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Commissions plan joint work group to address off-leash dogs 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021 by Sumaiya Malik, Reporting Texas

The Parks and Recreation Board and the Animal Advisory Commission are expected to form a work group to address the growing issue of off-leash dogs in Austin.

Both bodies have received complaints from Austin residents about off-leash dogs and noncompliant pet owners in parks and in city neighborhoods. According to a monthly report provided this February by park rangers, 320 out of 990 law and safety incidents were related to off-leash dogs.

“Lately, some things posted on Nextdoor about dog issues have, probably, 100 comments,” Commissioner Jo Anne Norton said at the March 8 meeting of the Animal Advisory Commission. “It’s unbelievable how big these issues have become throughout neighborhoods.” Norton identified 30 such issues. 

The joint work group is expected to look at data from parks as well as opportunities from the community to find solutions.  

“It is an interesting and difficult issue. It is probably the single most numerous complaint we get from citizens,” Commissioner Craig Nazor said. He explained that it’s difficult to enforce a leash ordinance because some dog owners will talk back to officers or even threaten them. 

A February memo from Kimberly McNeeley, director of Parks and Recreation, explained that park rangers lack the authority to issue citations other than parking tickets and that rangers currently coordinate with the police department for off-leash violations. 

The city enforces ordinances that say a person handling a dog must keep the dog on a leash in all public areas except in off-leash dog parks.

Though off-leash opportunities exist for dogs in the city, Austin’s population is increasing. The parks department has received complaints about not having enough opportunities for dogs to be off-leash in city parks, McNeeley said. In 2020, out of the 100 largest U.S. cities, Austin ranked 37th in the number of dog parks per 100,000 residents. 

“Bad dog owners will keep dogs off-leash in leashed areas,” Parks and Recreation Board Member Rich DePalma told the Austin MonitorDePalma, who is fostering a pit bull mix, said some dogs don’t react well when a strange dog runs up to them. People have all kinds of experiences, he said. 

Aside from park rangers, animal protection officers also have jurisdiction in public parks in the county and may “seize and impound an animal running at large,” according to the municipal code

The city of Austin has removed the freeze on hiring animal protection officers who serve the entire county. 

Nazor raised the example of Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park, which has a designated off-leash area; however, it is unfenced and does not have signs alerting people where the off-leash area ends. A hike and bike trail runs beside the area. 

McNeeley, who previously served as the interim chief of animal services before Don Bland, is in a unique position, as she is aware of the needs of each organization. 

“I am kind of looking forward to this because we will have a better coordination with the Parks and Recreation Department, as McNeeley knows how the animal shelter runs,” Nazor said.

Two members of the parks board, Sarah Faust and Chair Dawn Lewis, and two members of the Animal Advisory Commission, Craig Nazor and Jo Anne Norton, are expected to serve in the work group. Solutions currently on the table include community education through partnering with public organizations, posting signs and using social media or other outreach. 

Norton would like simplified charts educating the public about where to go and what to do when an off-leash incident happens. She hopes educational efforts will have a positive effect on dog owners and help them keep the leashes on their pets when required. “Mostly compliance without enforcing the law,” Nazor said. 

“Please respect the experiences of both our two-legged and four-legged friends,” DePalma added.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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