The history of Ashland city parks dates back well over 100 years. The guidelines permitting dogs in parks has changed dramatically over the past decade or so. Around 1917 the original parks ordinances referenced prohibitions on hammocks, horses, wagering and mendicants (beggars), along with other antiquated words and terms. So you wouldn't even think about riding your horse into the park in the early 1900’s.

A slow walk forward to 1975 and we find new city ordinances relating to: UNATTENDED DOGS (9.16.050) — Unlawful for any person to tie a dog or any other animal to an tree, hydrant, railing or other object of public property; DOG NOISE (9.16.070) — Barking that disturbs or annoys another person; and DOGS IN CITY PARKS (9.16.060) — Dogs, except for seeing-eye dogs (again antiquated language) when in the custody and control of a person legally blind, are not permitted in any of the city parks under any conditions, except that the Ashland Park Commission may designate certain defined areas within such parks where dogs are allowed on leash.

These 1975 ordinances were declared necessary for the preservation of the health and safety of the people of Ashland and pretty much determined where dogs were permitted to be and not be.

Between 2005 and 2015 the Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission (APRC) switched gears and adopted (at first for a series of trial periods and then permanently) an updated policy allowing dogs on-leash in most city parks, trails and open spaces. Of course by then we already had our dedicated Dog Park just off of Nevada Street, but several citizen advocates wanted more access to their parks with their dogs.

The original policy has since been amended multiple times to add new parks and/or parts of parks to broaden the number of dog-friendly park locations. Currently most city parks are dog-friendly. The exceptions are Lithia Park and North Mountain Park (to protect sensitive wildlife, riparian and natural areas) and most ball fields and playground areas within the confines of our city parks (to reduce dog waste issues and dog-child conflicts).

Based on complaints received by APRC, our experience shows that while the majority of dog owners do their best to follow park guidelines, a few owners either are not familiar with these park rules or choose not to follow them. No one likes to step in dog poop and many folks do not enjoy being rushed by a playful (or not so playful) unleashed dog along the trail or in an on-leash park. Except for the Ashland Dog Park, all dogs are expected to be on-leash in all parks and on all trails all of the time. We need to share our park facilities responsibly.

So where do we stand today with regards to dogs in city parks? As stated earlier, most city parks, trails and open spaces have been re-designated as dog friendly, which per the APRC policy means dogs on-leash. Dog on-leash means on a leash up to 6 feet long. Rules for trails in and around Ashland follow these same guidelines.

Do we at APRC believe that all dog owners follow these guidelines all of the time? Certainly not — we are writing this column for that reason. Our goal is to make the guidelines clear. We do believe that dog owners should be responsible citizens and follow the guidelines that other community-minded dog owners have advocated for and agreed to follow.

Only through the efforts of responsible dog owners have the guidelines been changed and more park space opened up as dog-friendly. And going back to the public safety issue, we do believe that it is important that our city parks, trails and open spaces are both safe and clean for everyone to use. Dogs on-leash and a means to pick-up waste after your dog are both critical to maintaining safe and clean city facilities.

Which brings us back to that dog poop issue: Have you ever noticed how many “Mutt-Mitt” stations there are around town? Have you ever wondered how they got there, who installed them, who keeps them full of mitts and who empties the waste cans at each station where used bags are pitched? You guessed it, APRC.

Not only did APRC agree to turn most city parks into dog-friendly parks but we have also installed “Mutt-Mitt” stations at every park and trail that is designated as dog-friendly to ensure that each dog owner has access to a means for cleaning up after their dog when using that park or trail. There are close to 60 “Mutt-Mitt” locations installed by APRC in and around Ashland. Each of these stations is serviced year-round at least once per week and more frequently in high traffic areas and during the high-use summer months.

Ten years ago the Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association (AWTA) completed a survey of trail users who were asked “What is the No. 1 trail problem?” The answer was dog poop. AWTA and APRC worked together and started the “Mutt-Mitt” program at trailheads and during that first year the public used about 45,000 mitts.

This year, according to Jeff McFarland, interim parks superintendent, APRC will purchase between 400,000 to 500,000 mitts! Up to half-a-million mitts a year to help citizens and visitors keep Ashland parks and trails clean. One positive note has been dog owners who pick-up their own dog’s poop and other poop that they come across. This helps us all out and we say thank you!

In conclusion, we sincerely ask that all dog owners do their best to follow the APRC guidelines for dogs in city parks. We would also like to announce that APRC is diligently working on plans for a second (off-leash) dog park on the south end of town to accommodate more local dog owners. Our objective is to have this project started and completed within the next two to three years.

And finally, enjoy your time together with your “companion,” get out and get some exercise, enjoy our parks and trails and, above all, please be respectful of others when visiting Ashland’s parks, trails and open spaces.

— Mike Gardiner is an Ashland Parks & Recreation commissioner.