As cities grow, so does our population of four-legged friends. Many cities are under pressure to create more space for dogs, while juggling demand for other park uses, which leads to conflicts.
In 2011, Waterloo dropped a pilot to create six off-leash areas due to lack of public support and is now looking to expand their one off-leash area to three. Guelph city council nearly closed the city’s only fenced-in leash-free park due to community complaints, before reversing course. The animosity can quickly reach ridiculous heights. In Toronto, someone locked up an off-leash dog area and a resident played recordings of barking out a window to rile up the dogs.
Conflict with natural areas is another area of concern, with the potential for off-leash dogs to trample sensitive plantings and disturb wildlife.
Ron Buchan, Parks Community Strategist for the City of Calgary, said that the city has turned down community requests for new off-leash areas adjacent to natural areas. However, of the city’s 152 off-leash areas, only 11 are fenced, meaning that in parks where existing off-leash areas abut natural spaces, there is nothing physically stopping dogs from heading into sensitive habitats.
To address this, Calgary is working on initiatives that include a park ranger program targeted to high user conflict areas, education on habitat restoration and dog etiquette, and an adopt-a-park program to encourage stewardship.
The number of off-leash areas varies widely between cities and many appear to have been planned in an ad hoc manner. Finding appropriate sites to locate off-leash areas is difficult, especially in cities already dealing with park deficiencies.
“There are many areas in Hamilton that are parkland deficient,” Hamilton city staff said. “There is a bit of a tug of war between folks who want land for people and those that want it for dogs.” In an indication of how challenging space constraints have become, the last two off-leash areas the city created were approved by council direction even though they didn’t conform to the city’s policies on size.
A citywide strategy for managing and expanding off-leash areas can go a long way to alleviating concerns—both from dog owners and others, said Eric Code, founder of the 2,000 member Toronto Dog Park Community Group. “If you’re going to walk across a tight-wire, you need a pole,” he said. “That’s what policy is.”
We found one third of cities have off-leash strategies that include planning and design criteria for establishing and managing areas citywide. In Calgary, Buchan said the city’s decade old management plan helped “tremendously” by providing a clear decision-making framework for where and how to expand off-leash areas and clarity in responding to residents.
In Ottawa, the city uses a point system to designate off-leash areas. The city allows dogs off-leash in 175 parks and in 62 others only in certain areas or at certain times, with nine of these areas fenced-in.