The Dog Days of Missoula’s Pet Ordinance


This is a dog-friendly town, as evidenced by a 5-minute stroll in the downtown vicinity. I walked out of the bank the other day and a pickup truck was driving by with some sort of lab-cross safely sequestered under the topper in the bed of the truck. The dog was barking away, its voice echoing off the metal walls, and the people in the front were laughing.

As I rounded the corner, I almost ran smack into a hot chica in a red and black polka-dot dress, walking a black pug, almost as tall as her sassy shoes. An old Cadillac pulled up next to the curb and a little Scottish terrier jumped out of the driver’s lap, to get a better look at me from the passenger side window. Then, a guy in fluorescent green shorts ran by, with a Dalmatian at his heel.

Sometimes I have trouble grasping that someone doesn’t like dogs, but I get it. There are myriad reasons, not the least being that some dog has bitten them, chased them, upstaged them, dug up their garden, killed their cat, chickens, or the resident wildlife, or barked loudly and long enough to keep them awake.

I myself have been chased by an unleashed dog named Angel, who apparently thought she owned the sidewalk in front of her house. She bared her teeth and stalked me three doors down, to the tune of her caretaker’s repeated (and futile) calls, “Angel, no, Angel, come.”

I tried in vain to rescue a goat that belonged to the flock on Mt. Jumbo and had been attacked by someone else’s dog. I’ve picked up my dog’s poop, and everyone else’s, it seems.

Missoula City Council is currently reviewing the pet ordinance. There is rumor that the dog relevant language includes a cap on how many dogs one person can be walking at a time, as well as a restriction on off-leash dogs in areas that are currently under voice control.  What comes to mind when I think about this process, is basically the same thing that came to mind a couple of years ago, when our sensible Mayor Engen vetoed a similar change to the ordinance:  We need to get more creative about the “dog issues” that arise in our community.

The city doesn’t have the resources to enforce a leash law (or other aspects of a stricter ordinance) and I would venture to say that those people who have the dogs causing the trouble are the same people who don’t honor the system we already have in place, so they are certainly not going to follow a leash law just because a new sign is posted at their favorite dog walking spot.

Limiting “voice control” areas hurts the good dog owners, and more importantly, hurts the dogs. I fully believe that leashes have their place, for the safety of everyone, but confining a dog against its very nature—to run—contributes to an increase in behavioral disorders and out-of-control dogs. I should back this up with science, but I won’t because after having dogs in my life for almost two decades, I’ve done some studies of my own and its just common sense. Let your dog move in the way they are made to move and a lot of issues disappear.  More to the point, honor the nature of that individual animal, and you’ve won half the battle, if there is one.

I am not saying that all dogs should be free to roam the city and its open spaces. I am saying that responsible dog ownership doesn’t seem to be intuitive for a lot of folks, and understanding dogs is not something that comes naturally to people. It is a learned skill.

From my perspective, the issues are really about people behavior and less about dog behavior. People need to understand the true responsibility of dog ownership, and also what dogs are telling them, or other dogs.

My 10-year old Australian Shepard, Charlie, often approaches with a big bark and quickly begins to play “bow” and furiously wag his stub of a tail. He’s a friendly dog, but when he barks, that is all that people hear (understandably) and they don’t see the equally important signs of playfulness. I know this because I know my dogs and take my responsibilities seriously. Dogs pick up on tension and nervousness, and that is often when situations go south. I often avoid potentially sticky situations because I am paying attention. And yes, sometimes I make mistakes in judgment.

I wonder if the city could shift the focus to education.  I am not under the illusion that this won’t take resources and time, but what if?  What if we had dog ambassadors, like our downtown ambassadors—who helped educate people on policies and behaviors? What if people were tested at trailheads with their dogs, and given the opportunity to prove that they were responsible? What if the shelters required people to pass tests about the city policies and basic dog care and behavior? What if people participated in our public process and helped city council come up with an effective ordinance, instead of something that exists only on paper?

I mulled these things over in my head this morning, while my dogs, my boyfriend and I climbed up to the top of Mt. Jumbo, with the sunrise and the morning storm. Gold light illuminated our skin and coats, and the rain felt so good. The people we met smiled, and patted the dogs as we passed. The dogs smiled back. Then I came home, opened the Independent and saw a picture of my Timber and Charlie on Waterworks Hill, smack in the middle of the article about our town’s pet ordinance.

Visit Missoula’s City Council website to find out what’s going on and how to share your input.

Like this blog post?  If yes, chances are you’ll want to read Cheeto Moment, Fire Worked–Dogs and Fireworks, and Missoula Dogs About Town.  And checkout what Makes Missoula such a pet-friendly town and Missoula’s pet-friendly resources.

Click here to see the Dogtown Missoula archive.


Danielle Lattuga lives happily in Missoula, Montana with two unemployed herding dogs and a lab who makes everyone smile. Whenever her work takes her away from home, she must explain that someone has to put food in the dish, before she shuts the door and ponders the benefits of purchasing a small flock of sheep and a kitty pool.