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Tension around off-leash dogs in Toronto is rising. A plan to solve it is headed to city hall
Sept. 12, 2023

Toronto has an off-leash problem -- and with tensions rising following a pandemic dog boom, an idea is gaining traction: Could a city strategy to improve dog parks entice scofflaws to the proper side of the fence?

Dog owners want conveniently located, well-maintained off-leash parks to socialize and exercise their canine companions. People without dogs -- and many with dogs for that matter -- want to enjoy green spaces without dogs running amok. Right now, neither group is particularly happy, says Toronto Centre councillor Chris Moise. However, he thinks some measure of harmony could be achieved if the city had a masterplan for its dog parks.

“The issue we have around dogs in urban centres isn’t going to go away,” said Moise, who is working in collaboration with the grassroots Toronto Dog Park Community organization. “If we don’t manage it properly, people will take their dogs out anyway, and they will do things that may not be lawful.”

On Sept. 20, he will bring a motion to the Infrastructure and Environment Committee, asking the city to, among other things, develop a masterplan for off-leash dog parks that includes a review of international best practices, a proactive approach to planning these parks based on need and population, and a volunteer stewardship program to promote responsible use and dog ownership.

In a letter to the committee, Moise noted that Toronto has a booming dog population, but the city’s off-leash parks were not planned as a network, and there are discrepancies in quality and access. If the city wants people to follow the rules around leashing, it needs to plan and properly maintain thoughtfully designed off-leash spaces. These points have also been raised by the Toronto Dog Park Community, a grassroots group of primarily dog owners that advocate for better strategies to optimize the park experience for everyone.

Eric Code, founder and chair of the group, says dog parks benefit everybody, even people who dislike dogs. He compares them to smoking areas. “You may not like smoking, but wouldn’t you rather designate a place that is beneficial to everyone?”

Code, who has a seven-year-old black lab named Finn, was inspired to create the group after a frustrating experience when the city revamped his local Humber Bay West Park. The waterfront park is surrounded by condos and already included an existing off-leash space. During consultations a few years back, the dog park users asked the city for some improvements like a bulletin board, a wood-chip surface to avoid mud problems, a bigger footprint and a dog swimming area. In the end, they got nothing. (Two years later, Code says the wood chips arrived after “quite a struggle” with the parks department, and the community spent a joyful day spreading them over the mud.)

Amid that process, Code began looking at how other cities managed their off-leash spaces and was surprised by the effort places like Vancouver, Surrey, B.C., and Winnipeg put into the file, with strategies and masterplans.

“In our case, the growing population was not considered,” he said. “In other cities that had a masterplan or strategy, it was considered proactively. So wanting a masterplan for off-leash areas is really just to avoid the difficulties that we’re having in Toronto.”

The city’s current system is somewhat piecemeal and reactive, Moise says. Off-leash parks are considered during park renovations and construction, and they require residents to form a local dog owners’ association. Moise says residents often work with their councillor to make their case.

“It creates inequities. For example, I love dogs, so I will say yes all the time,” he said. “But that may not be the case for every councillor, right? They may have their own biases.”

Even though Toronto has more than 75 off-leash parks, they’re not always well-maintained, he says. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 members, the Toronto Dog Park Community found many people were dissatisfied with them. Since 2016, pea gravel has been a standard surface for Toronto’s dog parks because it has good drainage, Code says, but it’s not ideal to walk on for people or pets. According to the survey, many were “extremely unhappy” with their local pea gravel park. “This is significant because unappealing dog parks lead to unsanctioned off-leash activity,” the survey noted.

Code is hopeful that a masterplan will change the city for the better, for everyone.

“It’s obvious that we need to do something different,” he said. “Dog owners, residents, park users and city staff; everyone’s frustrated. If we keep doing the same thing, those frustrations will get worse.”

This summer, a series of dog attacks made headlines, along with city stats that showed a 39 per cent increase in dog bites. While not all attacks are related to off-leash dogs, the city has taken an educational approach, reminding people to leash their dogs. But education hasn’t worked. During the second week of the school year, the principal at Weston Memorial Junior Public School advised parents the gates of the schoolyard “will be locked after school hours in the near future” because community members were continuing to ignore the board’s well-signed policy forbidding dogs on school grounds. When staff members reminded scofflaws of the rules, “they are at times met with defiance and disrespect,” the principal wrote in an email. (School grounds are monitored by the board, and not bylaw officers.)

While many have called for more enforcement from the city, Moise says it’s difficult to enforce off-leash rules “because people don’t have any other options.”