BY LINDA MONDOUX
If you’re a dog owner, chances are you want your canine friend with you while you’re out enjoying the waterfront, be it walking on a scenic trail, enjoying a family picnic in a lakeside park, or throwing a Frisbee on the beach.
Depending on where you live, however, you just might find yourself with a hefty fine for doing any, or all, of the above.
In Barrie, for example, you are breaking the law if you sit under a tree with your pet in any of the city’s waterfront parks — even if your dog is on a leash. The penalty? A $240 fine.
Jason Forgrave, a municipal law enforcement officer in Barrie, says the waterfront’s attraction was evident this summer, when the city dedicated two bylaw officers to waterfront park patrols. Along with educating citizens about Barrie’s “no-smoking in the park” bylaw, the officers were kept busy reminding dog-walkers that when it comes to the waterfront, they are welcome only on signed walking paths.
That means no stepping onto the grass. No dogs running free. No access to swimming.
“I’d like to see a beach for dogs here,” Forgrave tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, after learning that such a place does indeed exist in Ontario. “The dogs need a place to cool down.”
“But it’s not up to me,” he adds.
Municipalities across Ontario have been forced to react to the fact that more and more people are dog owners, and that both animals and humans need a place to exercise and socialize. More fenced dog parks, where canines can play off-leash, are being developed as a result, though these are usually found in larger municipalities. And while some dog parks come complete with acres of grass to run on, agility equipment and fountains to drink from (Totoredaca Leash Free Park in Mississauga boasts a small wading pool where pets can cool off), many are nothing more than a muddy field or former dump on the outskirts of town, with access restricted to those with vehicles.
Now that the waterfronts in many communities are being transformed into the place to be for both recreation and entertainment, municipalities are being pressured to not only allow dogs in on all the fun, but to offer dog owners their own park with a view and doggie access to the water. “Where can I take my dog for a swim?” is one of the most asked questions on the Internet today.
Unfortunately for the dogs, there aren’t too many public places with easy access where humans can take their pets for a swim without being yelled at, fined, or injured.
'Lawmakers created a stereotype that labelled everyone with a dog undesirable'
“Seems like decision-makers are desperately trying to avoid giving dogs the option to go for a swim,” says Zoltan Wagner, who created the website OntarioDogParks.com to review leash-free dog parks and “unofficial” spots where a dog might run or swim without his owner getting into trouble with the law or breaking a leg.
“These bylaws are made because many dog owners have no respect for anything, and the lawmakers created a stereotype out of that and labelled everyone with a dog undesirable,” Wagner tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It’s like shutting down all public swimming pools in the province because one little kid pees into one of them.”
The issue of where dogs should and should not be permitted has resulted in many a screaming match at council meetings, where dog owners are accused of ignoring poop-and-scoop laws and letting their aggressive canines run free in parks and on sidewalks, terrorizing everyone in their path. Deadly “keep out” messages have even been sent to dog owners by irate people who have gone so far as to leave poisoned food on shared trails.
Recently, a chocolate Labrador retriever nearly died after eating rat poison put out along a trail in Ottawa. The dog’s owner, Govindh Jayaraman, told the Ottawa Citizen
“I don’t think there is any doubt” that someone was targeting dogs along the National Capital Commission trail.
In July, Toronto police investigated a “suspicious incident” in which a nail-laced board was buried nail-side up in the sand in the off-leash area at the popular Cherry Beach. Police said it appeared someone was deliberately trying to injure dogs.
Wagner, who has visited dozens of dog parks and swimming areas from Pickering to Hamilton, says he was “told by many angry people to ‘keep my dogs out of Lake Ontario’.”
Municipalities eager to protect Blue Flag beaches
With a high priority placed on water quality as municipalities compete for the right to fly a Blue Flag on their beaches — a symbol of environment-friendly practices that has proven a hit with local residents and tourists — dogs are being looked upon as a public health hazard.
According to the City of Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David McKeown, the risk of infectious diseases from dog feces is considered a health hazard. “The interaction of people with sand and water at the beach puts them at higher risk of acquiring disease from dog feces if it is present at a beach,” he says in a report to council. “Taking measures to reduce this risk helps protect public health.”
Health hazards listed include serious enteric bacterial infections, such as salmonella and campylobacter, and parasitic infections, such as siardia. Parasitic infections of toxocara canis, which is found in dog stool, can result in blindness, the report says. “Microbes that cause these and other infections can be passed in the stool of even healthy dogs and enter the human body after inadvertent contact with stool-contaminated surfaces like sand at the beach. Dog fecal matter also adversely impacts the water quality as a result of the microbial contribution from dog feces to the total pollution load.”
The medical officer’s input helped to shape Toronto’s new beaches policy, which aims to protect the city’s Blue Flag beaches while recognizing that dog-walkers should be able to enjoy a stroll on the beach with their canine friends, who also need a place to swim.
The result is an enlightened policy — patterned after New York’s dog-friendly laws — that allows leashed dogs on the beach along about 24 kilometres of Lake Ontario shoreline.
