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Dunedin's proposed leash law is fair to pets, residents

In today's litigious environment, it is surprising that people allow their dogs to roam unleashed in public places. Even more surprising are that laws continue to allow it.

Dunedin is putting its foot down. For years, residents have reported being frightened by dogs running off-leash in city parks, so the City Commission is preparing to pass a leash law that, amazingly, requires a leash.

Dunedin hasn't been without some regulation of this problem in the past. According to a memo from the city manager, Dunedin followed the county's rules, which stated that no pet could "run at large" and that pets had to be under the "physical control" of their owners. But the code allowed "physical control" to be accomplished with visual signals or voice commands, rather than a leash.

That provision was a problem for two reasons. One, it gave cover to pet owners whose dogs were not trained to voice or visual commands but who wanted to ignore the leash requirement. And two, the provision was based on the faulty assumption that a dog that normally responds well to visual or voice commands will do so in every circumstance it might encounter in public places. That simply cannot be guaranteed.

A few months ago, Clearwater City Council members were embroiled in a similar debate. Dogs are banned on the tourist portions of Clearwater Beach. But on the quiet north end of the beach, dogs were allowed as long as they were on a leash or under the "voice control" of their owner. While some dogs and owners were well behaved, others weren't. The Audubon Society asked city officials to ban dogs entirely because nesting seabirds using that section of beach were frightened off their nests by roaming dogs.

Bird lovers wanted the beach ban. Some dog lovers, swearing that their dogs were always under their control whether leashed or not, didn't. But after beach visitors reported being frightened or surprised by aggressive or just overly excited dogs roaming the beach under no one's control, the City Council compromised on a law that continues to allow dogs on the north beach, but only on a leash.

The Dunedin City Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on a new city ordinance that would require all pets to be either on a leash or caged if they are in a public park or on any other public land posted with leash law signs. The reference to voice control is gone. This leash law would mandate a leash no more than 6 feet long, and the ordinance would even require that the leash be held. No more getting around the law by letting the dog run free with the leash dragging behind him.

The proposed Dunedin ordinance also takes another important step. It bans pets from playgrounds. It is dangerous and unhealthy for animals to enter playgrounds, where they might intentionally or unintentionally hurt children playing there or may relieve themselves on the cushioning surface underneath playground equipment.

There are a few exceptions to the ordinance's provisions. Trained assistance animals such as seeing eye dogs are exempted from the confinement provisions as long as they are under the control of their owners. Leashes will not be required in Happy Tails Dog Park, which people enter with the expectation that dogs will be off their leashes. And the proposed ordinance also gives the city manager authority to designate certain days and times when pets will be allowed off leash on city property. That allows for certain events where it would be customary to have unrestrained animals present.

Residents of Dunedin should feel free to visit city parks and walk on local streets and trails without being confronted by a pet illegally roaming free. The City Council's passage of the ordinance will give sheriff's deputies and city officials a better tool to ensure that residents can use public places without fear.

Dunedin's proposed leash law is fair to pets, residents 11/03/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 3, 2009 5:35pm]
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