Naked City

Dog owners say county leash law bites too hard

Six weeks ago, the star of the Travis Co. Commissioners Court hearing was a pit bull mix named Summer. The commissioners were taking a first stab at coming up with a leash law (largely in response to the December mauling of an 8-year-old girl by a pack of loose dogs), and Summer's neighbors showed up in droves to tell the sad tale of a toothless law and a dog with big teeth. Even though Summer had mauled three neighborhood dogs, they said, the county's existing animal control regulations didn't allow any action until after Summer finally bit a human.

In response, the commissioners drafted an ordinance that aimed to be proactive, not reactive, to aggressive dogs. But at a public hearing on Tuesday, a different set of speakers showed up to complain that the proposed law went too far in the other direction. "Five or six weeks ago, we had no law," said county resident Jim Von Wolske. "Now we have a lot of law. We need to rein it in."

The proposed ordinance requires all dogs to stay on their owners' property and be on a leash when they're not. It also broadens the definition of "dangerous dogs," which have strict confinement, registration, and insurance requirements, to include those that may not have bitten anyone, but whose menacing behavior suggests that one day they might.

But speakers warned that the broad definition of "dangerous" would enable "pit-bull-hating fanatics" to try to get dogs labeled dangerous for displaying scary but essentially harmless behaviors, such as growling to protect their territory. And county resident Chuck Miller, who said he had moved to the county specifically to live in an area where dogs could roam free, said the law would have unintended consequences. "Neighbors are going to abuse this," he said. "They'll use your manpower to work out neighborhood disputes."

Sounding more than a little frustrated, commissioner Gerald Daugherty complained that in their zeal to protect dogs' right to act like dogs, speakers were misinterpreting the law's intent. The point was not to call in the SWAT team for every dog that barks or chases a cat up a tree, but to give neighbors a way to protect themselves before tragedy strikes. "We all know what we're after," he said. "I want something that will allow us to deal with an animal that has taken a very aggressive stance to another person's domestic animal."

Commissioners will continue to take public comment until Friday, Feb. 25, and are scheduled to vote on the ordinance March 8.

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leash law, Travis County Commissioners Court, Gerald Daugherty, Chuck Miller, Jim Von Wolske

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