Though dogs can accompany their owners in almost all of Chattanooga's 60-plus public parks, it is the few that they are not permitted to enter that are the subject of concern for pet owners.
Dogs currently are not allowed in Coolidge Park, Ross's Landing and the Tennessee Riverpark or on the Walnut Street Bridge. Those are Chattanooga's most highly visible parks. Dog lovers -- local residents and visitors -- firmly believe pets should be allowed in them. Others disagree. At the moment, regulations support the dissenters.
The dog-in-park argument is an old one that continues to defy satisfactory resolution. Officials say they would be happy to allow dogs onto the bridge and into the parks at issue if there was a way to guarantee that the sites could be kept clean and that the safety of all could be assured. So far, though, officials are quick to say there are more reasons to oppose a change in policy than to support a new one.
The Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department is still grappling with the issue. Currently, a citizens committee is providing input. It's not the first attempt of its type, though the current effort holds more promise of effecting change than earlier attempts. That's because the rising number of residences on both shores of the river has increased the number of dog owners who want to share downtown amenities -- including the parks and bridge -- with their animal companions.
Their desire is not an unreasonable one. The difficult part is balancing the desires of pet owners with the concerns of residents who do not have pets. Worries about sanitation, the fears dogs arouse in some individuals, and the truth that even friendly dogs sometimes become skittish or aggressive in crowds or unfamiliar places must be addressed before the closed sites are opened to pets and their owners.
The committee hopes to address those issues through an education and information campaign. "As more people become responsible," says Larry Zehnder parks administrator, "we can make more facilities available to the general public." That is too tentative and time-consuming an approach.
A bolder approach is needed to create fair regulations about waste and safe pet management, and to establish penalties for offending dog owners. So are rules to establish roles for law enforcement, parks and public works agencies. That is effective elsewhere. Nashville, for example, allows dogs -- except pit bulls -- in all metro parks if they are on a leash.
Responsible pet owners should be able to take well-behaved pets to all Chattanooga parks. Finding a way to make that possible rather than continuing to cite reasons it can not be done should be the order of the day.