Dogs take to Lambert’s Cove Beach

Four years after the legendary “dog debate,” man’s best friends are living it up at Lambert’s Cove Beach.


On a pair of gorgeous weekend mornings in early July, the scene at Lambert’s Cove Beach in West Tisbury was classic. Revelers of all shapes and sizes were leaping into the water, playing with tennis balls, digging furiously in the sand, or lying quietly and staring out at the ocean.

The human beings were having fun, too.

To put it another way, the dog people and the non-dog people — along with the dogs themselves — were coexisting peacefully and without incident on one of the Island’s most treasured stretches of shoreline.

This state of harmony was not always a foregone conclusion. Five years ago, a passionate debate on the subject of dogs on Lambert’s Cove Beach erupted after the town of West Tisbury voted to ban dogs from from the beach.

Quoting an article in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine: “The hot-button issue dominated three town meetings and newspaper headlines for more than six months.” The Martha’s Vineyard Gazette added, “In the old days, a dispute such as this might have been hashed out and resolved on the front porch of Alley’s. Not anymore.”

When dog owners responded by offering a set of new rules and a commitment to making them work for the entire community, a revote was granted. In April 2012, the town voted to rescind the ban and adopt the new guidelines.

This particular dispute, of course, has raged in other communities and towns for many years. For the uninitiated, we offer a brief historic overview. It was not that long ago when something as time-honored and universal as a walk in the park was not exactly … well, a walk in the park. Instead of enjoying the surroundings — birds, trees, blue skies — you had to keep your eyes on the ground in front of you. The same was true on a sidewalk or country lane. It was simply a fact of life. Americans love dogs, and dogs, like Americans, have a digestive system. You get the picture.

The fact that man’s, and woman’s, best friends tend to gambol and frolic, and are known to introduce themselves to strangers with an exuberant charge, only exacerbated the simmering acrimony surrounding dogs in public places.

That has all changed. Thanks to a grassroots movement of concerned and persistent citizens in numerous locales, societal consciousness was raised. Plastic bag dispensers, primitive at first, began appearing. Leash laws were instituted. Aggressive canine behavior was noted and reported. A balance was struck between people’s right to enjoy the outdoors without aggravation and dog owners’ right to exercise their animals.

Which brings back us to the Lambert’s Cove brouhaha. Nowhere, of course, does the incompatibility of human recreation and dog behavior resonate more than At The Beach. The reasons are evident.

Our spoiler alert at the top of the column reveals the conflict’s happy resolution. But how did the two sides, so deeply entrenched originally, come to a workable settlement? And how is everyone getting along at the beach?

On the first of two morning visits to Lambert’s Cove Beach, we immediately grasped the essence of the successful arrangement: Compromise and Common Sense.

Although Karen McDonald, a West Tisbury resident, was off-Island during the “dog wars,” she fully understands the intensity of the quarrel. And that more compromise was needed: “There were real problems, especially in the evenings. People are here to relax and enjoy the sunset. Out-of-control dogs can ruin that. Now there are sensible rules, and problems are being handled.”

Karen pointed out one of the leaders of the pro-dog contingent, whose proposal had led to the revote. David Lowe of West Tisbury and Brookline provided some background: “When the November 2011 ban was passed, a group of us got together as an unofficial committee. We called ourselves Friends of Lambert’s Cove Beach and started an email link. The goal was to expand our group and brainstorm ways we could make some compromises.”

This open and positive approach reaped dividends. One major compromise was to withdraw the demand for evening dog time, leaving just the sunrise-to-10-am slot open to dogs. The group also offered to provide volunteers each morning to ensure that all dog rules were followed.

These and other efforts by the Friends of Lambert’s Cove carried the day for the dogwalkers at the April 2012 meeting. And judging from those weekend-morning beachgoers — with or without canine companions — there is very little trouble in paradise.

Audrey Hartley of Western Massachusetts, enjoying her fifth trip to West Tisbury, observed that “everything is under control,” and that it all boils down to “common sense.” She wishes parents would control their young children in restaurants as well as they do their dogs on Lambert’s Cove Beach.

According to David Small of Cambridge and West Tisbury, the crescent shape of the beach helps with dog control. “The dog owners know they have to be way down the beach, near Coca Cola Brook. That can be checked pretty easily.”

After a pause he added, “Now horses — that’s a whole other problem.”

On our way out on day two, we met the lifeguards heading to work. When told that the dog owners had been anxiously checking their watches for the past 15 minutes, Joe Schroeder smiled. As supervisor of the West Tisbury Summer Programs, he has more than a passing interest: “Glad to hear that. It’s working.”