Dog Owners Pushing for Off-Leash Hours in Denver Parks | Westword

Dog Owners Pushing for Off-Leash Hours in Denver Parks, but City Bites Back

“People in the parks don't feel safe with the dogs running around off-leash and not knowing how they're going to react to their presence."
This sign at Congress Park reminds people of the leash law.
This sign at Congress Park reminds people of the leash law. Catie Cheshire
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Linda Tarazona was sitting with her dog in Congress Park when a park ranger started yelling. The dog was recovering from surgery after being bitten by another dog and wasn't wearing a leash — but couldn't do much more than walk slowly and wasn't up for running or playing, Tarazona says she told the ranger.

“I tried to reason with him, and I said, ‘I understand, but he's not doing anything,’ and I tried to explain to him what happened, but no, he was shouting,” Tarazona recalls. So she and her dog left the park, but the ranger "followed me on foot."

She saw her neighbor, Jeff Turner, and asked for help; at that point, the ranger stopped following her, they both say.

While this incident was extreme, Tarazona and her neighbors have definitely noticed an uptick in enforcement of the city's off-leash dog policy by Denver Parks & Recreation. They say they understand the principle behind leash laws but they don't believe the current system is working, and have suggested that the city set up designated off-leash hours in some of Denver’s parks.

“No one wants to be bitten by a dog, and no one wants dogs rushing up to their children," says Linda Hull, another neighbor pushing the idea of off-leash hours. "Dogs should be under control. Everybody agrees on that."

But Hull says she’s seen neighbors doing nothing more than having their dogs off-leash be treated badly by rangers. One nearby resident — who asks to remain anonymous — was even ticketed for being in the presence of off-leash dogs while his own pet was on a leash.

“We've started to mobilize on it, because we're horrified by some of the stuff we've seen,” Hull says.

“I'm not advocating that we should be allowed to have our dogs off-leash on the middle of Saturday in June,” says Heather Lamm, who lives near Cheesman Park. “It just reeks of a lack of creative problem-solving.”

To come up with new solutions, Lamm, Hull and other neighbors formed a Freedom for Fidos - Denver Facebook group to promote “responsible off-leash experiences, where dogs can socialize, exercise, and have fun in Denver parks through changes in current legislation,” according to its description. And the group has now launched an email campaign targeting the mayor, Parks & Rec officials and their Denver City Council reps, pushing the proposal that Denver follow the example of other cities by designating certain hours in certain parks as off-leash hours.
click to enlarge dog in park
This dog enjoys making friends at Congress Park.
Catie Cheshire
In nearby Englewood, for example, there are four parks where dogs can be off-leash from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. in designated areas.

Although there are twelve dog parks in the city, most of the active members of the group live in District 10, one of the more densely populated parts of the city. In this district, there is just one permanent dog park — outside the Carla Madison Recreation Center, which dog owners say is too small and barren to be healthy for their pets.

“I have a puppy, and they have to run,” Hull says. “Most people in Denver don't have big backyards. They have little yards or apartments.”

As a result, they head to the parks — with and without pets.

“We've been here since 1996 in this very townhome in Congress Park, and it wasn't really until we got our dog as a puppy almost five years ago that we met our neighbors,” says Lynn Turner, whose husband came to Tarazona’s aid. “That has really been a wonderful blessing that we didn't anticipate. ... Our connection to the community has really been deepened and grown.” But some of her neighbors have stopped going to Congress Park because of the aggressive park rangers, even though their taxes help maintain the parks.

Advocates for off-leash hours say they know they’re breaking the rules when they let their dogs off-leash, so they hope the city can help them return to the straight and narrow by getting on board with a solution other than tickets and citations.

Councilmember Chris Hinds, who represents District 10, says he hears concerns about dogs all the time, both from residents who think off-leash dogs are running rampant in the parks and those who want the city to consider some sort of off-leash policy. In fact, Hinds says, one of his first meetings when he took office in 2019 was with a group of Cheesman Park residents who wanted to make sure he knew they were opposed to off-leash dog hours there.

“If we were to do anything moving forward, there will be a lot of resistance,” Hinds says. “Dogs bring up a lot of emotion and a lot of concern.”

After recently passing his foster pup on to his forever home, Hinds doesn’t currently have a dog — but when he was first elected, he did have a dog that he was known to walk off-leash. After being called out, he started observing the rules.

