Madison is the fourth-best city in the country to own a dog, according to NerdWallet, a finance blog. The site based its rating on the number of off-leash dog parks per 100,000 residents (3.4); average cost of a veterinarian visit ($44.07) and "walkability."
Yet some of the most walkable urban green spaces are off limits to residents who would like to take a stroll with their four-legged friends. Under Sec. 8.19(1) of Madison General Ordinances, dogs are prohibited in city parks, even when walked on a leash. But the Board of Park Commissioners will take another look at this strict prohibition in the near future.
Laura Whitmore, spokeswoman for the city Parks Division, confirms that Assistant Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp is "gathering information so he can bring it forth to the parks commission so we can have this conversation again."
Whitmore says Knepp is looking at how other communities handle the issue and analyzing the resources expended by division staff to enforce the ban: "How much time are we spending on this?"
Whitmore says that of the city's 265 parks, roughly 11 or 12 do allow dogs to be walked on leash. But she says no new parks have been added to that list in the last 18 years, when she started with the Parks Division.
Instead the city has created off-leash dog parks that are usually, but not always, stand-alone parks. There is a dog park, for instance, within Warner Park on the city's north side.
Whitmore says dog issues dominate the emails directed to the city Parks Division. "The biggest complaint we get now is people complaining about folks who have dogs and run them off leash," says Whitmore, who vets these emails. She says she also receives, to a lesser degree, emails from dog owners wanting to know where they can take their dog to play.
Whitmore says not many complaints are made about people walking their dog on a leash. She doesn't know how quickly the issue might move before the parks panel.
"This may wait until we have a new parks superintendent."
Parks Superintendent Kevin Briski recently resigned to take a job in Florida.
Dane County, unlike the city, models its dog rules on state parks, says Darren Marsh, director of the county Parks Division. Canines are allowed in all county parks as long as they are on a six-foot leash.
Marsh says that the county parks commission, in the early 1990s, convened an advisory group to deal with the problem of dogs running off leash in county parks. The group was made up of dog advocates, veterinarians and others -- people, says Marsh, who were "trying to do good things for their pets."
Working with the county's risk manager, the subcommittee took a "leap" and recommended putting aside county land where dogs could run free. The county's first dog park – at Viking Park in Stoughton -- was created. It was a radical idea at the time, says Marsh: "Nobody believed we should give a designated area to dogs."
But Marsh says the county proved to be a regional and national leader in the area, with other communities quickly following suit. Now, he says, when the county receives complaints about dogs off leash in county parks, the Parks Division takes it as a sign: "That's telling us there is a need for a dog exercise area."
Ald. Mark Clear, a member of the city parks commission, says he has not yet heard talk about the panel taking up rules on dogs, but he is not opposed. "I would certainly be open to a discussion about it," he says. "We talk about dog parks regularly, but not specifically about the general prohibition."
Clear says he would like to learn more about how other cities handle the issue and look at best practices. "There are probably places and circumstances where dogs could be okay in certain areas of parks, and it could be that a general prohibition is more strict than is necessary."
Clear says the hardest thing that the parks commission does is manage all the competing uses for the city's green spaces. "We are wonderfully blessed with people who love our parks and use them regularly. It's managing all that competition. Dogs and people compete for space and resources."
One city park ranger patrolling Vilas Park on a recent summer morning said he and other rangers spend much of their time enforcing the ban on dogs. It could be their entire job, he said.
Clear can see how that might be a problem: "Sometimes you have to look at what is the reality, regardless of what the prohibition is."