In the wake of Covid migration to Tahoe/Truckee, a collision between mountain and city culture, between old and new, is occurring in neighborhood streets, on bike paths, and along trails. Confrontations can get heated and angry. And nobody has an easy solution. The source of this conflict? Man’s best friend.
Dogs are as much a part of mountain culture as the peaks themselves. Our furry friends are our faithful companions on long hikes deep into the woods, short walks around the neighborhood, mountain bike rides, and playtime on the beach. In Tahoe/Truckee, dogs accompany us to work, hang out in offices and shops, and sometimes even roam streets and trails on their own. Many people say a benefit of living in a rural area is that dogs have plenty of room to play and run, to be true to their canine nature. So what happens when this lifestyle butts up against county laws, new residents who are used to dogs on leashes, and even locals who are afraid of dogs? A clash of momentous proportions ensues, and some long-time residents worry that the war over leashed vs. unleashed dogs is yet another sign that our region is losing its mountain culture.
Laws vs. Norms vs. Newcomers
With Tahoe/Truckee divided up between so many jurisdictions, it can be hard to keep straight the rules regarding dogs. In Washoe and Placer counties, dogs are required to be on-leash at all times except when on their own property or in a dog park (Washoe makes an exception for sparsely populated areas, such as off Pyramid Highway). The only exception in Incline Village is the Village Green, where dogs are allowed off-leash if there are no soccer games or other events occurring. The Town of Truckee is a little different. Dogs do not have to be leashed if they are well-trained and under voice control. However, homeowners associations can establish their own dog rules, like Tahoe Donner, which mandates that dogs are leashed in common areas. The U.S. Forest Service follows the laws of the county in which the trail is in. According to Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit spokeswoman Lisa Herron, all California counties have a 6-foot leash law. The LTBMU, which manages almost 80% of the land within the Basin, also has a website called Dogs at Lake Tahoe that outlines where dogs are, and are not, welcome.
Despite an abundance of leash laws, as we all know, there are laws, and there are customs, and the two don’t always match up. Tahoe has traditionally been a place where many people enjoy walking and hiking with their dogs off-leash. Sky Rondenet, who lived in Tahoe/Truckee for 27 years until moving to Reno this past year, currently has three dogs. She says one of the great joys of mountain life is letting her dogs run in the woods.
“Huskies need to run and that’s why I’ve always lived in the mountains for that lifestyle and culture. They like to be open and free and I don’t want to worry about other people around me all the time,” she said.
Rondenet, who last lived in Tahoe Donner, says she makes an effort to be respectful of other people when out with her dogs. She keeps her dogs on a leash when starting out on a trail to see if there are other people around, and if not, she lets her dogs run. She also leashes her dog up when passing other dogs, and always when on the Truckee River Legacy Trail.
To her dismay, Rondenet says it’s much harder now to find a place to walk with her dogs off-leash because her favorite spots are becoming more crowded.
“It’s completely different now, there are people everywhere, our whole existence is out the window,” she said. “Anytime I go anywhere there are people and dogs everywhere, it’s not relaxing or peaceful the way it used to be. It’s a shame, because we sacrifice a lot to live in the mountains.”
Although Rondenet said she has not experienced any conflicts with other dog owners, she does notice a difference between the way locals on the one hand, and visitors and new homeowners on the other, handle their dogs. Her answer is to find a happy medium.
“The way Bay Area people manage their dogs is completely different than the way mountain people manage their dogs,” she said. “We have to meet in the middle. [New residents] can’t be super uptight at locals who have let their dogs run free for years, and locals shouldn’t piss off city people who are more rigid about their dogs.”
Carla Brown, who has owned Savvy Dog Training in Truckee for 15 years, has also noticed the disparity between locals’ and newcomers’ views on dogs.
“When people live in places that have a lot more people like the Bay Area, there are not a lot of options to have dogs off-leash,” she said. “What they know about having a dog is you go to the dog park or walk them on a leash. There is no choice B, which is what we have enjoyed, which is having dogs off-leash.”
When walking a large group of client dogs, Brown does not use leashes, and she often walks up to six dogs at a time. She believes that dogs need to run free to get enough exercise, and it teaches them how to properly socialize with other dogs.
“I can’t tell you the number of times the only way to get enough progress with a dog’s behavior problems is to have the dog off-leash,” she said. “I think our dogs are behaviorally much healthier because they have the freedom to run. Leash walks are not enough exercise, they are just a warm-up.”
Tethering our pooches is also known to lead to leash aggression. If dogs are never allowed off-leash and cannot sniff other canines, they can get frustrated. This is compounded by owners who pull their dogs away from other ones, preventing them from exercising their natural desire to smell nearby dogs. This leads to a vicious cycle where the dog never learns how to socialize with other canines.
Brown said this is exemplified by the fact that while her dog trainer friends in the Bay Area specialize in leash aggression, most of the calls she gets from local dog owners is about recall. She has trained her own dogs to obey the three-second rule: they have three seconds to go up to another dog, say hello, and then keep moving.
