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'Terrible overreaction: Dog owners have mixed reactions to new leashing rules in York Region forests

Most of regional forest to stay leash-only permanently, but closest tract to Newmarket going off-leash again starting May 1
March 2, 2022
Joseph Quigley

Newmarket resident Larry Wood said he has been using York Regional Forest's Bendor and Graves Tract for 25 years but stopped when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

With the region implementing on-leashing rules, Wood opted for a nearby private property to let his family’s dog, Ranger, run more freely.

York Region has now designated the tract as one of two in the York Regional Forest to be off-leash, starting May 1. Wood said he did not have an issue with the leashing rule when implemented but added he would like to see off-leashing allowed more widely.

“The dogs like it. It lets the dogs run, and they can be together,” he said. “It’s better for the dogs.”

Some York Region residents have contested the region's final decision on dogs in the regional forest. After examining the issue since 2020 -- when it introduced leashing to address increased activity due to the pandemic -- regional council decided Feb. 24 to make the rules permanent except for two of its 21 publicly accessible tracts.

But Thornhill resident Angela Farr said she does not think the move is justified. She said she has ridden her horse alongside an off-leash dog for about 15 years and has never encountered any issues, and cannot transport the horse to one of the off-leash tracts.

“I just think it’s a terrible overreaction to very minimal problems,” Farr said. “There are miles and miles of trails. I can go out an hour and a half, two hours, and meet maybe one person."

Regional staff said off-leash dogs pose a greater threat for users and that previous rules were inconsistent with municipal bylaws that require leashing. They reported that in a fall 2020 survey of 1,900 respondents, 41 per cent had indicated concerns with dogs not kept under control in the forest, while 38 per cent of respondents had no concerns.

Farr said York Region told her there were four serious incidents in the forests involving off-leash dogs, of which it was aware, and one in an adjoining conservation area. They include three dog fatalities caused by off-leash dogs in 2021 and a rider ejected from a horse due to an aggressive dog in 2019.

Farr contested the survey results, saying she feels the questions were leading. She added while the fatalities are concerning, there are better approaches, including education, to address the incidents.

She also said the new rules could drive increased traffic to the two off-leash tracts, Bendor and Graves and Davis Drive.

“They try to cram people into a smaller area, which will create more conflict where there wasn’t conflict before,” Farr said.

York Region commissioner of environmental services Erin Mahoney said in a Feb. 24 memorandum that staff would monitor that and designate an additional tract if needed.

Newmarket resident Matthew Blacklaws said he has wanted to see an on-leash, off-leash split for tracts since he started using Bendor and Graves for dog walking seven years ago.

“I understand there needs to be a balance,” he said. “It’s only reasonable you have some designated as off-leash for the dog walkers and some as leash only for the people that feel that way.”

Madelyn McCallan, another Newmarket resident who takes her dogs to Bendor and Graves, said she thinks the change is appropriate and Bendor and Graves is a good spot for an off-leash designation. She said she does not think crowding will become an issue.

“Not all dogs are able to be off-leash," she said. "So I think owners would be responsible."