Palo Alto's dog owners Tuesday called on the city to change its leash law so their pets could run off-leash in parks and schools at certain hours of the day when few people were around.
The discussion at Jordan Middle School -- involving about 90 people, only five of whom did not own a dog -- marked the city's first formal step in a process to address recreational opportunities for dog-owners and dogs.
The city's leash law, instituted in 1955, requires every dog to be leashed at all times when outside a home or private yard.
"I have no place where I can let my dog run without a leash, and I don't understand that," said Palo Alto resident Sarah Arnold. "It seems to me there's a limited amount of space, and a lot of people with dogs."
Dog owners at the meeting almost unanimously agreed they would like specific times and places where dogs could run off-leash and owners could socialize.
"Community is hard enough to come by in this day and age, so when we have these communities that have formed around dogs and exercising dogs, that's something the city should see as a real positive value," dog owner Lucinda Abbott said.
Dog owners said that the city's three dog runs in Mitchell Park, Greer Park and Hoover Park are not within walking distance for many neighborhoods and are cramped and pale in comparison to dog facilities in neighboring cities such as Mountain View.
"I'm concerned that my dog is never able to run freely," resident Jackie Raine said. "Dogs need that freedom, they really do. There's just nowhere at all in this city."
However, Wendy Miller, who works at the Addison Kids Club, said she was against sharing her compound with dogs while children were around.
She has called the police on several occasions because some dog owners refused to leash their pets and denied there was a leash law.
Miller has also seen unleashed dogs running near buildings and relieving themselves near areas where children play, she said.
"Sharing space is not working," Miller said. "My concern is for my kids. There's a huge liability if anything happens to those kids."
After listening to several questions and opinions from residents, city staff divided the crowd into small groups to discuss and share their top concerns and suggestions for improving recreational opportunities for dogs.
"We want people to go out and build a strong, healthy community around walking their dogs," said Rob De Geus, division manager of recreation and golf for the city. "But we also have to balance that so it doesn't affect the recreation of others."
Resident Neil Dorward said there were dogs running without leashes at night in schools such as Jordan, and that resulted in dog stool left on the ground.
"One of the problems is you can't possibly pick up everything after your dog," Dorward said. He suggested having some parks with fenced areas for dogs and prohibiting them on school grounds.
Another popular suggestion was to increase the size of existing dog runs and install a divider between areas for large dogs and smaller dogs. Dog aggression was a concern, owners said.
"When so many dogs are close together, they get aggressive. Often the large dogs overpower the small dogs," Jackie Raine said. She owns a small Italian greyhound. "I can't take her to the dog run because basically, she's too frightened."
Resident Keith Gilbert suggested an "informal membership" at neighborhood parks to obtain some accountability and responsibility from dog owners. This would help in monitoring dogs that are off-leash, he said.
Other suggestions included opening Foothills Park to dogs on weekends -- at present, the park only allows dogs weekdays.
"We are not trying to get rid of a leash law," dog owner Wendy Hopfenberg said. "I think we all agree dogs need to be on leashes out in public on the streets."
City staff will put together the residents' comments in a staff report and present it to the Parks and Recreation Commission.
"We understand that most of the people tonight are dog owners, and so we'll be hearing from people who are not dog owners," commissioner Sunny Dykwel said. "We want to be transparent and this is the first step."
Dog owner Theresa Carey said discussion has dragged on too long without action. "It'll be nice if we could move forward and get something done in the next year or two," she said.
The next commission meeting is scheduled for Dec. 15.