A group of Palo Alto dog owners want the city to create an open area in a park for frolicking, off-leash dogs.
Their model is Menlo Park's Nealon Park, where off-leash dogs can roam in a fenced area on weekday mornings. Up to 100 dog owners and their pets turn out every day.
At the Palo Alto Dog Owners' inaugural meeting last week, its members also discussed lobbying for a small part of a Palo Alto open-space preserve where dogs could run free.
Leaders said they hope the organization will give them more clout.
Daria Walsh, a dog owner and former Palo Alto Parks and Recreation commissioner, said securing more public space has been an uphill battle. She said she worked to get additional dog areas for six years, "but every time it was shot down."
Part of the problem was that dog owners have not shown their numbers at meetings, she said.
"When you can say you have 1,000 people who want something, it carries some weight," group founder Howard Hoffman said.
Hoffman's two labradoodles, Merlin and Franny, lounged at his feet during the meeting. Hoffman said the city's three small dog runs -- at Greer, Hoover and Mitchell parks -- aren't sufficient. The three total 0.75 acres.
The dog runs are often crowded and inadequate, especially for large dogs, he said. Franny, the larger of Hoffman's dogs, can jump the low fence at Hoover's dog run whenever she chooses. He takes the dogs to Menlo Park or to Pulgas Ridge Open Space Preserve in Redwood City a couple of times each week so they can work off their energy.
Palo Alto's limited spaces have led to tensions between more dominant animals and anxiety among more skittish pets and owners. Some dogs become anxious when on-leash.
Owners have taken to illegally letting their dogs run off leash at parks and schools, group members said. But other park and field users aren't happy with that. Some dogs are aggressive; others are friendly but exuberant and frighten people, group members said.
"The status quo is not a good situation," Hoffman said.
Hoffman is a former soccer coach whose children played in Palo Alto parks. He has witnessed the problem from both sides since 1988, he said. The group wants a collaborative rather than adversarial approach to the problem, he added.
"It's not just about 'my dogs' or 'our dogs' but the whole community. We have to have more off-leash options that comply with the law. I don't expect it will eliminate all of the violations, but it will greatly reduce them," he said.
At Nealon, a fenced baseball field is accessible for off-leash dogs Mondays through Fridays from 8 to 10 a.m. The off-leash gatherings have become one of Menlo Park's strongest community activities, according to The Dog Owners Group of Menlo Park (DOGMA) website. Each weekday, dog owners congregate to share stories and neighborhood news and to meet others.
But even a larger park won't stop problems if an owner isn't responsible, though. A woman who was maimed by a German shepherd filed a lawsuit Dec. 4 against the dog's owner, who allegedly dropped off and left her dog unattended while she talked on her cell phone outside the fence. The victim said she was bitten after she tried to separate her dog from the shepherd, which had grabbed her smaller dog around the throat, according to the Weekly's sister paper, The Almanac.
Palo Alto Dog Owners members said everyone must act responsibly, and rules should be in place to ensure a safe and enjoyable space for everyone. And that includes picking up after one's pet.
Users at Nealon organize a "clean" sweep of the field after each session, searching the park sector by sector to remove any animal waste, according to DOGMA.
Les Ezrati of the Palo Alto group suggested following the Nealon Park example.
Randy Hoffman recommended that when people register for a dog license, they could make a volunteer contribution to pay for a professional field-cleaning service.
She also said using a park early in the day would not conflict with other users' needs.
"If the dog park is open between 7 and 9 a.m., it wouldn't interfere with soccer, baseball or camps," she said.
Palo Alto advocates have sought a dog park in the northern part of the city, which has none. A designated area in El Camino Park was under consideration, but that plan is in jeopardy. The city's Planning and Transportation Commission in April recommended against the dog run due to lack of space.
The dog owners are also eying the city's upcoming "Parks, Trails, Open Space and Recreation Master Plan," which is expected to be ready for public study by December 2014, according to Greg Betts, director of community services. The plan will identify gaps in programming and city facilities.
Betts said dog areas exemplify the need for a master plan. Currently, the city might try to shoehorn a dog area into a park where it doesn't serve anyone well.
"It's so small that it's more of a dog closet than a dog park," he said.
Currently, there are 5,600 licensed dogs registered with Palo Alto Animal Services, according to Connie Urbanski, the interim superintendent. That figure might represent about 41 percent of the city's dog population, she added.
So far, about 80 people have signed up on the new group's website, www.PaloAltoDogs.org, according to Hoffman.