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Freedom-constrained Fido

Off-leash dogs in Durango are OK only at Dog Park

Durango resident Tricia Wytas and her friend were playing with their dogs at the Riverview Sports Complex when they both got tickets. The infraction: dog at large.

That technical phrase sounds like the dog is a fugitive from justice, and in a way it is, except the pet owner is the one responsible.

Many La Plata County residents don’t know the leash laws in the city and county and the differences between what’s allowed in the city compared with the county.

While some residents might appreciate a dog’s joy at running free chasing a ball or stretching his legs, the flight could cost the owner some money, the La Plata County Humane Society impounding the dog or a court summons.

Wytas said she’s gone to the field behind Riverview Elementary School at least a couple times a week to run her 2½-year-old Colby pit bull “Javin.” The 21-year-old resident moved here last August and lives across the street from the field. She said someone tipped off the animal control officer that she and her friend’s dogs were off leash, and both were ticketed.

“I like to get him out every day, so if I have to bring him across the street for a little bit, that’s usually what I do,” Wytas said. “I won’t be doing that anymore.”

The city has a leash law, but the county doesn’t, said Jon Patla, director of animal protection for the Humane Society.

City ordinances say a dog is running at large if it’s on public property without leash, cord or chain, unattended on public property whether or not it’s restrained or on private property and not restrained by a leash, fence or other enclosure.

In Durango, dogs are allowed to run off-leash only at the Durango Dog Park, which is off U.S. Highway 160 at the base of Smelter Mountain.

The first offense inside Durango city limits is $40 if the dog is spayed or neutered and $60 if it’s not. A second ticket costs $80 if the animal is fixed and $200 if it’s not. The third time is a court summons. An $8 fee is added to the fine amounts.

County residents can restrain their dogs by leash, voice command, fence or other means regardless of whether the dog is on public or private land. The owner has to be with the dog, or it’s considered at large.

The county fines pet owners $20 for the first two infractions, plus a 37 percent surcharge and court costs. The third offense is a court summons.

Seven Humane Society protection officers enforce both city and county rules. They wrote 59 tickets in 2013 to owners who were with their dogs not on a leash and 13 so far this year. Enforcement officers also handle stray dogs, dogs running loose, animal cruelty and dog attacks.

“In the summertime in the city, a lot of our calls have to do with unsafe confinement of animals – dogs locked in cars without cross ventilation,” Patla said. “We also do tons of foot patrols in the summertime on the river trail, all the open space areas and in the Central Business District.”

Animal-protection officers mostly deal year-round with dogs off leash and loose dogs in the city. They deal with a lot of cruelty-to-animal cases in the county.

“They’re really two different animals,” Patla said, referring to top issues in Durango and La Plata County.

Kirsten Frisch, co-owner of Gentle Canine, says she runs into off-leash dogs all over the city. Gentle Canine trains dogs with behavior problems.

“We see off-leash dogs in the city often, and it’s unfortunate because we work with a lot of reactive dogs,” Frisch said.

Wytas said she’s moved to another area of the city to run her dog when she can’t get to the off-leash dog area, but Frisch said dogs can burn off a lot of energy on a leash or even inside.

“Training can be mental work, and mental work is just as important as physical work,” she said.

The dog trainer suggested doing nose work, where the dog uses its nose to sniff out a hidden toy or treat. Other options include on-leash trail hikes, teaching agility skills and biking or running with the dog.


FAQs about dog etiquette

Annie Phenix, dog trainer with Phenix Dogs at the Durango Dog College, answers questions about dog etiquette:

What should a good pet owner know about picking up after his or her pet?

“First of all, with the city, it’s illegal not to. Rule No. 1 if your dog goes to the bathroom, you need to pick it up whether it’s on a hiking trail, within the city limits or anywhere in the county.”

If my dog is not behaving correctly around other dogs or people, what is my responsibility at that point?

“Keep the dog on a leash. If your dog has a history of aggression and is not trained, use a muzzle. If you have a dog and it has behavioral issues, inherited or not, it is advised to find a dog trainer. Aggression is the No. 1 problem people have with their dogs nationally.”

What is the appropriate amount of time to let your dog interact with another dog before pulling away?

“Not all dogs like other dogs in the same way not all people like other people.”

Dogs don’t need to greet each other. Her advice is to be picky. Trainers teach owners how to read canine body language to decide whether or not you want your dog to meet a nearby dog. If the dog looks stiff or uncomfortable, walk away.

How far ahead of you should you let your dog walk on a retractable leash?

Phenix is not a fan of the retractable leash and said many trainers don’t allow them in dog-training classes.

“They can cause injuries in humans and in dogs,”she said.

She’s even heard of a dog owner having a finger cut off by a retractable leash. And if you are using one on the Animas River Trail, keep your dog close by.

What is a pet owner’s responsibility while walking a dog off-leash on public lands?

“The No. 1 rule is, if your dog fights or is scared of other dogs, you don’t take it off leash, period.”

Dogs fighting on public lands can cause serious damage. Also, many trails are far removed from medical care.

Understand your dog’s limitations, she said. If your dog has an excellent recall (90 percent), then you might be all right, but if you are worried about the 10 percent, leash your dog.

Leash laws are in place for everyone’s safety, she said.

“Being off leash is a graduate-level skill.”

What are the different responsibilities a pet owner has if the animal is fixed vs. not fixed?

If you have an unfixed male or female dog, then the dog needs to be on leash or not in public, especially if there is a female in heat nearby. Voice control might not always work here, Phenix said.

“That’s biological nature,” she said. “Your dog isn’t trying to offend you by running off and mating with another dog.”

If your dog is in heat, keep her inside or in a securely fenced yard.

“Hopefully, owners know enough now to not have ‘oops litters.’ It’s up to the human, not to the dog.”


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