Friday, February 4, 2011

Are There Too Few Off Leash Parks In The City?

With 49 off-leash dog areas now available from Scarborough to Etobicoke, there would seem to be room enough for every keen cur to tear untethered around a nearby park. Down, boy. It turns out a wagging tail isn’t always enough to gain entrance into some of the more exclusive enclosures.

Almost half of the dog parks are off-limits to commercial dog walkers and their packs of up to six dogs. With 15 proposed new areas now being considered, walkers are hoping to claim a little more turf. Julie Posluns has worked as a hired leash for eight years. The certified dog trainer regularly passes the fenced-in dog run at Coronation Park, southeast of Exhibition Place. Ms. Posluns says the park is often empty during the day. Nonetheless, she has to keep the dogs leashed and steer them past the gate that reads “No Commercial Dog Walkers Allowed.” “How do I say no to these dogs that only want to play in this empty off-leash area?” she asks. “Firmly and with authority,” might be the answer from some dog owners. Owners and walkers don’t always get along, which is bad news for walkers – and their charges – since city policy puts a lot of power over the off-leash areas into the hands of local dog owners.

Most off-leash areas are managed by a neighbourhood Dog Owner Association (DOA). According to Carol Cormier, a manager at Parks, Forestry and Recreation, DOA members hold a strong sense of ownership over their sites. If a DOA asks for dog walkers to be excluded the city will judge the case based on a criteria of park size, proximity to houses and available parking. Ms. Cormier says the DOAs often get their way. Shana Hillman was part of the DOA that formed to convert some unused railway land at Gerrard and Carlaw into an east-end dog park. She’s since moved to the St. Clair and Bathurst area and lets her two beagles run free at Sir Winston Churchill and Cedarvale dog parks. All three parks allow commercial walkers and Ms. Hillman says she’s witnessed countless instances when three or four walkers show up at once, open their vehicles and flood a park with dogs. The park can suddenly see two dozen dogs running free with only a handful of people looking after them. That is, if they are looking at all. “Commercial walkers may be no more guilty than regular dog owners of chatting and drinking coffee instead of watching the dogs, but it leads to problems when you’re supposed to be looking after six at once,” she says.

Those problems include overcrowding, canine altercations, terrain degradation and unscooped waste, according to Megan Owens. Ms. Owens now frequents the new walker-free Botany Hill dog park in Scarborough but she used to drive 25 minutes to a park in Markham. She says many walkers saddle themselves with more dogs than they can handle to boost earnings of $15 to $20 per dog per hour. “How can you watch six dogs at once?” she asks. “They go to the bathroom all the time. If there is humping going on, you need to see it.”

Nigel Ryce thinks his employees are up to the task. He co-founded A Leg Up Pet Services in 2001 and now has 23 walkers working for him every weekday. He says his walkers receive two weeks of on-the-job practice with a trainer, a written test and a practical test before taking a lead. “Some people can’t control one dog, but our walkers know how to read body language, they know how to take an alpha position,” says Mr. Ryce. What’s more, he pays more than $5,000 a year for permits for each walker. The permits cost $226 and are supposed to be on display while walkers are in the parks. Last year the city collected $36,000, all of which went to maintain the parks open to commercial walkers. Mr. Ryce has tried to lobby to have more parks open to walkers but says he is ignored by DOAs because he isn’t a local dog-owning resident. He argues opening empty parks to walkers would reduce crowding all over, and is trying to get clients to become active in DOAs on behalf of their dogs.

Ms. Posluns says she has heard rumours about a vote within the Little Norway DOA on the issue of opening Coronation Park to walkers. She says her attempts to get more information about how she or her clients could take part in the vote – or even the timing of it – have revealed it to be a “slow and secretive process.” So in the meantime she’ll do what she can to dispel what she sees as the root of the problem: unfair negative stereotypes. “They’re just not true. We need to have control of the dog, or eventually the owner would find out. This is what we do. We know when a problem will happen before it happens. I can see from a mile away which dog will steal my ball and not give it back.” And as for the charge of walkers not cleaning up after the dogs, she has an answer for that too. “We are the ones who are going to step in it if we don’t.”
 *The Globe And Mail