October 1, 2010

Boulder, Colorado: Dog, Stay! (at Home)

Boulder, Colorado: not named to any Top 10 Dog-Friendly List (Yet).

Boulder’s dysfunctional leash law can be easily loosened—and toughened.

Boulder, Colorado: home sweet home.

Born and raised. Left for four years for high school out east, another eight for college and work. Came back just about every summer to staff children’s summer camps I’d participated in as a child.

One of those summers I fell in love, got a job, and wound up living here once more. After an initial year of “what am I doing in my hometown?!” ennui, I fell in love with this healthy, happy valley.

Now, 11 years later, I’ve bought a home, started a business, killed said business, gave up car, nearly lost said home, successfully reincarnated said business on different platform, and saved said home (much thanks to the strong business community here, and their advice and support).

I love it here.

Via Fidos:

I count my blessings every day I live in Boulder.

Just two minutes above our fair valley—where the great jutting Rocky Mountains meet the Great, golden, now-suburb filled Plains—you can hike, in the wild, not a house in site—and fill your lungs with good air and empty your mind of workaday busy-ness.

In the last few years we’ve been lauded on the NY Times for being a national epicenter of tech. We’re one of the greenest municipalities in the US—even if we’ve got plenty of commonsense, money-saving room for improvement. We’ve been named Happiest Town in the US, best town to retire in, smartest city, fittest city, most bike-friendly, and just last week, foodiest town in the US. And the awards keep coming.

Being out West, and being the kind of town welcoming to families, students, retirees, hippies, hipsters and yuppies alike, about 1/3 Boulder’s homes have a dog. Or two. That bears repeating:

one-third of all homes have a dog in ’em.

We don’t term ourselves dog owners: we term ourselves dog guardians. It’s a dog-crazy city.

And yet—and yet—this morning, looking at years of Top 10 Dog-Friendly City and Town lists, I confirmed two things I’d long suspected.

1. Boulder, rather surprisingly, has never been listed as a top dog-friendly town.

2. It’d be easy, and painless, to change that.

The Status Quo: where we’re at.

I, and every neighbor with a well-behaved dog whom I have the pleasure to know, has been harassed for years by Animal Control. I don’t use that word lightly.

Now, the good folks at Animal Control are uniformly (no pun intended: their uniforms strike fear in the hearts of not-so-law-abiding dog citizens everywhere)…good folks. They’re well-intentioned animal lovers. I’ve had great interactions with them. They’re not the problem.

The counterproductive, expensive, and commonly disrespected laws they’re tasked to uphold are the problem. And, with the Humane Society giving up Animal Control to an outside, for-profit mercenary team, the relationship between the citizens of Boulder and the Animal Control we pay for will likely get worse.

So what is the problem? Dogs aren’t allowed anywhere in the city unless their leash is on their owner’s hands. On Open Space, they’re allowed to run off leash if they have a green Open Space tag—a tag that’s freely sold to obedient dogs and wild, aggressive dogs alike.

My dog is a good boy. He’s great with children. Alone among 10 dogs running off leash, he’s almost always the first to stop playing and come back if called. If he’s had enough exercise, he’s the perfect dog. If he hasn’t—or if he runs into a favorite human being, he’s highly excitable—in a harmless but loud, happy, yelpy, houndy, butt-wiggling way. Overall, obedience-wise, I’d give him a B+. And yet—under our current leash laws—he has to be left at home every day, unless I put him in the back seat of a car (I don’t own one, anymore, thanks to our Boulder being so bike-able) and then deposit him in an office.

Boulder’s a bicycle-happy town (though we don’t have quite enough bike lanes, causing us to jump sidewalks all the time, or ride dangerously in the middle or lanes, fun!). Thanks to the good folks who work for the City of Boulder, I was able to give up my car two years ago, and now ride a bike 365 days a year. And I owe Boulder’s green streets and the hard workers and visionaries at the City for that. But if you ride a bike and own a dog, you can’t go anywhere together. My dog, Redford, loves to run. We run downtown, pausing to play, cool off and rest in the creek. He can’t be off leash. We run on to, say, to a cafe, and I can’t leave him outside, though he’s better behaved than your average human three year old.

