For nearly a year, Hillsborough officials and pet owners have wrangled over a proposal that would make it illegal to tie up dogs outdoors under certain conditions.
The county's animal advisory board took a giant step toward resolution last week when it tentatively approved language for the law, which would apply to unincorporated areas of the county, as well as Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.
But the matter is long from settled. County commissioners aren't scheduled to vote till at least this summer, and people on both sides of the debate are not yet ready to concede.
If the law is approved, Hillsborough will join a growing list of Florida cities and counties to take a stand on the issue of tethering.
The bans, which local officials have used as models, vary in their specific restrictions. But they have one thing in common: Officials say dogs in their areas are safer than before.
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In Pinellas County, which implemented its law last spring, it is illegal for a person to tie, chain or restrain a dog to any stationary object, such as a tree or doghouse. The law allows for exemptions when chaining is required in a camping or recreation area or it's necessary to complete a temporary task. The law also lets dog owners attach their dogs to a running line or pulley system as long as certain conditions are met.
So far, the mix of restrictions and allowances has worked well, said John Hohenstern, Pinellas senior animal control officer.
"It's been a positive thing," Hohenstern said. "We've gotten the word out about it, and it has improved the safety of our animals."
Since enforcement of the law began, animal services has issued more than 100 warnings and only three citations.
"Usually people are willing to work with us to solve the problem once they realize they are breaking the law," Hohenstern said.
In Miami-Dade County, tying up a dog is illegal except when a list of specific conditions is met. Those conditions include the dog remaining within visual range of its owner, not being tied outside during extreme weather and not being sick or injured.
Implemented in April 2009, the county received more than 1,200 complaints of dogs left tied outdoors within the first year. Of those complaints, 1,000 resulted in warnings and 119 resulted in citations.
"The ban has been a wonderful thing for the animals and also for the community," said Kathleen Labrada, an enforcement manager for Miami-Dade Animal Services.
"Our statistics show that bites have gone down since the ordinance has passed," she said.
Since 2003, residents in Palm Beach County could tie their dogs outside only between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.
But that's about to change. Starting today, tethering can no longer be done unless the animal is under direct supervision.
"It's not that the current way doesn't work," said Diane Sauve, the director of Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control. "It just needed to work better."
To help make the decision, Suave said her team looked at statistics such as one provided by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that says a chained or tethered dog is about three times more likely to bite than a dog that is not.
They also considered how difficult it could be to enforce a ban while allowing for a list of exemptions.
"In enforcement, we found the more outs you give, the quicker people are to give excuses," Suave said.
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In Hillsborough County, officials were still tidying up the precise language this week. Roughly, the proposed law would allow pet owners to tether their dogs unattended only for periods of 30 minutes at a time, once every eight hours. Otherwise, a dog may be tied up as long as it is under direct supervision.
The law has a list of caveats, though, including that the dog must be in good health and be brought inside during extreme weather.
The main goal is not to punish good dog owners but to help the dogs who are tied up for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Dennis McCullough, the operations manager of Hillsborough County Animal Services.
"Dogs are companion animals," he said. "This way, we can get them back into the homes."
By the time county commissioners review the proposed law in June, it will have been almost a year since it was proposed.
But officials make no apologies about taking their time.
Said Bill Armstrong, the director of Hillsborough Animal Services: "We want to get it right and give everyone a chance to chime in."
Opposing sides, however, may never completely agree.
Lisa Walker-Hutches, a member of the animal advisory board, is against a ban on tethering and said she was sure to make her opinion clear during the law-writing process.
"Any limitations put on tethering are a disadvantage to responsible dog owners," she said.
For Sandra Fleischman, an animal activist, the opposite is true.
Allowing people to tie up their dogs, even for short periods, causes bigger problems, she said.
"There are too many loopholes," Fleischman said. "If people can do it (tethering) unsupervised, that means you can leave the property and they are not going to come back within that half an hour; they'll take advantage of it."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442.