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Toronto Off Leash Park Problem

March 20th, 2006, 06:58 AM
Toronto has off leash parks or at least parks with off leash hours. However it seems that there is a bit of a clash going on at one park. Parks should be for the enjoyment of all but how do you draw that line?

Tension over dogs unleashed
Parents say dogs dominate Annex park
Surprised at criticism, owners say
Mar. 20, 2006. 04:48 AM

Last Wednesday evening, a spirited 8-month-old chocolate Lab named Riley was mucking about in a little downtown park as her owner chatted with about a dozen other dog people.

Every weeknight, starting at six, locals gather to unleash their dogs in Jean Sibelius Park, which sits a few blocks west of Spadina and north of Bloor in the heart of the Annex.

Riley's owner, a beefy 26-year-old court clerk named Kyle Bischan, was reflecting on the rift between dog owners and parents in the neighbourhood when Riley spied a dropped baseball.

"Parents feel like dogs are monopolizing the park," Bischan explained. Behind his back, Riley took off for the ball, grabbing it in her mouth as two young men playing catch threw up their hands. "Riley!" Bischan yelled.

In Sibelius and other parks across the city owners like Bischan are just waking up to the resentment of their neighbours, who feel off-leash rules have allowed dogs to dominate scarce public space at the expense of children and dogless families.

This Annex cold war turned hot a few weeks ago at a public meeting about the future of the park, a tiny plot of green space in the centre of a well-heeled neighbourhood. A developer recently donated $350,000 to improve Sibelius Park, part of its deal with the city for a proposed condo on nearby Spadina Ave.

When the well-organized local residents' association called a public meeting to get input on what to do with the money, some parents came instead to air long-standing grievances about dogs in the park. "One father said it's crazy that we're equating dogs with children children come before dogs, they're not equal," said Ginny Brett, whose 8-year-old son Jake was harassed by a dog in Sibelius last fall.

All this comes as the city is attempting to formalize a policy on unleashing dogs in its 1,400 parks, an attempt to meet the needs of a growing dog population. Toronto is considering a model that will ask local groups to work out off-leash rules in conjunction with the city, a move parents like Brett say is an abdication of leadership and will lead to bitter neighbourhood fights.

As it stands, the city has 33 parks with off-leash hours. In Sibelius, it's 7 to 9 a.m. weekday mornings and 6 to 10:30 in the evening; on weekends, 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. and 6 to 10:30 at night. Parents complain those hours aren't always honoured and when they are, with packs of dogs as large as 20 running free, it's hard for anyone else to enjoy the park.

The city prohibits off-leash runs in smaller parks, but little Sibelius has been an exception since 1998 when then-councillor John Adams pushed through a special rule at city council.

In intervening years, parental bitterness has festered as the dog population shot up in a city being transformed by the condo boom. While there has never been a canine census in Toronto, the city estimates there are between 250,000 and 500,000 dogs here and everyone agrees the number is growing along with the population of singles and childless families.

The official in charge of drafting the new off-leash policy, which will be debated at city council in May, says the dog population has exploded over the last five years. "There's been an enormous increase," says Sandy Straw.

Parents like Brett, who has formed a group called "Share the Square," wants the dog run in Sibelius enclosed with a fence, just as the park's small playground is.

Brett says another problem is enforcement. While off-leash hours are clearly posted, not all owners respect them. Brett thinks the city should put more muscle into making owners follow the rules, which is difficult with an enforcement staff of just 12. But Toronto's philosophy seems to be to shift responsibility to local hands. "The problem is, the city hasn't taken a stand," she said.

Brett, a former schoolteacher, gave up her job working with special needs children around the time she and husband Matthew, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, had their son Jake. The couple and their two children daughter Ella is 6 live on Howland Ave., a few blocks from Sibelius.

Brett's frustration came to a head in September, when Jake and a friend set off to play soccer in the park one Sunday morning. She had given the boys a 15-minute lead. When Brett got to the park, though, she found Jake and his friend huddled in the playground enclosure, which is meant for toddlers. A dog had taken their soccer ball.

"Jake said, `We had to give the dog a biscuit to get the ball and then he took it again.'" Brett then told the story of a local mother whose 4-year-old son was knocked down by a dog while walking through the park with a stick in his hand.

When accounts like these came out at the public meeting this month, dog owners were surprised. "I didn't know there was any tension until I went to that meeting," says Bischan.

There may be room for compromise at Sibelius. Many of the dog owners gathered in the park Wednesday night favoured the idea of an enclosed dog run. A local dog walker named Gillian Morton planned to hold a meeting on the weekend to sound out their ideas. Morton didn't want to be interviewed at length for this story because the situation is so tense. "I don't want to negotiate through the media," she said Wednesday morning, while being dragged up Brunswick Ave. by six leashed charges.

A core issue, though, is the cultural divide between dog owners who have no children and families with no dogs. The childless Bischan and other owners talked about that tension the other night, watching over their dogs on the muddy western field of Sibelius. Not all were sympathetic to people like the Bretts.

"I wouldn't want to send my 8-year-old to the park alone," said Lee Waxberg, who has no children. A supply teacher named Katie Barron, meanwhile, thinks dog-haters are using their kids as pawns. "I feel like kids are their best angle to get dogs out," she said.

Kelly Brown, a Ph.D. student in bioethics at York University, takes a softer line. Brown owns a 9-month-old pug named Otis and likes the idea of an enclosure. "It would protect the dogs from traffic," she said.

But Brown wishes her neighbours could empathize more with owners like her. "Dogs are like children to people," she said.

March 20th, 2006, 03:48 PM
I am not a huge fan of dog parks but they are one of the few places I can let Buddy roam free not that he goes far but still he gets to socialize and play if he wants. I resent the people that bring children to these areas and then complain and tell people to leash their dogs. Well I will not do that get your kid out of here if he/she is not big enough to be here this is an area designated for dog off lead. But if you have to share an area you have to be willing to give and take. I think enclosing the dog area is a great idea it is close to main streets this could only benefit the dog owners. Owners also need to be accountable for their dogs like obedience training and recall. This will not go away they have to come to an agreement otherwise people will use the park off leash whenever they please. There are only so many green spaces around downtown. And people love there pets and will go to all lengths to make a point.
"One father said it's crazy that we're equating dogs with children children come before dogs, they're not equal,"
I am sorry but my dog is my kid and in my mind he is equal that may sound ridiculous but I support child care, baby bonus, education and many other programs for children by paying my taxes. I do not get any benefit from these and I do not get refunds because I don't partake of these but if you have kids you get tax breaks and baby bonus. I pay more taxes then friends who have children and they make more than I do. So if my consolation is a dog park that will have to do but don't try and take that away. You have already decided what breeds I may not own. Sorry for the rant but I feel better now