Take me out to the dog park
Credit: City of Calgary

If you want to see a park staffer cringe, just mention dog parks. There’s hardly a park amenity more controversial than setting aside space for dogs to run off-leash in green space.

But off-leash dog areas are also increasingly in demand, as 85% of cities noted in our survey, and they can provide important social benefits. However, cities are challenged to find suitable land and deal with community concerns.

The COVID-19 crisis further complicates the issue as many Canadian cities including Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary, and Toronto restricted, or closed, off-leash parks to encourage physical distancing. In May, Edmonton opened up off-leash parks as part of its first phase of re-opening. However, longer-term physical distancing requirements may challenge cities already struggling to provide enough off-leash space.

The struggle over limited space

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.

Dogs off-leash area. Credit: City of Calgary
Dogs off-leash area. Credit: City of Calgary
The social benefits of dog parks

For Eric Code, the benefits of the dog park go far beyond being a place for his dog to play—they create a sense of community, providing a “third space” between work and home where he connects with others.

Taking your dog to the park makes it easier to start up a conversation with a stranger, Code said. You wouldn’t necessarily go up to people throwing a ball around and start chatting, Code said. But you can easily meet new people at the dog park.

“In today’s world, especially in Toronto, where life can be a bit cold, there’s a small town feeling in dog parks that you just can’t get elsewhere,” he said.

The importance of dog parks for social connection is backed up by research.

One study found having dogs increased the likelihood of people meeting others in their community, acting as an ice-breaker, while another study found that dogs help reduce feelings of social isolation and increase the chance of building social support networks. Dog parks have also been shown to increase perceptions of safety as dog owners use parks in the “off hours” of early morning or evening.

High Park dog hill in Toronto. Credit: Eric Code
High Park dog hill in Toronto. Credit: Eric Code
Instill a sense of responsibility

Some Canadian cities rely on, or are developing, programs that involve community members to fundraise for and manage dog parks—a response to both budgetary pressures and desires for greater community engagement.

After noting the city’s “limited resources”, Edmonton is studying the creation of community-operated off-leash areas to help expand offerings. Montreal’s Club d’Agilite de Montreal is run by a community non-profit that provides space for dog agility training. And in Gatineau the 1,200 member Aylmer Canine Club has an agreement with the city to run an off-leash area in Paul Pelletier Park.

But it’s Mississauga that has the most developed community-run off-leash arrangement out of the cities we surveyed. In 1997, a city by-law created off-leash zones in parks, but also placed the costs and management on a non-profit called Leash-Free Mississauga; however, in 2016 due to funding challenges as demand grew, the city stepped in with financial support.

In Calgary, where the city runs a volunteer program called PUPPY (pick up pooches poo yourself), Buchan said that dog park community groups help reduce complaints as people take on a stewardship role.

Eric Code noted that programs to get residents more involved in dog parks can be a way to harness people’s frustrations for good. It can help build a sense of responsibility, reducing incidences of dog owners not respecting the rules.

“If you make people volunteers, and give them the ability to make the dog park better, they’re going to take that much more care and pride in it.” Code said.

P.U.P.P.Y. Patrol. Credit: City of Calgary
P.U.P.P.Y. Patrol. Credit: City of Calgary
Get creative
  • Find space outside parks. Calgary hopes to create more off-leash areas within hydro corridors, while also encouraging developers to create dog amenities within new developments. In the hopes of encouraging the same, Toronto released its Pet-Friendly Design Guidelines for High Density Communities.
  • Improve existing spaces. Kingston is increasing lighting at its dog parks to make them safer and more inviting to use at night and in winter.
  • Create temporary spaces. Edmonton and Regina have created temporary off-leash areas in facilities like tennis courts when they’re not being used. Guelph has approved the use of 41 sports fields for off-leash use when not occupied.
  • Create separate spaces. Hamilton piloted an enclosure for small dogs only at one park and plans to expand the offering after positive feedback.
  • Listen to feedback—and react. North Vancouver is piloting a new off-leash area along its waterfront, collecting public feedback and updating a website to show what’s been altered.
  • Turn poop to power. Both Waterloo and Mississauga have dealt with the issue of growing dog waste in parks by testing designated bins that divert dog poop to facilities that turn it into energy.