Pets and Policies: Why Dog Parks Matter


Dogs at PlayBack in April, 2011, I wrote a post about municipal policies towards pets, now in the blog archives. I noted then that…

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.

Well, the numbers have grown. We have (according to the 2011 census), 10,695 households. Round that up to 11,000 (because the census was done part-way through the year and we’ve had 18 months of construction since).

That suggests 3,850 households have one or more dogs, and 4,180 have one or more cats. Based on the average of 1.7 dogs per household, that means more than 6,500 dogs live in Collingwood. And, based on 2.2 cats average, more than 9,000 cats.

Are these stats still reliable? I believe so. They are similar to other surveys conducted in the US and the UK. They match what the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association found. A recent survey by the Humane Society of the United States suggests a slightly higher figure for dog ownership: 39% of households, but lower for cats (33%).

The City of Abbotsford, BC, estimated that, in 2012, a third of households with dogs had two animals. They only allow two dogs per household; here we allow three, so our average may be a bit higher than theirs. The 2011 Humane Society survey estimated an average 1.69 dogs per household in the USA.

Pets matter to us. According to the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association,

More than 50% of Canadian households own pets of some kind. Dogs, cats, birds and other companion animals are living in more than five million homes. For their owners, these animals are more than pets-they are part of the family.
Each year, Canadian families spend about three billion dollars on their pets. This exceeds consumer spending on children’s toys, footwear, eye care, and dental plans.
A recent survey of pet owners revealed that nearly 80% of respondents gave their pets holiday or birthday presents. More than 60% signed their pets’ names on cards or letters. A slight majority (51%) gave their pets human names.
While virtually all pet owners talk to their pets, an astounding 94% spoke to their pets as though they were human. One-third of respondents spoke to their pets on the telephone or via the answering machine. More than 90% of pet owners believed their pets were aware of their moods and emotions.

Similarly, a recent study by Dog Chow found:

90 per cent of owners consider their four-legged companions to be members of the family.  And membership has its privileges, since nearly 20 per cent celebrate their dog’s birthday, and 40 percent go by “mom” or “dad” to their furry kin. With this new found family status, our dogs are included in more family outings and activities than ever before. Whether it’s the daily routine or special activities like Family Day or March Break, it’s clear Canadian families consider their canines to be a key member of the pack. As the family dog gains more prominence in our homes, it’s even more important for training and care to be a family affair.

Clearly pets are important to our wellbeing. Pets also bring many physical and psychological benefits, including these listed on The Help Guide:

While most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals, many remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that can also accompany the pleasure of playing with or snuggling up to a furry friend. It’s only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond. Studies have found that:

  • Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.
  • People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets.
  • Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
  • Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
  • Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
  • Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
  • A pet doesn’t have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and pulse rate.

One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that most pets fulfill the basic human need to touch. Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with pets, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time. Stroking, holding, cuddling, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe us when we’re stressed. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and some pets are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost mood.

[pullquote]In some ways, the urban dog park has become the new patio, plaza or pub, where people gather with their neighbours to share stories and information. Everyday Tourist[/pullquote]Despite the number of pet owners – and the social nature of dogs and dog ownership – they don’t get a lot of attention or representation in municipal politics, probably because they have often no collective organization to speak for them.

But that is changing. Today many progressive municipalities recognize both the large, often silent user group of pet owners in their community, and the many benefits of providing off-leash dog parks.

The City of Edmonton recognizes the value of socializing dogs and their owners in specific areas:

Edmonton has over 40 sites where your dog can run and play without having you on the other end of the leash. You too, can get physical and emotional benefits from exercise and by socializing with other dog owners.

As does Calgary, which boasts the highest amount of off-leash area in North America:

Calgary is fortunate to have 150 public off-leash areas in our multi-use parks for Calgarians and their dogs to enjoy.
Calgary may have the largest number of off-leash areas and combined amount of off-leash space (more than 1,250 hectares) in North America. These off-leash designations make up for approximately 17% of the total City of Calgary Parks inventory and equates to almost 1,600 Canadian Football League fields.
Even so, The City of Calgary is continually working on improving and adding off-leash areas to Calgary. The City of Calgary Parks has started public consultations on proposed new and/or fully fenced off-leash areas.

This is noted on several travel or tourism-related sites, such as Everyday Tourist, where the writer reports:

As a result I have experienced first-hand the socialization that happens not only between the dogs, but with dog owners at dog parks. In some ways, the urban dog park has become the new patio, plaza or pub, where people gather with their neighbours to share stories and information. In fact, they are probably even more loyal to visiting the local dog park, than the pub, patio or plaza – at least twice a day in many cases. Who goes to the pub twice a day almost everyday?

