Dogs and dog owners need places to socialize


Dog picHow many dogs live here in Collingwood? No one knows for sure, but we can make some good estimates, based on numerous surveys and national statistics. It’s a lot. Dog owners are a very large special interest group, perhaps larger than any other demographic group in town.

I’ve done some research and read many studies on pet populations done since 1996 (like this one from 2001 and this one from 2007). All of the major census figures of the older surveys are consistent with the most recent surveys.

Nationally, we have between 35 and 39 percent of homes with one or more dogs. On average there are 1.7 dogs per household.

I wrote about our pet populations last year when council was debating the cat tag bylaw. Back then, I noted,

A recent survey done by Colin Siren of Ipsos Reid estimated there are 7.9 million cats and 5.9 million dogs in Canada. The survey also shows that 35% of Canadian households have a dog, while 38% have a cat, which is consistent with other surveys conducted in the developed nations. Based on a figure of 9,500 households we should have around 3,040 households with dogs and 3,610 with cats.

We actually have more than the original 10,695 households here (based on stats from the last census, used in a report prepared by the planning dept. in Feb., 2012), so the pet ownership figures need to be updated. If we are consistent with national averages, using the lower 35% ownership, we should have roughly 3,750 households with dogs. That means, based on an average of 1.7 dogs per household, more than 6,300 dogs in town.

If we assume that 80% of the households with dogs are full time residents (that’s the percentage of households here used by full time residents as estimated by Stats Canada), we get about 5,100 dogs live here year-round.

Figure on adding another 200 new homes to the mix in 2012, and we get another 120 dogs (95 full time). If Collingwood’s pet ownership figures are higher than the lower end of the national average – and there are reasons to believe that: we have more seniors plus we’re semi-rural, both of which push the averages up – we may have closer to 6,000 dogs living here year-round. And that’s not counting any new arrivals between the census and 2012.

Put it another way: based on an average of 2.3 people per household (StatsCan figures), there are more than 6,900 people living year-round in Collingwood in a home with one or more dogs, and more than 8,600 if we include all of our part-time households in the mix. And that’s the low end of the estimate.

In comparison, 1,276 Collingwood kids were enrolled in ball and ice-related teams in 2011. Another 220 Collingwood adults were listed in ‘pick-up’ hockey (source: PRC Dept., May 2012). But even if the number of kids playing hockey was five times that number, it’s still fewer than the total number of people in Collingwood homes with dogs as part of their family.

It’s not about us-versus-them, however. It’s about accommodating all the user groups in the community, not just some of them. Dog owners are a substantial group of residents. Just because dog owners are not organized like hockey or soccer associations doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

We have made it illegal to walk your dog without it being on a leash, which forces owners to find a place where they can legally let their dogs run free. Allowing dogs to have exercise and socialize is as important to their behaviour and psychology as it is to children’s.

Happy dogKeeping a dog on a leash or penned in a back yard all the time will create a dog with the same sort of personality that it would if you treated a child that way: anti-social, aggressive, bored, destructive and overweight. Dogs, like people, are social animals: they need exercise, activity, companions and interaction with humans and other dogs.

To accommodate all of our dog owners, have one full-time off-leash dog park in an isolated area located at the most southerly edge of town, an area without neighbours.

It can only be reached by driving (even if a bus went there, dogs are not allowed on our buses). Anyone without a car can’t use it unless they walk a very long way to get to it: the location is very inconvenient, even inaccessible for many people who want to walk their dog to an off-leash area. This violates some of our basic beliefs in walkability, in active transportation, in creating community spaces and in creating neighbourhoods.

It’s a dark place with no lighting, and there are no nearby homes, so it is not considered safe by all dog owners.

“Pawplar” Park, as it was named, is beside an unfenced storm water management pond, too. Council has received complaints recently about dogs swimming in the pond and having to be treated for skin and eye ailments. The park currently has parking for only four cars, so drivers are parking on the grass wherever they can find space, and wet ground discourages parking there.

There is no source of safe, fresh, treated water for the dogs. Only the pond (which could be toxic) and the nearby river (which could mean any number of parasites) have water. Upgrades to make the park better and safer would be modestly expensive.

Dogs at playTwo baseball diamonds (at Central Park and Heritage Park) are designated as off-leash areas in the off-season (winter to early spring). These close to dog owners in mid-April. Once they close, where can dog owners go? If owners take their dogs to the water to swim, they still have to obey the leash law. Where can dog owners throw a stick or a ball for their pet without violating the bylaw?

Council is talking about expanding our ice surfaces to accommodate the demands from skating and hockey teams ($35 million for a total of 685 young players, according to those PRC figures). Yet a suggestion to spend a mere $5,000 on fencing to create a temporary off-leash park at High and Second – a well lit, safe, walkable part of town – was criticized by some at the table, last Monday. That is an odd alignment of priorities, as I see them.

We apply curiously different standards of service and facility to dog owners than we do to users of the arena, the curling club, the tennis courts, the skateboard park, the lawn bowling club, the pool. I don’t think we should. Dog owners deserve, I believe, more choices than one, out-of-the-way spot accessible only by car.

Dog owners, too, appreciate the neighbourhood off-leash parks because they can socialize with other owners; talk with neighbours, share stories, exchange ideas about pets and help strengthen community bonds. Off-leash parks are also safer areas for kids because they are protected from traffic.

Last night, six of nine members of council* voted to approve the recommendation to create a temporary off-leash area in an unused part of Heritage Park. It’s a small step towards a long-term, permanent solution. I would like council to also consider identifying some trails as off-leash, as well, if for no other reason than to recognize their use as such by contemporary dog owners.

* Voting for the motion: Mayor Cooper, Dep. Mayor Lloyd, Councillors Cunningham, Lloyd, West and myself.

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