after that, we had another series of dark, wet, gloomy days.

You’re not really supposed to bring a newborn out into public month in the first month or two of his life. Until he receives some key vaccinations, it’s better to limit his exposure to other people and the germs they may carry. So I was dutifully staying home and otherwise out of the public sphere. I didn’t mind at all – I needed my rest and it was enough work making sure my baby was kept well-fed and clean-diapered.

This was fine with me, especially since I could go out in my yard for a short walk or just sit outside on my bench swing. But when the rains came back and I felt like I was stuck inside, I started to experience a little bit of cabin fever. One Sunday afternoon when the skies had cleared enough to justify a walk in the woods, I invited a friend to join me and the baby for a jaunt at Two Mile Reservation in North Marshfield, just down the street from my house.

After preparing my son to be outside (tucked into an infant sling, protected from the elements), my friend and I started out down the path into the reservation. We had gone about twenty feet when I saw a golden retriever approaching from the trail ahead. My friend was attacked once by a dog and she still feels terror when a canine of any sort begins running toward her. I said, “It’s a golden retriever; it’s gonna be okay,” and it was, as the dog wagged its tail and continued past us. But behind it was another dog, and it wasn’t so well-mannered. It ignored my friend, but instead jumped up on me, its paws just missing my son. You can imagine how I felt – taking my baby out for the first time and having a strange dog jump up at him.

The dogs’ owners came around the corner just then. I asked, “You do know there’s a leash law?”

They said, “We came after the dogs as soon as we knew you were there.”

“And anyway,” they continued, “The reservation permits dogs to run free.”

I was surprised by their defiance. Did the leash law not apply, as the property was not owned by the town? Was it really okay for a dog to jump up at my newborn baby? Even if their dog didn’t have to be leashed while in the reservation, weren’t the owners required to keep their dog under control?

A bit shaken, my friend and I managed to enjoy our walk. The fresh air and exercise did me and my cabin fever a world of good. But it got me wondering about the rules around dogs in our local nature preserves, what’s permitted and what’s not.

Returning to the trail later in the year.

This is what I learned. In a nutshell, dogs must be under control at all times. Some places require leashes, and some do not. Here’s the scoop.

At properties managed by the Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), including Two Mile Farm, the Norris Reservation, and World’s End, among others, the regulations plainly state that a dog must be kept under control at all times. Dogs must stay on the trails so they don’t disturb wildlife or livestock or damage vegetation. They must also yield to equestrians. People can walk with no more than two dogs per person, and must carry plastic bags with which to pick up the dog’s waste, and dispose of it off the reservation. TTOR also asks that you “Recognize that many people have little contact with dogs and may be afraid of your dog regardless of its size or demeanor.”

Properties managed by the Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts, including Willow Brook Farm, Pudding Hill Reservation, the Tucker Preserve, and others, the rule is as follows. “Dogs, properly leashed, are permitted at most preserves. Please respect other visitors, our neighbors and wildlife by keeping your pet under control.” You should check posted signs at a given preserve to make sure it is one that welcomes dogs.

Mass Audubon, whose local open space parcels include North Hill Marsh, the North River Sanctuary, and Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary, is much stricter. Their policy is that you “Do not bring pets, leashed or unleashed, on to the site.”

Properties owned by individual towns and managed by their Conservation Commissions have rules that vary on the basic theme that a dog must be kept under control at all times. Some towns, such as Kingston, Hanover and Norwell, require that the dog be kept on a leash. So bring your leash to Bay Farm, Luddam’s Ford Park, and Stetson Meadows, to name a few. Others, like Duxbury and Pembroke, only ask that your dog be kept under control, and that you use common sense when approaching other people or animals.

It seems it all comes down to being considerate. Do not assume that anyone walking in the woods is comfortable with dogs – they could be allergic, or like my friend, somewhat traumatized by a past incident. If the property requires that you keep your dog on a leash, please do. If it requires only that you keep your dog under control, then use your head. “Under control” should include keeping the dog within sight, so that if a person or another dog comes around the corner, you can stop your animal from being friendlier than the other person would like. A dog licking or jumping up on a stranger is never appropriate. And by all means, bring a plastic bag and pick up any mess your pet leaves behind!

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
June 2006