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What dog-lovers must know, and where they should go

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Until about the middle of the last century, few dogs lived in human homes. But by 2012, according to the Humane Society of the United States, Americans owned 83.3 million dogs. Most lived inside, and almost all needed to get out to walk or run.

The good news for dog owners locally is that, depending on the survey, this is rated the second most dog-friendly city in the U.S. or is tied with Portland, Ore., as dog-friendliest. Such rankings often take into account factors such as the number of dog parks, dog-friendly rental units, veterinarians and pet stores per capita, as well as the percentage of dog owners and state laws against animal cruelty.

That's a complex way of relating what even visitors may deduce just from driving by, say, the parking lots at Red Rock Canyon Open Space (3550 W. High St., redrockcanyonopenspace.org) on a nice day: There's a mountain of dogs and dog-owners here. So it's no coincidence that Colorado Springs has plenty of opportunities to do things outdoors with Lassie.

Running free

Part of what brings the Springs its high ratings is the number of parks and open spaces with trails or paths where dogs and their companions can recreate together — provided the dog is leashed to the human.

Can you, should you, ignore those signs saying pets must be leashed?

Well, it's good for dogs to go on leashed walks, especially if they cannot be safely unleashed. And it's a fine thing to have a dog that can safely exercise unleashed under a human's supervision. Still, it seems fewer dogs are safe unleashed in a city than their companions suppose, whether we're talking about the safety of the dog or the safety and convenience of other dogs, humans and wildlife.

To put this another way, just because you think your unleashed dog isn't bothering anyone, doesn't mean it isn't. And penalties for having an unleashed dog can start with a warning, ascend to a ticket of $50 or more, and top off with a mandatory court date. (On a similar note, the owner of a noisy pet can be issued a warning and given 72 hours to correct the problem, and after that can get a ticket starting at $50.)

For city-dwellers inclined to follow the rules who still want to let the dogs run free, one of the best bets is heading to the city's west side. Your first stop: Bear Creek Dog Park (main entrance at the corner of 21st and West Rio Grande streets; on busy days, additional parking can be found above the dog park along Lower Gold Camp Road).

The problem with many dog parks is that they resemble prison compounds: flat, rectangular, relatively small areas that can seem unnatural and even frightening for some dogs. At Bear Creek, you're more likely to find dogs in the parking lot eagerly waiting to enter — for the same reasons it was named one of the 10 best dog parks in the U.S. by Dog Fancy magazine in 2006 and that it sees roughly 100,000 human visits a year. Inside are 25 acres of varied terrain, from a hillside with a looped path criss-crossed with smaller paths to Bear Creek flowing through the park's south side.

The sprawling doggy play area was created in 1996 by El Paso County. Over time amenities have been added, including two restrooms for humans with a small compound for dogs awaiting owners, a dog watering area, nicely sited benches, a separately enclosed area for small dogs, and landscaping that gives easy access to the creek.

Once you're on the west side, you can make it a deluxe day for an energetic doggy by heading northwest to Red Rock Canyon, a 10-minute drive from the dog park. Look for the dog area signs at the first parking lot's east-end trailhead: From there it's a short hike up to the open space's two connected, off-leash dog loops.

This is a great area for a dog walk, on red-dirt trails, where cactus and sage mix with vistas of the city below. Just keep an eye out for roaming bands of mule deer. A brisk trek around both loops from the parking lot and back can be accomplished in about 30 minutes, which also makes this a perfect place for a lunchtime dog walk.

Simple splurges

If you want to put a bow on top, there are nearby dog amenities. A quick drive northeast will bring you to Dog Tooth Coffee Co. (505 E. Columbia St., dogtoothcoffee.com), which is "dog-friendly as far as the health code will allow us," says Sarah Cozadd, a Dog Tooth manager. That means dogs aren't allowed inside the coffee shop, where food is prepared, but are welcomed and even encouraged to come with their human companions — who can enjoy a drink, including specialty coffees, and a panini sandwich — on the patio.

"We have a lot of people that come through just to sit on the patio with dogs," says Cozadd, who doesn't own a dog herself but says she's always loved golden retrievers.

You might also consider a stop at the locally owned Bon Pet Supply (2312 N. Wahsatch Ave., 465-2143) a boutique shop offering treats, of course, as well as food, leashes and collars, all at reasonable prices for a small shop, says manager Amanda Morton. You'll also find specialty items for canine companions, such as sunglasses with paw prints on the sides, and socks emblazoned with the breed of your choice, which Morton calls "adorable."

Even closer to Red Rock, you might also consider a shopping stop at Republic of Paws (2411 W. Colorado Ave., 634-5139), another locally owned pet boutique. Shop co-owner Molly Smith, who also is the companion of two miniature schnauzers, explains: "We're not trying to be a big-box store where people just run in and grab stuff. We really wanted to be a fun community place." The boutique specializes in all-natural and organic treats and foods as well as soft dog harnesses, dog apparel, eco-friendly dog beds, dog-themed gifts and stationery and, for the good and dirty dog, dog spa products.

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