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Majority of trail users had negative experience with off-leash dogs in York Regional Forests: survey

Joseph Quigley
June 14, 2021

A majority of hikers using York Regional Forest trails are concerned about off-leash dogs, with 28 per cent of trail users expressing positive canine experiences, according to a survey released June 8.

The York Region survey found 41 per cent of people had negative experiences with dogs at the forests, with 30 per cent neutral and 28 per cent positive.

“Dangerous encounters with off-leash dogs” was a regular theme in 29 per cent of comments, however, people rated their experience with dogs in the forests eight out of 10 occasions on average.

York Region manager of natural heritage and forestry services James Lane said although the survey showed people are fine with dogs in the forest broadly, off-leash dogs are a concern for some.

“There is a variety of opinions,” Lane said. “We also heard from a number of forest users who had a negative interaction with dogs, particularly dogs off-leash, and that’s been impacting some of their enjoyability of the forest.”

The online survey, conducted last fall, received 1,995 completed responses. Newmarket had the most respondents, with 505. Most of the respondents, at 76 per cent, were dog owners or caregivers.

The survey gave the chance to submit commentary on experiences with dogs at the forests. Besides off-leashing, other concerns included waste and inattentive owners.

“There is almost nothing you can do if a strange dog is coming at you. It is unsafe and dangerous,” one respondent said.

Lane said the survey stemmed from a 2019 update to the forest’s management plan when it was determined more information was needed on dogs in the area. The data will help guide what the future dog rules may be in the forest.

The forest rules before COVID-19 stated dogs must be on a leash or under control, meaning they could be off-leash as well. But those rules changed during the pandemic, requiring dogs to be kept on leash except in a designated area.

The survey asked about the off-leash area in Bendor and Graves Tract, with 36 per cent of respondents very satisfied and 30 per cent satisfied.

However, most of the submitted comments about the area were negative, at 53 per cent. Concerns included aggressive behaviour, overcrowding and inattentive owners.

“Some of the dog owners have aggressive dogs, and there is a difference between play and aggression, and they don’t understand it,” one respondent said.

Off-leash dogs garnered concern in Newmarket last February after reports of attacks on the Dave Kerwin Trail earlier this year. It prompted the municipality to explore more designated off-leash areas.

Lane said York Region would use the data to create several options for future rules on dogs at the park, which will be put back to the public in open houses in June or July. That feedback would be used to create a recommended option for York Region council to consider sometime in spring 2022.

Lane said they would include a “balanced” option for the public to consider, such as changing the pre-pandemic policy of off-leash dogs being allowed everywhere.

“Hopefully it provide opportunities for everybody,” Lane said. “Is there an opportunity somehow to provide, in some way - not broadly across every forest track - but some off-leash opportunity in the forest?"