I am amazed at the number of people that are out in the dog parks no matter what the weather and in Calgary that can be -30 degrees.

The City of Kelowna has many off-leash areas, and even has a Dog Advisory Committee to plan for them and future growth:

The City of Kelowna offers 85 parks, or 76% (702 ha) of the city’s total green space, where dogs are permitted either on or off leash… City Council directed staff to continue working with the Dog Advisory Committee to try and identify potential areas to provide water access for dogs.

A site created to request a dog park in Gravenhust, listed these 15 benefits of a dog park, which apply here in Collingwood:

  1. Provides a safe place for dogs – A dog park is a safe place for dogs to run off-lease without the concern of being hit by a car or other hazard.
  2. Dogs need to run to stay healthy – Not many people can run with their dogs on a leash. Veterinarians tell us it’s important for their health.
  3. Enhances community safety – dogs who have the opportunity to use dog parks become better socialized (more familiar and friendly with other dogs and people) thereby raising community safety in general.
  4. Encourages by-law enforcement – for municipalities with by-laws requiring dogs to be leashed, an off-leash area encourages compliance by providing a legal alternative.
  5. Lessens complaints –Well-exercised dogs are better neighbours who are less likely to create a nuisance, bark excessively and destroy property.
  6. Social opportunity for dog owners – Dog parks are a great place for owners to meet other people with common interests. The love people share for their dogs reaches beyond economic and social barriers and helps to foster a sense of community.
  7. Peer advice for dog behaviour – Dog owners can also benefit from the advice and peer support re: problems they might have with their dogs.
  8. Reduces crime – The presence of owners and their dogs within a park may help to deter crime and vandalism in adjacent areas.
  9. Protects wildlife – Exercised dogs are less likely to search out wildlife to chase.
  10. Importance to seniors & disabled – the use of off-leash parks offers not only a social avenue, but also a safer way for those with mobility problems who find it very difficult to walk, much less exercise, a dog on lead.
  11. A positive amenity for those considering a move to Gravenhurst – Canadians love their pets and pets are now being recognized for their physical and mental health benefits to their owners in addition to their traditional role as companions. Having a dog park will add to Gravenhurst’s list of attractions for those considering a move to the area.
  12. Personal security – dogs provide a measure of security, both perceived and real, to single women and elderly or handicapped persons who most often fall victim to crime in parks.
  13. A draw for people to visit the Town – other municipalities report that their dog parks are a draw for people to come to visit their town, and often these visits mean engaging in other activities while they are here.
  14. A common request – Staff members at Gravenhurst Veterinary Services are repeatedly asked by cottagers and visitors for the location of the local dog park.
  15. A popular park space for municipalities – Due to the incredible public response to dog parks, over 40 other Ontario municipalities have at least one dog park within their jurisdictions, many have multiple parks. Our neighbours to the south Orillia (and apparently Midland as well) are currently building their second dog park.

Richmond Hill recognizes their benefit:

Richmond Hill recognizes the social benefits that designated off leash dog areas can provide for both dogs and their owners.

So does Victoria, which provides off-leash times and places in many of its parks:

Paws in Parks sites have specific areas and times for dogs to exercise off-leash, provided they remain under their owner’s control and that owners carry a leash with them at all times.

Mississauga recognizes the benefits, and has responded to dog owners’s requests as Councillor Pat Saito writes:

Off-leash dog parks are an accepted form of recreation in the City of Mississauga now. Thanks to the hard work and determination of local dog owners, Council agreed to establish these facilities throughout the City. They have been an overwhelming success… Animal Control staff report that incidents of dogs running at large in other parks has decreased since the opening of the off-leash parks.

She also lists some of the benefits of off-leash parks:

  • dogs can exercise safely off leash
  • owners can meet other dog owners
  • dogs can learn to socialize and play with other dogs of various breeds
  • other parks will be free of dogs at large
  • dog owners can learn about other dogs and training
  • Owners discuss health issues and much important information is shared.

The City of Regina has this to say:

The benefits of dog-friendly parks are numerous:

  • Dog-friendly parks allow dogs to exercise, play and socialize.
  • Dog-friendly parks provide opportunities for dog-owners to learn more about responsible pet ownership. Bulletin boards within the park provide opportunities for owners to become more educated on pet-related issues.
  • Community members often take pride in the neighbourhood park by getting more involved in the maintenance and safety of the park.
  • Dog-friendly parks provide opportunities for neighbours to meet and socialize.

The City of Nanaimo says:

Parks, Recreation and Culture recognize the importance of dogs to residents by providing eight dog off-leash parks. These off-leash parks are a safe way to exercise your best friend while socializing with other dog owners.

