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Anchorage Assembly to weigh tightening rules for off-leash dog walkers

Mar. 17—Sassy, a 5-year-old Siberian husky, wore an electronic collar on a recent visit to the Connors Bog dog park in West Anchorage.

Sassy did not respond when her owner, Gina Azzam, called her to come back. But with the click of a button, Sassy's electronic collar let out two quick beeps and the dog headed right back to Azzam.

Using the electronic collar is a last resort, Azzam said, but it's an effective way to get Sassy to listen. The dog responds just to the beeping, and Azzam said she never uses the shock function.

Azzam is among a number of Anchorage dog owners who use the collars to keep their dogs nearby on the city's large network of trails. E-collars — remote-operated collars that can beep, vibrate or shock a dog — are especially appealing to skiers and cyclists who don't want to be tethered to a leash.

Now, as part of a yearslong process to address increasing e-collar use and trail conflicts, Anchorage officials are looking to tighten the existing leash law and to clarify clauses that deal with the collars and also the meaning of "control by command." (The city's leash rules are separate from those pertaining to state lands, which require dogs to be on a leash at parks and campgrounds but allow dogs to be off leash and under voice command in the backcountry.) The Assembly plans to address the proposed changes at its March 19 meeting.

The Animal Control Advisory Board has pushed for changes in recent years because of a high number of reports about aggressive or unruly off-leash dogs.

The current law is often misinterpreted, board chair Cathy Foerster said during an Assembly work session this month. The proposed changes would clarify that either leashes or e-collars are required even when hiking, biking or skiing.

The current law states that control by voice "is allowed if the animal is engaged in an activity that precludes it from accomplishing that activity if restrained." But the intent was not for that to apply to hiking, biking or skiing — rather for training or agility, Foerster said.

The proposed changes would also define dog behavior required for use of e-collars. Dogs using e-collars would need to be trained to respond and return to their owner, not approach other people or chase wildlife, and must remain in sight of their owner.

In a city filled with dog owners and passionate outdoor recreationists, leash laws are a hot topic. It's proven challenging for officials to find a balance that makes the trails welcoming for everyone: people who don't want to interact with dogs, and pet owners who want to recreate with their dogs without using a physical leash.

In 2021, the Animal Control Advisory Board drafted a proposal that removed e-collars entirely and instead required all owners to use physical leashes. Officials received more than 800 comments from the public, many of which advocated for e-collars, Foerster said. The Assembly rejected those proposed changes.

While the most recent version wouldn't be as drastic because it aims to clarify the existing law, many Assembly members questioned if it would make any difference. The Animal Control budget is so small already that workers can't even enforce laws on picking up animal waste, Foerster said.

Assembly Chair Christopher Constant described it as a "law in the books, but not a law in practice." The bigger issue, he said, is to reexamine the budget for Animal Control.

Last year, the city gave out 87 citations after reports of nearly 1,500 stray animals, although that number includes calls where no owner is present, according to Michelle Fehribach, a public information officer for the Anchorage Health Department. Fehribach said the city doesn't keep a separate record of calls or citations for off-leash dogs when the owner is present. There were also 684 complaints last year about aggressive animals, she said, which can include reports about on- or off-leash dogs.

Willie, a 2 1/2-year-old Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, is always on leash when he's not at the dog park, said owner Jim Sterling as he walked the dog at Connors Bog. The dog's large size frightens people, even though he's shy and sweet, Sterling said.

Sterling said they haven't had any negative interactions when Willie is off-leash, but not every off-leash dog is well behaved or even listens to their owner.

"There's always under voice control — well, not if they're chasing a moose," he said.