Taking a lead from New York City, the City of Toronto is asking residents whether to allow off-leash dogs in some city parks in the early morning and late evening.
Such “courtesy hours” would apply only to parks with no off-leash dog areas that meet a checklist of neighbourhood criteria.
Ward 32 councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon says the idea was raised at the parks committee in November by councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong after he visited New York City, which has such a bylaw in place.
“Different wards in the city don’t have as many dog parks as we do, and they’re expensive to put in,” McMahon said, adding that Ward 32 has more dog parks than any other in Toronto.
Until May 31, the city’s parks department is hosting an online survey about the idea. McMahon said all park users, not just dog owners, should take the opportunity to weigh in.
Besides the new off-leash hours, the survey asks related questions such as whether the city should set a minimum distance between homes, schools and off-leash dog areas.
The survey also asks dog owners if they would pay an extra $5 on dog licensing fees so the city can hire more bylaw officers to enforce off-leash laws.
Kim Smithers, an enforcement supervisor with Toronto Animal Services, says her unit had 810 complaints about off-leash dogs across the city last year. Along with 474 warnings, they issued 95 tickets, which cost $240 each.
With 16 officers in total, Smithers said her unit has an average of six officers on patrol on any given day.
As well as off-leash dogs, the officers respond to calls about stray or dead animals, animal bites and animal abuse.
“They cover the entire city for all of those services,” she said. “So it is a stretch.”
Given the challenge, Smithers said Animal Services does target high-complaint areas, including the string of beach parks from Ashbridges Bay to Silver Birch.
Chris Yaccato of the Toronto Beaches Dog Association says that when it comes to owners who let their dogs go off-leash, “a few bad apples are ruining the bunch.”
While some members have told Yaccato they want all the beach parks to be leash-free, Yaccato supports the current bylaw.
“It’s just uncontrollable,” he said, “Not everyone likes dogs, not everyone’s friendly with dogs. Everyone should get free and fair access to our parks.”
As for the extra $5 fee to hire more bylaw officers, Yaccato said he supports the idea in principle, but it needs refining.
“To be honest with you, a lot of our members just simply ignore them,” he said. “Bylaw officers don’t have the powers of the police to arrest, to detain, or to really force someone to hand over their ID.”
Watching her dog Beauty play in the sand near the Leuty Lifeguard Station last week, owner Beth Campbell said she likes the idea of more off-leash hours.
“It’s just nice to give her the freedom to run around,” she said.
Campbell said that when Beauty goes off-leash she can socialize freely with other dogs, likely with less tension than if all the dogs were leashed.
Campbell said it’s true there are many bad dog owners out there, but in a nearly empty park with a well-behaved dog, it shouldn’t be a problem.
“I mean, kids are more destructive on the beach than my dog is and I don’t leash them,” she joked.
To fill out the City of Toronto survey, visit www.toronto.ca/parks.