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Off-leash dog group urges public action

Thursday, April 14, 2022 by Elizabeth Pagano

The working group tasked with tackling off-leash dog issues in the city of Austin has dissolved, although the issue is far from resolved.

“We’re kind of at the end of the road of what we can do,” said Animal Advisory Commissioner Jo Anne Norton, who served on the working group and presented to the commission at its most recent meeting. “I wish we could have done more than make suggestions to citizens, but I think that we’re at the point that this is what we’re going to have to do.” 

Norton said Austinites who want to take action on the issue should contact their City Council member, Animal Advisory commissioners and members of the Parks and Recreation Board to let them know that “voluntary compliance with city off-leash dog ordinances is not effective” and to request more resources to manage the city’s public spaces.  

The working group has been looking at the issue of off-leash dogs in Austin for about a year. The group was made up of two members of the Animal Advisory Commission and two members of the Parks and Recreation Board who joined forces with about half a dozen city employees, including parks department Director Kimberly McNeeley and Austin Animal Center Director Don Bland. 

The group members looked at a number of off-leash issues, including misinformation about or ignorance of existing laws; off-leash dogs roaming where they are not permitted, in parks and in neighborhoods; and ways for residents to request off-leash areas and report existing problems.  

Currently, city statutes require dogs to be on a leash and under control in all areas not specifically designated as off-leash.

Like many things at the moment, enforcement of city ordinances is affected by staffing. Norton explained that 21 animal protection officers serve 900 square miles of Travis County, seven days a week, from 7 a.m. until midnight. In addition to their other responsibilities, officers can write citations for off-leash violations. The city also has 25 park rangers who cover 330 parks and cannot write tickets for off-leash violations. Citations can run up to $500 per ticket or be dismissed entirely.

“Part of it is just a resource issue. We’re going to try to get everywhere, but we just can’t,” Norton said. 

Animal Commission Chair Craig Nazor, who also served on the working group, said one of the problems with enforcing the law is that animal protection officers and park rangers can’t demand identification from offenders. “That makes it difficult,” he said. 

In addition, he said, judges have a great deal of discretion in prosecuting violations.

“There’s really a whole lot set up against doing what everyone assumes should be done,” Nazor said. “This is a tough problem, and it’s been this way for a long time.”

Concerns from the public came to the working group via email and were gathered through various social media networks. 

“A lot of the concerns are what you’d expect,” Norton said. The group heard complaints about dogs chasing cyclists, about people afraid to walk around their neighborhoods because of roaming dogs, and from people who felt not enough tickets are being written for off-leash violations. 

Norton also relayed more intense stories about an off-leash dog who was shot and killed near the Palmer Events Center and a family that witnessed their dog lose an eye in an attack by an unleashed dog.

“One of the biggest issues, and I think it’s fair, is that dog owners are not trained to break up dog fights,” Norton said. “When dogs get into dog fights, they don’t know what to do and the situations often become worse.”

If given the go-ahead, the parks department hopes to create a campaign to increase off-leash dog areas in the city, after a presentation to the parks board. Currently, PARD manages 13 off leash areas for dogs. 

To combat the problem, the working group has plans to raise public awareness about off-leash laws. The first initiative, set to launch before the end of May, is a musical campaign that will be run on social media. Informational flyers about off-leash laws and resources will also be posted on Austin Animal Center and parks and recreation sites. A plan to launch an informational campaign via utility bill inserts was deemed “too costly and not far-reaching.”

The group is also tackling education with a planned revamp of the AAC website, and in person at events like the ABC Kite Fest at Zilker Park. Austin Animal Center recently hired a new public health educator, and park rangers will educate the public at locations that have high rates of complaints about off-leash issues to 311.

Norton encouraged people to call 311, noting data is collected in aggregate to support city services, but complaints can be made anonymously. She emphasized the need to give detailed information about locations and addresses for “habitual strays” in neighborhoods.

“I thought it was interesting to know that APOs do have a process,” Nazor said. “If you know someone in the neighborhood, and you know they are letting their dog out, get in touch with the shelter. … That was new to me. I didn’t know that existed.”

Commissioner Luis Herrera said he has been talking to animal control officers and supervisors about developing a class on responsible pet ownership for people who break off-leash laws as an alternative to fines. 

“We need to reeducate humans about (how to) be responsible about their pets,” Herrera said. 

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