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Dog owners push for leash law exemption

(ran East, South, West editions)

As the Sunday afternoon sun waned over North Shore Park, more than a dozen four-legged friends and their owners gathered on the park's north end. There is no sand, no palm trees _ just a short span of mud left when the tide is out.

North Shore dog owners, however, will take what they can get. Twenty-one dog owners who attended a July 15 meeting of the North Shore Neighborhood Association signed on to lobby the city to change its dog ordinance at the beach to allow their pets to roam off their leashes.

For Lane Lastinger, July 15 was his first association meeting. When it ended, he had volunteered to head a committee that wants to petition the city of St. Petersburg to exempt a portion of the park from the ordinance.

A new dog owner himself with a 3-month-old Weimaraner puppy, he said he has been making regular "Dog Beach" visits.

"Sometimes you'll go down there and there are 20 dogs there with their owners socializing," Lastinger said. He and his wife, Beth, just moved to Old Northeast. Formalizing what is now known as Dog Beach is the right move, he said.

"That's what all the pro-dog people would like to see," he said. "It's one thing to walk them, it is another to have a place for dog owners to sit around and socialize and let their dogs run free together.

"What we plan on doing is getting something down there to help people pick up after their dogs. The next step is we want to start lobbying the city to see if we can get an exemption to the ordinance."

Beagle owner Brenda Bowen said, "You see one of God's greatest creatures playing. I wish people would be the way dogs are."

She agreed with Lastinger that the nightly gathering at North Shore is not so much about dogs, but about people.

Not everyone in the North Shore area is a dog lover. St. Petersburg police Officer Michael Roberts also attended the association meeting. He said there have been complaints and that officers have been sent to North Shore to ticket those owners whose dogs run free.

St. Petersburg City Code 4-51, visible on the signs interspersed around park, makes it clear that owners are to keep their dogs on a leash.

The code says: "Any dog in a city park shall be restricted by leash under the control of the owner or agent. Such leash shall not exceed the length of six feet."

Donna Bainter, of the SPCA of St. Petersburg, said letting dogs play together off leashes solves more problems than it creates. Bainter is also a Dog Beach regular.

"These are safer animals than any dogs you pass in back yards," Bainter said. Proper socialization _ exposure to other dogs and all types of people _ makes the animals easier to be around and control, she said. More than that, she said the gathering of owners makes it easier to share and solve each other's dog-related problems.

"We all work together when animals have a problem. It helps you learn you're not alone."

St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Dr. Ed Cole said he has been alerted to the issue. He also said it is something best dealt with at a neighborhood level. However, a change is not out of the question, he said.

"I'm not sure the community wants to designate a part of that area for dogs rather than humans. But we will see what happens with the neighborhood," Cole said. "If the North Shore Neighborhood Association votes in favor of it, well, we would certainly consider it."