Dog owners nip leash laws

A designated dog park could be best compromise, some say

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As Edie Fogliano walked her golden retriever, Sage, up Spring Creek Trail, her surroundings were peculiarly quiet for a sunny Friday afternoon.

She could count on one hand the number of people and dogs she had seen on the trail that has become a "bone-a fide" doggy hangout in Steamboat Springs.

Fogliano was quick to make the connection between the nearly abandoned trail and a rash of written warnings police have issued to dog owners not abiding the city's leash law.

Responding to complaints from residents, the city is stepping up enforcement of its leash laws -- a situation that sparks complaints from another broad sector of the community.

"Of the people who use this trail, 95 percent have dogs, even the moms with babies have dogs," Fogliano said. "I rarely see anyone without a dog."

And while word of the city's enforcement campaign may be keeping some people away, the dog owners who continue to use the Spring Creek Trail don't seem inclined to change their habits.

"On trails like this, I don't think leash laws should be in effect. Most owners are responsible" Bea Hager said as she made her way up the snow-packed trail with her mixed-breed dog, Soda, off its leash.

Hager takes the trail every day and said if she knows an aggressive dog is approaching, she makes sure her dog stays close by.

"I never had any problems," she said.

As Greg Roberts and his family, which includes a hound named Gravy, were preparing for a hike up the trail, Roberts said he would rather not have a leash law.

"It is much more pleasant for her and us," he said. "She gets to run a lot more, it's more exercise, and its nice for her to go where she wants to go."

Apparently, not all residents share these dog owners' perspective.

Sparked by complaints made to City Council members, the Steamboat Springs Police Department started enforcing the leash law on the Spring Creek Trail and the Yampa River Core Trail a few weeks ago. So far, officers have given only warnings to dog owners who fail to use leashes.

In one day, more than 17 warnings were issued, said Director of Public Safety Services J.D. Hays.

City law requires that dogs be on leashes on all public trails. Warnings come with no monetary fine, but owners may be issued a $40 ticket, and fines increase with each subsequent ticket.

Hays is well aware of the negative reaction dog owners are having to the enforcement campaign. But, just as people feel they have a right to let their dogs enjoy time off their leashes, Hays said, others who use the trails without dogs in tow complain about aggressive dogs and the debris they leave behind.

City Manager Paul Hughes said residents have strong opinions on both sides of the issue.

"Dog owners can't understand why they must keep leashes on dogs," Hughes said. "People who don't own dogs don't understand why people insist on inflicting their animals on them."

Whether the city is lax or strict about enforcing leash laws, it ends up in the dog house.

"Every year as a whole, the community complains," Hays said.

Councilwoman Kathy Connell raised the most recent concern during a council meeting last month, but she said most of the complaints her constituents gave were about owners not picking up after their dogs. The dog problem is only going to escalate as trails become more accessible and more popular, she said.

The best solution, Connell said, is making sure dog owners look after their dogs and reminding those who don't clean up after their dogs to do so.

"Owners of the pets are the problem, not the pets," Connell said.

Councilwoman Susan Dellinger and her Bernese mountain dog, Rocky, make the climb up Spring Creek Trail every day. A week ago, when taking another dog up the trail and short an extra leash, Dellinger was among those given a warning. But Dellinger said she usually keeps Rocky on a leash, mostly for his safety.

"It's more in fear of him getting hurt," Dellinger said. She worries about mountain bikers zooming down the trail and the occasional vehicle coming up the road.

Rocky has been bitten twice on the trail, Dellinger said, and both times the owners thought their dogs were under voice control and said the attack was out of character for their dogs.

Dellinger has noticed the marked decrease in foot traffic on Spring Creek Trail since tickets started being issued.

"There is hardly anyone up there. They don't want their dogs on leashes. It is kind of sad. It is a great walk, a lot of fun people, a lot of fun dogs. Everyone gets to see each other," she said.

With all the multi-use activity the Spring Creek Trail sees, Dellinger doesn't think it would be the right place for a leash-free zone. She would prefer a spot that does not have any other types of traffic.

Both Dellinger and Connell see a leash-free dog park as a viable solution to the problems surrounding Spring Creek Trail.

Those walking up Spring Creek Trail on Friday agreed a leash-free park or other designated area would make dog owners happy.

"It would be nice to have a place to walk with dogs and not have them on leashes and not be worried about getting a ticket," Hager said.

In the past two years, the possibility of creating a city "bark park" has come up twice: during the city's discussion about the future use of the Bear River Parcel and during a meeting looking at options for open land the city owns next to the Stock Bridge Transit Center.

Creating a dog park takes more than just putting up signs and a fence, Hughes said.

He points to the five dog parks in Denver, which have paid city staff as attendants. Those dog parks require dogs to have licenses and proof of a rabies shot. It does not allow certain dogs and tries to separate the dogs by size, Hughes said.

"If there was a wide-spread following of the existing ordinance and (people who) see the need to obey the law, then I would be happy to talk about a leash-free park," Hughes said.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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