Prince George has these benefits to the “overall community” listed on its website:

  • Provide a community setting in which people can gather and socialize; dogs are fabulous social ‘ice breakers’!
  • Provide a place for dogs and their ownersto exercise safely.
  • Allow dogs to socialize and exercise off leash. Dogs that are highly socialized are healthier, happier, less aggressive and less destructive.
  • Allow dogs to meet in neutral territory, which can reduce fear, territoriality and aggression in dogs.
  • Promote responsible pet?ownership and the voluntary enforcement of dog?control laws.
  • Regular unleashed exercise in a protected environment often reduces barking and other control problems.
  • Offers elderly and disabled citizens a place to safely exercise their canine companions.
  • Dog parks encourage pedestrian traffic with alert canines on leash through the surrounding neighbourhood. Many communities have found a significant reduction in crime around such parks.

Weyburn’s website adds this:

The Dog Park will create many community benefits by:

  • enabling dogs to legally run off-leash
  • socializing and exercising dogs in a safe environment
  • promoting responsible pet ownership
  • promoting public health and safety
  • providing a great place for owners to meet others and make new friends
  • provides a great place for the elderly and disabled to exercise their dogs

The City of Sudbury has a 20-page report on off-leash dog parks, listing many benefits to the community, dogs and dog owners. It also goes to great lengths to dispel many common myths about dog parks: “Often people oppose these areas due to the common myths and misconceptions about off-leash areas. In reality, these areas provide great benefits not only to dogs, but also to the community at large.” It also suggests more than 500 Canadian municipalities already have off-leash dog parks.

Cornwall has a separate webpage for its  dog park, saying, “An enclosed dog park where dogs can play together off-leash is a tremendous community enhancement.”

When creating its off-leash dog park, the City of Whitby’s Community and Marketing Services department noted,

A vast majority of participants who voiced their opinions at the Public Workshop indicated support for establishing a designated area(s) to permit dogs to run off leash. Reasons included: a large dog population in Whitby; the need for dogs to exercise and socialize to be healthy, happy, and well-behaved; and because it would encourage dog owners to exercise. Participants who do not support designation of leash free area(s) are concerned with using taxpayer dollars to benefit dog owners…

Staff Comment: Dozens of leash-free dog areas have been established throughout municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area over the last decade. It is clear from consultation with Staff from several of these municipalities that such areas are popular and provide positive social experiences. Issues experienced with these areas are mostly design-related and include dogs escaping from unfenced leash free areas and insufficient parking.
Many leash free concerns can be avoided with education about the areas, leash free rules and regulations, and by incorporating certain design features.

Windsor, London, Vancouver, Fredericton, Thunder Bay, Brockville, Port Coquitlam, Sault Ste Marie, Peterborough, Squamish, Guelph, Hamilton, Toronto, Midland, Orillia, Owen Sound, St. Thomas, Ottawa and many others all have off-leash parks with information posted online.

There are even more in the USA. Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols is quoted as saying,

“Parks have a real role in the socialization of a city. Off-leash areas really expand upon that. We also recognize that dog guardians and their pets create an atmosphere of safety in our public parks.”

Wikipedia notes many benefits for dog parks, including:

Off-leash dog areas, or dog parks, provide a community setting in which people can gather and socialize and where they can observe the interaction of groups of dogs at play. Dog parks allow owners and their dogs to spend time together and offer dogs a space for play and companionship with others. Leashes can causes dogs to become territorial. Letting your dog roam free will be very beneficial.
Organizations like the ASPCA view that dog parks are beneficial to dogs and dog owners. According to Dan Emerson of Dog, proponents of dog parks cite the following benefits: “They promote responsible pet ownership and the enforcement of dog-control laws; give dogs a place to exercise safely, thus reducing barking and other problem behaviors; provide seniors and disabled owners with an accessible place to exercise their companions; and provide an area for community-building socializing.”

The WebMD section on pets adds:

Many behavior problems in dogs are caused by a lack of physical and mental activity. Dogs were born to lead active lives. They’ve worked alongside people for thousands of years, hunting game, herding and protecting livestock, and controlling vermin. Dogs’ wild relatives lead busy lives, too. Their days are full of hunting, scavenging, avoiding predators and complex social interaction. Most pet dogs, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time alone at home, napping on couches and eating food from bowls-no hunting or scavenging required. Many become bored, lonely and overweight. They have excess energy and no way to expend it, so it’s not surprising that they often come up with activities on their own, like unstuffing couches, raiding trash cans and gnawing on shoes.

