By Avery McGaha and Kelsey Ray
Steve Armstead knew what his dogs would be for Halloween.
“My largest dog is named Wookie, so that’s pretty obvious,” he said. “Sadie, she’s a little sweetheart, so probably a little angel. Archie, I’d dress him up as a rabbit. He’s very rabbit focused, we’ll put it that way.”
But Armstead knows his dogs’ personalities decide more than costume choice. As an environmental planner with Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, and a spokesman for Boulder’s Voice and Sight Tag Program, Armstead knows that personality also helps determine whether his dogs are a good fit for his own program.
“I know one dog meets the requirements quite well. Two will probably never participate in the program. And the third may not need to,” he said. That dog, he said, would have dressed up as a ghost.
Starting Jan. 1, visitors to Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks who’d still like to let their dogs roam free will find themselves on a tighter leash. Among new regulations is a requirement that all guardians take a free, hour-long educational course before they can register for the program. Tags will also need to be updated each year.
Established in 2006, the Voice and Sight Tag Program allows registered guardians to let their dogs off a leash on specific trails through Boulder’s vast expanse of open space. At the time, Armstead said, it was entirely new territory for regulators.
“When it was first put in place there was no program like it in the country,” he said. “It was a trial program, something unique.”
That meant the city had to experiment, setting reasonable standards and monitoring the results. After about six years of operation, the Boulder City Council directed Armstead and his team to plan an update to the rules based on what they’d learned.
The original Voice and Sight Tag Program only required guardians to watch a 10-minute video before paying a one-time registration fee. With such easy access, said Armstead, the program peaked at around 32,000 members.
But there were problems. Armstead said people sometimes have different expectations or understandings about the Voice and Sight rules. Unfortunately, he said, that’s even led to violence.
“This has caused people to negatively interact – literally punch each other,” he said. “When I talk about levels of conflict they’re on the extreme end of the scale, but they’re serious and they’re important.”
In general, it seems that confusion abounds about the rules.
Animal Control Officer Taylor Barnes with Boulder City Police said that people would often mistake the Voice and Sight Tag for a dog license. That license, registered separately with the city, serves as proof that the dog has been vaccinated for rabies. The new regulations, however, require guardians to obtain a dog license before they can register for a Voice and Sight Tag.
“That’s going to be a huge benefit,” he said.
Barnes added that some people also get confused about where the tag program applies. That’s only on Open Space and Mountain Park designated trails, not just anywhere around town. Barnes hopes the new class will get everyone on the same page.
The updates aim to improve park experiences for everyone, including guardians, dogs and wildlife. Ideally, Armstead said, an off-leash dog is carefully managed, a skill that requires both experience and planning. Armstead said the class will give guardians the chance to really think through that process, in a way the short video never could. That includes face-to-face access to experienced staff and other guardians.
“People don’t understand really the complexity that voice and sight control requires,” he said, “in a system that has 145 miles of trail, a lot of different types of activities, a lot of people enjoying this, and a lot of special natural resources.”
Responses to the program’s changes have been mixed. And according to the Boulder Daily Camera, so far only a small number of people have taken the course since it opened this summer.
“It’s unfortunate that some people may feel that taking an hour out of their time to have a unique privilege is pretty onerous,” Armstead said. “I think it’s pretty reasonable.”
He said rangers will be on the trails come Jan. 1, making sure guardians know about the new rules.
For information on the new rules and how sign up for the class, visit the Voice and Sight Tag Program webpage.