Dog-walkers in Toronto have year-round on-leash access to the city’s 18.9-kilometres of unsupervised beach, and can take their pets to three designated off-leash swimming areas at Cherry, Kew and Silverbirch beaches, covering a total of 1.1 kilometres.
At Toronto’s 11 swimming beaches, including the premier beaches flying the Blue Flag, leashed access is restricted to between Nov. 1 and March 31. “This enables barefoot users to use swimming beaches safely during the spring, summer and fall, and gives staff sufficient time to clean and groom the beaches before lifeguards arrive at the beginning of June,” says the Sept. 29, 2009 report to council.
Toronto's newest dog park boasts 'outstanding views'
“People in Toronto love their pets,” says Carol Cormier, manager of Toronto’s parks standards and innovations, when asked why Ontario’s capital is so dog-friendly when it comes to the waterfront.
Toronto has about 50 off-leash dog parks, with half-a-dozen located in prime waterfront locations. Cormier says the newest off-leash park, at Humber Bay West, boasts “outstanding views.”
While the majority of Toronto’s dog parks are located downtown, where there is a higher concentration of licensed dogs, many living in apartment buildings without access to a yard, Cormier says officials are “working aggressively to get them across the city.” Two dog parks recently opened in Scarborough.
When it comes to access to swimming, however, Cherry Beach, located at the foot of Cherry Street on Toronto’s outer harbour, is “by far the most popular” of the city’s three off-leash doggie beaches, Cormier tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
Described on one website as “a piece of dog heaven,” Cherry Beach is listed among the Top 10 dog-friendly parks in Toronto.
Even Wagner, who complains that most “so-called dog beaches” are littered with “sharp and slippery rocks and, often, piles of concrete slabs and rebar,” gave Cherry Beach a glowing review.
“The designated dog park is by the little bay to the right, but on hot days dogs take over the entire beach right of the lifeguard station,” he writes at OntarioDogParks.com. “And next to the wet and happy puppies there are kids in the water splashing away and nobody seems to mind that there are 20 dogs in the same body of water right next to them.
“Everywhere else in the GTA, all kinds of signs prohibit dogs from the water. Mind you, I am also concerned that the over-polluted lake may make my pooch sick, but she’s a tough cookie and she doesn’t mind.
“The beach isn’t exactly covered with fine sand, and the bottom of the lake is full of pebbles, but don’t let this stop you from taking your sandals off and go in the lake to play with your pup.”
Wagner warns dog owners to “be careful on the west side of the park, there is all kinds of concrete and sharp stuff by the water — don’t let your dog there! Keep on the beachy area.”
Still waiting for waterfront dog park in Barrie
According to Toronto’s updated People, Dogs and Parks — Off-Leash policy approved by council in January 2010, the city’s approach “strikes a balance between the needs of various waterfront user groups while generally improving beach access for dogs.” And while not everyone is happy, Cormier says Toronto’s policy is a success, primarily because of an active dog owners’ association in The Beaches, whose members go out to educate dog-walkers about where and when dogs are welcome, and when a leash is mandatory. “They self-police themselves,” she says.
In Barrie, dog lovers have been pining for a waterfront leash-free dog park for years. A recent staff proposal to develop an off-leash area in Allandale Station Park — whose rocky shore makes public access to the water difficult — was met with mixed reviews, with one councillor questioning why such a “prime piece of waterfront real estate” would be set aside for dogs. Staff was sent back to the drawing board.
Two years later, an inaccessible area at the bottom of a hill in Sunnidale Park remains the only area in the city where dogs can run free off-leash, though lands adjacent to the former Barrie Molson Centre in the south end have been approved for a second passive dog park. A swim area is not in the plans.
“I cannot believe that we do not have an off-leash water park for dogs to swim,” says Carolyn, a visitor to an online site dedicated to users of the Sunnidale dog park. “This is a water city — why aren’t we planning something on the lake for dogs?”
Forgrave said Barrie’s parks department, armed with feedback from the summer patrols, are looking into the feasibility of a policy change that would permit leashed dogs in waterfront parks, but away from the beaches.
While this would be an improvement, allowing leashed pets into all Barrie parks won’t be enough to satisfy those dog owners fighting for a designated waterfront park where dogs can run free.
“If you believe that your dogs deserve to enjoy the benefits of our waterfront parks, or just want a place that would allow your pet to take a swim without breaking the law, then sign this wall and let our Barrie City Council know your thoughts and why having this waterfront DOLRA (dog off-leash recreation area) is so important,” urges an online petition on Facebook.
For now, dog owners in Barrie will have to be satisfied with letting their canine friends cool off in Kidd’s Creek, which runs outside the fenced off-leash dog area in Sunnidale Park. However, because the creek is outside the fence, pooches must be leashed if taking a dip. If let loose, or allowed to swim on a leash longer than six feet, the owner will face another $240 fine.
As dog owners are finding out, all municipalities are not created equal when it comes pet-friendly policies, especially as they apply to the watefront.
Where would a dog be happiest? “I’d live in Toronto if I were a dog,” says Cormier.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — September 2010