To keep your dog happy, healthy and out of trouble, you’ll need to find ways to exercise her brain and body. If she enjoys the company of her own kind, visits to your local dog park can greatly enrich her life. Benefits of going to the dog park include:

  • Physical and mental exercise for dogs Your dog can zoom around off-leash to her heart’s content, investigate new smells, wrestle with her dog buddies and fetch toys until she happily collapses. Many dogs are so mentally and physically exhausted by a trip to the dog park that they snooze for hours afterwards.
  • Opportunities to maintain social skills Dogs are like us, highly social animals, and many enjoy spending time with their own species. At the dog park, your dog gets practice reading a variety of other dogs’ body language and using her own communication skills, and she gets used to meeting unfamiliar dogs on a frequent basis. These valuable experiences can help guard against the development of fear and aggression problems around other dogs.
  • Fun for pet parents Dogs aren’t the only ones who enjoy dog parks. People do, too. They can exercise their dogs without much effort, socialize with other dog lovers, bond and play with their dogs, practice their off-leash training skills, and enjoy the entertaining antics of frolicking dogs.

Similarly, veterinarian Dr. Suzanne Thomas has posted a paper on the benefits of off-leash dog parks, including:

  • Obesity in our companion animals is one of the most frequently diagnosed conditions. Physical activity is essential for treating and preventing obesity.
  • Behavioral problems are greatly diminished in association with how stimulated and exercised a dog is. Behaviorists will tell you that a ‘bored dog is a bad dog’.
  • Having a community off-leash dog park will help strengthen the human-animal bond- It is documented that the humananimal bond helps to lower blood-pressure and stave off depression.

And Critterjungle notes these benefits for off-leash areas:

The benefits are enjoyed by both dogs and owners alike. A well adjusted, less aggressive dog is more enjoyable and easier to handle for the owner.
Research shows that these benefits include:

  • The provision of a vital public space allowing people to meet and form the bonds of community. 
  • Allows people to have the pleasure of watching their dogs at play. 
  • Contributes to the overall physical fitness of people by encouraging them to exercise with their dogs. 
  • Provides an opportunity for dog owners to enjoy the outside. 
  • Dog Park also make dogs better members of their community. 
  • Because the Dog Park can make dogs less aggressive this reduces the risks of dog attacks. 
  • In addition well-exercised puppies and dogs are less likely to create a nuisance by barking excessively or destroying property. 
  • Designated spaces for dogs and their owners reduces the likelihood that dogs will be let loose in other recreational areas where they could infringe on the rights of other park users. 
  • Dogs often help people break the ice, allowing people who share interests to socialize while exercising their dogs. These interactions help neighbors to get to know each other and to build a sense of community. 
  • The social aspect of the Dog Exercise & Education Park also tends to enforce the basic rules of dog ownership such as cleaning up after one’s dog and always controlling their dogs’ behavior.

Without going on further, it is clear that studies show there are significant benefits to a community at large to have off-leash dog parks, not simply to dogs and their owners. Many municipalities recognize this and have provided such spaces – and these have proven successful in achieving their goals.

The Veterinary College at UC Davis has a paper on issues about creating and managing dog parks. Worth reading. You can’t just build a park, then leave it.

Dog parks require monitoring by bylaw officers, and peer-management to make sure they are properly used, aggressive dogs are controlled and owners properly educated in pet management and ownership. A citizens’ group might be created (perhaps with the help of the GTHS and any local dog clubs) to help police and maintain the parks, as has been done in other communities, to help develop rules and educational material and get volunteer monitors to oversee the use.

The bottom line: these off-leash areas (and policies) benefit everyone, not just dog owners, and provide a positive, beneficial service and support for a large group of residents.

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  1. In response to a recent comment from a resident: The proposed dog park has been a key component of the plans for Central Park ever since the first proposals were presented by the steering committee. It has been shown in every public presentation and information session.

    The final report of the CP Steering Committee, dated March 5, 2012, p. 26, noted: “There was a general interest in having a dog park component at the site…” and an off-leash park was proposed by the steering committee from the beginning.

    P. 34 shows the original location proposed for the off-leash park (in the SE corner, a space previously occupied by a ball diamond).

    P. 35 notes it as a main component of the plan. P. 49 lists the stakeholder groups who contributed to the process (and who were well aware of the dog park component). The YMCA was among that group.

    The space being suggested now is also the storm water management area, which is not likely a good place for children to play and may involve some liabilities that would require fencing it. I also believe what is being proposed is actually smaller than the original area, but I will have to confirm that with staff.

    The City of Sudbury’s report on dog parks is a good read to explain the benefits to the entire community and dispel some of the myths.

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