BUCKTOWN — Some Chicago dog owners want the city to rewrite its laws that require dogs to be on leashes unless they are inside a park's enclosed dog-friendly area.
Advocates for changing the rules say Chicago's leash laws are not as progressive as other big cities like New York City, where there are 72 off-leash dog areas where dog owners can allow their dogs to run off-leash in from the time the park opens until 9 a.m. and from 9 p.m. until the park closes.
"Why not in Chicago? Don't trot out Wilson beach as the city's big accommodation, it's inaccessible to 85 percent of the city's population," said James Walsh of Bucktown. "I think this city is due for a conversation about parks and dogs."
Walsh was at Bucktown's Churchill Park with Hazel, a 105-pound Rhodesian ridgeback. She was off-leash just outside the park's dog park. Walsh said he's not saying leash laws are silly, but he thinks the laws should allow people to be aware enough of their dog to make a personal decision about what is right.
Dog owners are more frequently letting their dogs off leash at the park at 1825 N. Damen Ave., but risk a $300 fine and up to $10,000 fine plus jail time if an attack occurs while their animal is off leash, according to city code.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he would not support off-leash hours in Churchill Park from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. because, for one, parks close overnight during a portion of those suggested hours and there is dog park built specifically for dogs right in Churchill Park.
"The rules for dogs on a leash exist for public safety," Waguespack added.
Barbara Dael, another dog owner who exercises her German Shepherd mix, Astrid, off-leash, said that the enclosed parks cause some dogs to get territorial and aggressive.
After her teenage daughter was bitten by an aggressive dog while trying to leave Churchill Dog Park last year, Dael said they have no plans to bring Astrid back and will continue exercising her in the field, even if it's technically illegal.
Dael said that with a rise in violence in the city, she'd rather see police "fighting real crime" after a spate of recent tickets and warnings to owners of off-leash dogs.
"There is data that shows decreased dog bites and overall neighborhood violence in the parks with off leash policies, as shown in NYC and other cities around the states," Dael said.
Dog owners said there should be common sense rules like keeping your dog leashed when children are playing in the park and would like to see a system where owners can pay for a tag that allows them to take their dog off-leash in designated parks.
Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a Chicago Park District spokeswoman, said there are no plans to reconsider the city's leash laws in its parks.
The Park District has designated dog-friendly areas to allow dogs off-leash recreation, she said.
Maxey-Faulkner said "patrons should inform park employees of off-leash dogs" and pointed to the Park District code that prohibits unleashed dogs in any park areas besides "dog-friendly areas," commonly known as dog parks.
There are 23 dog-friendly areas in Chicago Parks, according to the Park District website.
New York's more lax leash laws evolved out of community input, according to a 2007 news release issued by former New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
“Through a public process, the parks department codified the successful, long-standing 'courtesy hours' policy for the benefit of all New Yorkers," Benepe said. "We know that a tired dog is a good dog and for the last two decades, this policy has made parks safer and has allowed dog owners to exercise and socialize their pets."
But the relaxed leash policies have not come without dangers. In 2012, after an off-leash dog in New York City's Isham Park attacked a leashed dog, parks officials installed new signs alerting dog owners that their pets are not allowed off their leashes at any time in that park.
Walsh says when he lets Hazel off-leash in an area with children, he asks parents if they want him to put the dog back on a leash.
"Usually their kid is just squealing with delight as they go get kisses from [Hazel]. But if the parent isn't comfortable with my dog, on the leash it goes. And I would do that even if off leash was allowed," Walsh said.
Jen Varela, a mother of a 1½-year old, who was playing with son in the park, said she has no issue with her son petting Hazel.
"I assume with the dogs who are off-leash that their owners are responsible" Varela said.
Off-leash dogs chase a ball in Churchill Park's open field, next to a fenced in dog-friendly area. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]
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