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New law tightens leash on dogs in state parks

John and Cathy Riga of the Town of Tonawanda are lifelong campers, and they spend most weekends enjoying the beauty of New York State parks with their three pugs.

That is, until a state park rules change last August limited the number of dogs per campsite to two.

Now the Rigas are collecting signatures on an online petition that they will submit to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the governor's office in an attempt to get the new restriction overturned.

"Like most responsible dog owners, we get frustrated with ?inconsiderate folks who don't keep Fido on a leash, or refuse to clean up after him, or allow unreasonable barking," John Riga wrote in the petition. "But how those issues have any correlation to the number of dogs at a campsite is beyond us. Whether an irresponsible owner has one dog ?or six, the problem remains."

The new rules, which were passed on Aug. 24, 2011, are "a management tool for the park managers, who maintain the peace and quiet of the campground," says Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the state parks office. He said the rule was passed after some "situations, not a lot of situations, but there were cases where people would bring like eight dogs to a site, and we had no rule to prevent that from happening. This is a preventative step."

State rules already limit the number of people per campsite ?to six and restrict the number of tents or campers that can be placed on any one site. The rules also require owners to keep their dogs leashed at all times, pick up after them, and not leave them unattended. A rabies certificate for each dog must be shown.

The Rigas say, while they have never personally seen problem dogs at state campsites, they support rules that would allow campground managers to evict people who bring aggressive dogs, allow them to bark excessively or fail to keep them leashed or to clean up after them.?"A two-dog limit won't stop irresponsible owners," says the petition. "More distressingly, it punishes owners with more than two dogs who have always followed the rules and been respectful camping neighbors."

The Rigas have camped for years with their dogs, who include Dookie, 9, and Patsy, 12, who came from the same puppy mill in Ohio, and Mojo, who is about 9 years old and came from the SPCA Serving Erie County. Two of the dogs require daily medications.

"It's too much of an imposition to leave them with anybody, and even if it weren't, they're part of the family," says John Riga.

"They just want to be with us; it would distress them to leave them, and it would distress us, too," says Cathy Riga. "I could never let the puppy mill dogs stay in a ?kennel in a cage or a crate after what they went through in the puppy mill."

A few years ago, the Rigas bought a 12-foot pull-behind camper to make camping more comfortable for themselves and their dogs. Since then, they have camped at many state parks, including Allegany, Letchworth, Darien Lake, Evangola, Lake Erie, Gilbert Lake and Taughannock Falls.

"It's a vacation where you can take the whole family, including the dogs," says John Riga. "You don't have to worry about finding a pet-friendly hotel. It's something they can be included in, and something we all like to do."

The Rigas learned of the new restriction a few weeks ago when Cathy tried to make a reservation at Four Mile Creek State Park in Youngstown. "I saw a new line on the reservation form saying that there was now a two-dog limit, so I called and asked the manager if she was going to enforce it, and she said absolutely."

The Rigas never considered trying to smuggle one of the small dogs into the campsite. "We don't want to sneak a dog in there and be stressed out the whole time we are there; we want to relax," said Cathy Riga.

After learning about the new restriction, Cathy Riga spoke to a staffer in the governor's office who urged her to write a letter "asking the [state parks] commissioner to revisit this rule and to spell out my reasons why. I was contemplating the letter, and I get petitions sent to me all the time to sign, so I wondered if I came with 100 signatures, if my letter would carry a little bit more weight."

The Rigas plan to contact state officials later this week with the petition, which has already received 108 signatures from near and far.

"We would obviously review what our patrons had to say," says Keefe. "But this is a policy that was enacted with some discussion and forethought and a lot of input from the [park campsite] managers."

Meanwhile, the Rigas continue to camp, staying for the first time at the beautiful county park at Sprague Brook. "But it's very small, with only 28 spaces with electricity, and when we tried to make a reservation there again, it was full," said Cathy Riga. They have looked into some private campgrounds that will accept their dogs, although they are more expensive.

"We are not stopping our camping, we are just taking ?our business elsewhere and we're not happy about it," ?said Cathy Riga.

The petition can be found at: