Mayor: Efforts underway to ensure Austin’s dog park is safe

Published 10:49 am Thursday, July 25, 2013

By Mayor Tom Stiehm

Austin’s dog park has been operational for about a year and a half. Most of us have read or heard about two incidents at the park where small dogs have been killed by larger dogs. We also have had several incidents where other dogs were attacked in places other than the dog park.

I would like to let people know a little about the park and what is being done to make it as safe as possible.

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There have been several attempts at creating a dog park in Austin, most recently in 2009. The city had budgeted $40,000 to build a park and looked at several locations. Then the city was hit with a budget crisis and the Austin City Council determined the park would be put off until the economy was better. In late 2011 or early 2012, a group called SPARK (Start a Park for Austin’s Respectable K-9s) was formed. The SPARK group determined that the only surefire way to get a dog park for Austin was to raise the funds themselves. Several fundraisers were held and the park was built. One of the SPARK members approached Hormel Foods Corp. about purchasing some of their old fencing and Hormel Foods ended up donating the fence to the dog park. SPARK volunteers, along with Austin’s Street and Parks, Recreation and Forestry Departments, put up the fence in the spring of last year.

The park opened with little fanfare and right away it seemed to get quite a bit of use. Shortly thereafter was an incident in which a small Chihuahua was killed by a larger dog. The owner of the large dog was cited and the dog eventually euthanized. This incident happened because the large dog had entered the area designated for small dogs. I checked and found that almost always when a dog is killed at a dog park, it is because there was only a single area for all dogs and not a designated area for small dogs. After these incidents, all these parks then created an area for smaller dogs. Austin’s park was originally designed and built with a separate area for smaller or shy dogs.

I visited the Battin family, who has lost their small dog. Understandably, they were devastated. They had two other dogs with them at the park who were not hurt — one a Shepherd mix and the other a small lab mix puppy. My wife and I had just lost our dog Saddie after 10 years, and I mentioned that the puppy looked just like our Saddie. To make a long story short, we ended up with a littermate of the Battin’s puppy and it is a great dog. There was another incident several weeks ago where a small dog was bitten by another dog and it did eventually die. The owner of the small dog did everything she could to stop the attack but was unable to until her dog had been severely injured. Our hearts go out to her and her family.

I have researched dog park deaths, and they are not uncommon. In almost all cases, a larger dog picks up a smaller dog in its mouth and shakes it. In light of the two incidents we have had, I think it is very important for people to keep smaller dogs in the area designated for small dogs. If you do decide to put your smaller dog with the large dogs, please keep an eye on them. Dogs are pack animals. I have seen many smaller dogs at the dog park in with the larger dogs, but those smaller dogs usually visit the dog park at the same time almost every day. They have gotten to know the other larger dogs and have been accepted by them. Yet a new dog may arrive and pose a threat to the smaller dog, so please be careful.

Finally, there are several upgrades still in the works for the dog park. The SPARK association still has some funds and has offered to assist in these improvements. They include a water source, a small pavilion and cement for the entryway. Most of these improvements will be included in the city’s comprehensive plan for next year.

If you are at the park and see a dog or owner who you believe is creating an unsafe environment, call the Parks and Rec Department at 507-433-1881 and they will determine if the dog or person should be banned from the park. Parks and Rec is only open weekdays, so if you see any dog injure another or feel it is important enough, call the Law Enforcement Center at 507-437-9400 anytime. We are trying to make the dog park a safer place.

Finally, if you have a dog and have not visited the dog park yet, I would encourage people to do so. You will be welcomed by both dogs and owners. My grandson Chase knows every dog by name at the park!