I can’t leave him outside because Boulder chooses not to distinguish between well-behaved dogs and dogs who’ve failed a test that we don’t bother to offer.

And, I can’t bring him inside, either. Though cafés are not restaurants, and all the food production (if there is any—in most cafes, there’s no kitchen and everything’s prepackaged) is contained behind a counter, a dog’s presence is considered unsanitary. And, of course, you can’t go to any restaurant (unlike many, many cities on the Top 10 Dog-friendly lists).

You can, legally, take your dog all over Boulder—if you drive and leave ’em in your car—which isn’t great for the dog.

So my only choice is to leave him outside with a stranger who agrees to watch him—to hold his leash and be responsible for his behavior. And then, when I get my drink, I have to go back outside and sit with him on the curb. If it’s winter, obviously, this doesn’t work at all. Result? Dog left at home. If it’s Summer, it’s usually blindingly bright, so you can’t work on a laptop outside on the curb? So? Dog left at home.

The point is this: you can’t leave the dog outside, you can’t take it inside.

The only lifestyle that legally works with a dog in Boulder—and the one I’ve been explicitly encouraged, again and again, by Animal control, is this: walk your dog before work, “leave your dog at home” all day, walk your dog at 5 when you’re off work, leave your dog home again if you go out. It’s not much of a life for a dog. I prefer to be the sort of dog guardian that’s with my dog all day. An active dog is less uptight, less full of energy, less bored and less stressed. An active dog is—ironically—safer, more relaxed, more obedient and less inclined to get in a tussle with another dog.

And Animal Control enforces regulations randomly. This lack of consistent enforcement is as illegal as it is understandable. I’ve had friends who’ve left their dogs, technically illegally, unsupervised, for years outside of various establishments—with no incidents. I did this myself for three years until an elderly lady, trying to use a payphone that Redford was leashed beneath, stepped on Redford and received a freaked-out bite on the ankle (I went to remedial dog training, and was of course more than happy to pay for her bite wound, which was not bad fortunately).

Current situation: Boulder is one of the least hospitable dog towns in the US. Groups have been formed to advocate for dog owner rights. Every time I or a neighbor is harassed/warned/ticketed by Animal Control, we think and talk about moving to a small town that welcomes dogs.

But that’s not necessary. There’s a simple solution: Boulder can look at other municipalities, and see how they do it.

My suggestion: let’s find a middle ground that’s enforceable and that otherwise law-abiding citizens will honor.

Specifically: have all dogs go through a simple obedience test that costs $15. If they’re certified as well-behaved and on voice control, you get a tag—instead of the meaningless (there’s no obedience test involved) green Open Space dog tag that’s presently handed out if you watch, or pretend to watch, a brief online video and fill out a few forms and pay $15. Then, your dog is certified as trustworthy on Boulder County Open Space, where leashes aren’t generally required. And, your dog is certified as trustworthy if on leash in Boulder but left unattended outside West End or Saxy’s or [one of countless restaurants and cafés that currently offer dog bowls and host dogs on a daily basis without incident]. If an incident happens—stuff happens, just like on any school playground—the owner is responsible and the tag is revoked if the dog’s behavior is unwarranted (ie, someone doesn’t step on the dog, say).

Until then, my entire neighborhood—most of them aged 50 and up—will continue to defy the leash laws every day in our local park (though we’re the ones keeping it safe from vandals, drug use and homeless that plagued it 20 years ago, and cost millions to restore). Last year, an elderly lawyer, harassed by so many pricey tickets for letting his little dog off leash, went to court. And my fellow neighbors talk often of forming a committee to get the law changed.

In any case, until we make said changes, Animal Control (or the new for-profit team) will continue to be tasked with enforcing laws that neither serve our citizens, or protect them. And dogs will continue to be kept in the backs of SUVs, or at home. And cafe-goers will continue to illegally leash their dogs outside, and diners will continue to illegally leash their dogs inside patios.

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