Like Rondenet, Brown said she is having to go farther and farther away from popular dog trails to avoid being yelled at by other people.
“I get so tired of battling, I don’t want to do it all the time,” she said. “We have just enjoyed this dog nirvana for so long and all of a sudden this outside world has come to us and is threatening our way of life. This dog thing is such a personal issue. It is like religion at this point.”
Nancy Ryan, who owns Squirrel!! dog training in Tahoe City, believes that leash walks are important to establish the owner as the leader, and in congested areas like bike paths. But she also relishes hiking and skiing with her dogs off-leash.
“I have lived here 27 years and there is nothing more fun than going out in the woods and going for a ski and having my four [client] dogs trotting really nice behind me,” she said.
However, like Brown, since the pandemic began Ryan has noticed a huge change in the number of people who react negatively to her when she is out with unleashed dogs. Ryan said she gets yelled at on a daily basis. She told Moonshine Ink that this summer in Shirley Canyon, some hikers far away from her on the trail started screaming at her to leash her dog since their dog was not neutered.
“I just looked at them and called my dogs and they were right there next to me, they didn’t even go near the other dog,” she said. “I am almost in disbelief at what people are saying and screaming at me, they are not even trying to have a conversation.”
Ryan implements her training with celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan, who teaches that calm is a dog owner’s superpower, to deal with both humans and dogs. In another situation this winter on the Dollar Creek bike path, Ryan recalled a woman screaming and cursing at her to leash her dog because her own dog was aggressive.
“I looked at her very calmly and politely said no. I said, ‘the reason your dog is aggressive is because you are aggressive,’” shared Ryan, who notes that dogs feed off the energy of their owners. “Why should my dogs be punished because you are not responsible?”
Not all newcomers to the area are fanatical about keeping dogs leashed. Greg Hill, who has had a second home in Truckee for 15 years, moved fulltime to his Lahontan home from Sacramento this fall. Hill has two dogs, a 13-year-old lab and a 1-year-old English cream retriever. Although it was the norm to keep dogs on a leash in Sacramento, he says in Truckee it varies whether or not he leashes his dogs, depending on which dog he is taking out and where.
“For us it’s about common sense and being responsible and understanding your surroundings and making the right judgment call,” he said.
Of course, not all dogs are as well trained as those under Brown’s and Ryan’s supervision, which is the reason why towns and cities have leash laws. The laws are designed to keep both pets and humans safe.
“The law is there for their [dogs’] safety, it’s meant to keep dogs safe and happy,” said Placer County Animal Control Officer Melissa Holbrook. “If you are scared of dogs, you don’t want a strange dog running up on you, it could turn into a civil issue. It’s better to follow the letter of the law.”
Alpine Meadows resident Lois Zell, who has lived in the valley full-time since 2013, likes to take walks around her neighborhood, but after an unleashed dog tried to bite her last March, upon the suggestion of animal control she now carries pepper spray and has used it on dogs on two occasions.
“When I am in the street, which the leash law covers public streets, I am obeying the law, and I have an expectation that others obey the law as well,” said Zell, who noted that she would have sued the dog owner if the bite had broken skin. “If they have a dog with them, the dog should be on a leash.”
Pam Zinn, who has lived on the North Shore for 25 years, said both she and her 11-year-old lab Jasper have been attacked by other dogs. At Bristlecone Beach, a Ridgeback slammed into Jasper, knocking him off his feet. Right before that happened, the owner told her the dog was friendly. At her Tahoe City condo complex, Zinn said a neighbor’s dog has come after her four times, running out of his house, knocking her to the ground, and biting Jasper. The owner also told her the dog was friendly. Zinn, who walked away scraped and bruised, is now afraid to walk in her neighborhood.
We Are the Poop Fairy
But what riles up Zinn the most is the amount of dog poop she finds around her condo complex.
“There are dog bags around the entire complex, dumpsters too, and people still don’t get it,” she said. “Even at the park at the beach, they have bags and people still don’t pick up after their dogs. I don’t understand why people have a problem picking up after their dogs.”
Dale Livezey, a former dog owner who lives in San Francisco, but spent three months this past fall living in Tahoe Donner, said he is surprised by the how much dog poop he sees in the area.
“Maybe because it’s snowy and I can see the poop, but people here don’t clean up after their dogs on the street,” he said. “In the city, people always do, or mostly do, clean up after their dogs … It’s frustrating for someone who does take care to clean up.”
With additional full-time residents and visitors around Tahoe/Truckee, dog numbers have increased and with them comes more poop.
The Tahoe City Public Utility District, which manages the North Shore’s beaches and parks, has seen an increase in the use of poop bags since last spring. As a result, the district has provided more bags at all of its facilities, according to TCPUD Director of Parks and Recreation Valli Murnane, who added that people have been good at disposing the bags in trash receptacles.