He hasn't proposed any legislation to change those rules "because of how controversial it is,” Hinds adds. But if he did, he says that he would look to Boulder’s Voice and Sight program, which requires dog owners to complete a training course on how to maintain control of their dogs off-leash and register them annually before they're allowed to have them off-leash on designated trails.

“It's a silly problem that seems to have been solved successfully in so many places,” Hull says. “Why is it a problem here in Denver? I would say that the solution — which would be fairly easy — is to try a couple of pilot programs in a couple of different parks and see how it goes. And if it works, then they can spread it out to all the parks, and then they can use the rangers for things that are much more important.”

But pushing a pilot won't be easy, since the Parks & Recreation Advisory Board has already considered the idea and decided not to explore it.

“PRAB concluded that if the policy were to be changed at this time, safety of park-goers, dogs on leash and wildlife could be compromised, as well as the integrity of natural resources,” the group says through a spokesperson. "Additional strain could be placed on park rangers, as there is already a lack of compliance in parks regarding leash and pet waste policies.”

The PRAB says that while it recognizes a need for dog recreation areas, it believes that changing the leash policy is not a good solution.

But residents counter that a crackdown in enforcement isn’t a good solution, either.
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The Turners' dog enjoying the sun at Congress Park.
Catie Cheshire
“What's happening is these sting operations — and I have had it happen to me five times — where eight trucks will pull up into Congress Park and guys will all get out of their trucks,” Hull recounts. “They'll do a giant sweep, and they'll ticket everybody. … They're coming out of trees. They're chasing people from behind bushes.”

Lamm and her husband have gotten about five or six citations in their twenty years living near Cheesman Park. “I would say in the last three or four or five months, it's been a constant presence,” she says of park rangers looking to ticket for off-leash dogs. “And it's such a sad one.”

According to Jodie Marozas, a park ranger manager, the city bases enforcement on complaints, and has had an influx of them in recent years. The so-called “sting operations” are designed to ensure effectiveness and safety, she says; with more rangers converging on a spot during their normal hours, scofflaws can’t simply run away.

“People in the parks don't feel safe with the dogs running around off-leash and not knowing how they're going to react to their presence,” Marozas says. “We have increased our enforcement because when we go out and we educate the public and do a lot of education and we're not seeing a lot of changes in behavior, then we do step up our enforcement to citations.”

Denver’s municipal code specifies that dogs are not allowed to run at large — defined as “any dog not on the premises of the owner or keeper thereof and not controlled through use of a leash, cord or chain held by the dog's owner or keeper.” A first citation is $100, and repeated violations can add up to $999 (fines go into the city's general fund); if people violate the code too often, they can be excluded from the park.

According to Parks & Recreation, the city has “problematic parks” where it gets high numbers of complaints — and issues a high number of citations. On the list are Cheesman, Washington Park, Sloan’s Lake Park, Jefferson Park, Sunken Gardens Park, Congress Park, Benedict Fountain Park and City Park.

From August 2023 through January, Parks & Rec issued 668 citations for dogs being off-leash in parks, according to data obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request. Of those violations, 204 occurred in January 2024, which represents 30 percent of the citations issued over the last six months.
click to enlarge dogs in a park
The many pups at Congress Park.
Catie Cheshire
At Cheesman Park, the city issued 100 citations over the past six months, followed by Washington Park with 73. At Congress Park, 36 were handed out, while between twenty and thirty tickets were issued in Commons Park, Sloan’s Lake Park, Jefferson Park and Sunken Gardens Park.

Cheesman and Congress parks equate to almost one hot spot, Marozas says, because the department has noticed if enforcement is upped in one, dog owners simply head over to the other one. While enforcement works for a while, she says, people seem to return to their old habits and start violating the rules again if the department allocates its limited staffing resources to other parks.

“For a period of time, people start to follow the rules, because they see that increased ranger presence and they don't want a citation, so we see some of those complaints fall off a little bit, and then a lot of times they'll pick back up,” Marozas says. “It's always up and down, up and down.”

Jeff Turner says that such fluctuation suggests that the rules aren’t working. “They recognize that this is a need, and they've done nothing to address it other than staff up to suppress it,” he says of the Parks & Rec board. “If you look at their charter on their website, one of the first things it says is that they pursue innovative solutions to create a positive experience for everybody. That's just simply not true.”
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