But plastic poop bags have their downsides too. People forget them and leave them on trails, and then the bags can wash away and enter waterways.
“We are seeing more and more plastic dog bags in creeks and streams,” said Lisa Wallace, Truckee River Watershed Council executive director. “It can be hard for people who have been here five or 40 years to understand the impact of growth, it can make it hard to think, ‘wow, I have to behave in a different way and clean up after my beloved pooch every single time,’ and the answer today is yes, we have to clean up every single time because there are so many people here.”
Dog waste poses a threat to waterways because it carries nitrogen and phosphorous, which can create algae, and also spreads diseases that are dangerous to humans. The good news is that water sampling in the Basin doesn’t show any tremendous impacts from dog or wildlife waste, according to Madonna Dunbar, Tahoe Water Suppliers Association executive director. While the Truckee River Watershed Council is not monitoring dog feces in Truckee waterways, Wallace said she believes the study’s findings that Dunbar is referring to.
“That fecal matter associated with dog waste would not show up in our water makes sense because there is such volume of water that is constantly moving,” she said.
Dog waste is also only dangerous when it is wet, according to Dunbar. Once it’s dry, though still unsightly, it can no longer shed contaminants into the water.
“But this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be responsible about it,” Dunbar said. “We have a lot of dogs. As a community we need to think on a community level about dogs. We are talking about tens of thousands of pounds of dog waste in the Basin.”
Despite the increase in the number of people moving to Tahoe/Truckee and rising tension between locals and newcomers over leashes, Truckee as well as Washoe and Placer counties officials all say they are not receiving more complaints about conflicts between dog owners.
“I can’t say we are having more calls,” Placer’s Holbrook said. “Call volume went up a little in Tahoe because more people are at home dealing with neighbors, but it’s not a giant increase. But the calls have never slowed down, it’s been constant through all of it.”
Ironically, one agency that does not have animal control enforcement powers — the TCPUD — has seen a spike in calls about unleashed dogs running around beaches and parks. The district put up a new sign at Skylandia Beach to call Placer County Animal Control for enforcement. Although dogs are not permitted at the beach (they are allowed in the park and trails above the beach), it has historically been a popular place to bring dogs. The district also placed new signs along the bike path that dogs should be on a short leash on a multi-use trail.
“I’ve heard all sides to the story,” said Murnane, who is also a dog owner. “Sometimes dogs on a leash can be more aggressive. But I haven’t seen too many negative interactions.”
A lot of those interactions are happening on social media. A post on Nextdoor’s Donner Lake group in February from a woman asking people to stop demanding spaces that prohibit dogs elicited over 40 comments in one day. One commenter wrote: “What you are seeing is the side effect of too many people in our small town. There are millions of places to run your dog. We live in an outdoor mecca. Get out to the lakes …”
Tahoe City-based dog trainer Ryan believes that the pandemic is contributing to conflicts among dog owners not only because more people have moved to the area, but also because people feel a loss of control as a result of Covid.
“Because people feel so out of control about their lives, they just want to control everything around them that they can and are very reactive when we do not behave or have the same rules as them,” she wrote in a text to Moonshine Ink.
So maybe we all could use Cesar Millan’s advice when dealing with other dog owners, and people in general: stay calm. Or, Truckee-based dog trainer Brown offers another tip:
“New people need to understand that what they really need to be working on is a way to give their dogs more freedom so they can enjoy what our dogs do,” she said. “Bottom line is, teach your dog to come when they are called and then they can play like a real dog.”
The Problem with Poop
We all know there are a lot of dogs in Tahoe. But how many? A 2003 study by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board estimated there were 15,000 dogs in the Basin. According to the study, nutrient loads from 15,000 dogs may have the same impacts as 4,000 to 5,000 people hooked up to septic systems: the discharge of 81 metric tons of nitrogen and 16 metric tons of phosphorous into soils a year. With that study almost 20 years old and the population increase that occurred in the region just last year due to the pandemic, it’s safe to say the Basin has a lot more dogs.
In a 2008 report, the University of Nevada, Reno looked at a popular dog exercise area at Lake Tahoe to examine the risk of E. coli from dog feces contaminating water in the area. While it did not find definitive contamination from this specific microbe, it cautioned that disease-causing organisms could enter water supplies, especially when runoff from snowmelt or rainfall is high, such as during fall and spring months.
The UNR report offered important suggestions for encouraging dog owners to pick up after their pets. The study found that dogs tended to do their business at trailheads and trail crossings, so providing bag dispensing stations and trash cans at those locations could encourage owners to collect and dispose of their dogs’ waste. The researchers also advised that placing a pole surrounded by sand away from waterways would attract dogs to defecate near the pole rather than near rivers and streams.
Both studies concluded that if pet owners were responsible about picking up their dogs’ poop, many problems could be avoided. “Much of the impact could be mitigated if residents and recreational users routinely picked up and properly disposed of dog feces,” the Lahontan study stated.