It was another rainy day this spring, and my partner was at work, so I put the dog in the car and drove over to the city’s only official off-leash dog park, in Farmcrest Park across from Beavermead, just north of Lansdowne and Ashburnham.
I say park, but it’s really more of an enclosure. Roughly 30 metres by 30 metres and absolutely flat, it can be traversed by a lively pupper like ours in a few seconds. There are bushes and a ravine just outside the fence, but inside it’s just grass.
And mud. On a rainy day, the field explodes in brown ooze, drowning the grass and making a mess of the dogs’ coats. On dry days later in the summer, it dries and hardens to an unforgiving brick texture. In the winter it’s a tundra. Whatever the weather is, there’s a lot of it in this particular dog park.
And not much else: no landmarks, no topography, and often precious little company. On this particular rainy day, there was one other human and two other dogs when we arrived late in the afternoon. Our dog loves other dogs and lives with an unfriendly cat, so he’s usually overjoyed to be among other dogs, but he was blasé and got bored within minutes.
He’s not the only one who’s not impressed. When the park opened in early 2014, dog park advocates who had spent years pressing municipal officials for some sort of officially designated park area walked away disappointed in the Spartan site the city selected. A lot of dog owners dismiss it completely. They go elsewhere.
Officially the enclosure in Farmcrest Park is the only off-leash dog park, but people routinely take their dogs cavorting at other parks. Unlike the city’s enclosure, Harold Town Conservation Area, Jackson Park, and the Trent University Wildlife Sanctuary are lively and stimulating places for dogs, allowing them a combination of safety and freedom they rarely get in the city.
These trails formally require owners to keep their dogs leashed at all times, and list fines applicable to violators of the rule. And yet, day after day, this is where you find people walking while their canine companions dart in and among the trees, making friends and giving chase.
Off-leash dog walking on wilderness trails is a massive culture of defiance, a persistent and somewhat organized campaign of civil disobedience that’s neither aggressive—people apologize constantly for having their pets off leash, even to other off-leash dog walkers, even in areas where leash law defiance is almost total—nor particularly aimed at changing the status quo. It just happens.
Most of these areas are accessible only by car, meaning that people don’t just happen to be strolling by on their way somewhere, like they might in a city park. Even Jackson Park, which is the one large forested area right inside the city, is clearly demarcated, and not somewhere you would pass through incidentally. In Jackson, because of the mix of uses, people generally keep their dogs leashed, but I’ve been chastised by off-leash fundamentalists for walking my dog on a leash there.
Because of its centrality and accessibility, if Jackson were officially designated as an off-leash park, it would have to be demarcated—for instance, the trail on the south side of the river could be off-leash, while the path on the north side, which is wider and flatter and better suited for biking and running, could be on-leash only.
The trail that is outside the grid of city streets offers a purer form of lawless play. It is an area in which community rules differ from formal rules, where people ignore signage almost entirely, and develop their own best practice based on common sense and basic consideration of others. It’s not perfect by any stretch, in large part because the designation and the activity are out of sync. That’s a problem of regulation, though, not of the activity itself.
Leash laws on wilderness trails, in places where people routinely engage in the ostensibly forbidden behaviour, have a predictable effect we know all too well from other failed regulatory regimes: they produces scofflaws, people who routinely and openly violate a law nobody respects—which undermines respect for laws more generally, some of which are necessary and correct.
To take an obvious example, leash laws don’t distinguish between walking your dog off leash on a busy city street or sidewalk, or even in a park full of people, and walking your dog off leash in the woods. All are equally illegal, which makes no sense, given the clear danger to unleashed dogs themselves, who could run into traffic or get separated from their human companions, and to bystanders both canine and human, of dogs wandering on city streets.
On wilderness trails, it’s rare to run into someone who is terrified of dogs because, as everyone who uses trails knows, whatever the rules say, there are often dogs on them. It’s reasonable and predictable, despite the clear signage to the contrary, for people to let their dogs run wild on wilderness trails, so people react accordingly.
Why is Peterborough’s only officially off-leash dog park so bad and so poorly used, while the rogue places where people defy leash laws are so lively? Chalk it up, alongside the Parkway debacle and casino and the cat leash laws, to the quality of local government.
Early in this decade, Peterborough City Council was lobbied by the Peterborough Dog Owners Association to designate one of the places currently used unofficially as an off-leash dog park as an official off-leash dog park. Instead, Council designated a piece of land that was a swamp, and had never been used for the purpose of walking dogs.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with swamps. In fact Peterborough is arguably one very large swamp with the occasional hill, and Peterborough is, as we all know, very nice. And some of the nicest parts of Jackson Park and the Trent University Wildlife Sanctuary are swampy.
This swamp, though, was flat and very wet. The city drained it, making it more of a meadow than a swamp, put up a chain-link fence to keep the rabble inside, and presto: a regulatory disaster.
We took a trip to Ottawa recently and visited Conroy Pit, a former quarry reclaimed by extensive foliage—part of the massive green belt that separates the central city from the suburbs—which was designated as an off-leash dog park in 2001. It extends for acres and acres through woods and fields, and dogs run like fish in wild, chaotic schools.
Now, as an analogy, let me tell you about the time I went with a friend on a school trip to Ottawa in the 1990s and, wandering one night in Byward Market, we followed great jazzy dance music we’d never heard into a basement bar called the Well. The bouncer was super friendly, oddly, and the bartender greeted us warmly. We drank and talked, and after a few drinks a couple of guys asked us if we wanted to play pool.
At one point during the pool game, I bumped up against a stranger in the bar accidentally and he dismissed my nervously profuse apology, and it dawned on me: we had been in the bar for hours and no one had made a threatening or homophobic remark to either of us, or a racist remark to my friend. The low hum of toxic masculinity that basically defined bar life at that time was missing. It was surreal and lovely.
Walking our energetic, enthusiastic young pupper in Conroy Pit was a similarly fantastical experience. Within seconds of entering the park, he ran up to someone walking a dog and loudly barked a greeting, and I ran after, apologizing. The person just waved their hand Jedi style, moving their head ever so slightly from side to side, and all was at ease. We were in a place where the way our guy was was ok, and safe.
We’ve gone back to Conroy Pit a few times since, but we’ve also looked for something closer to home. Harmony Valley, an off-leash dog park in Oshawa that was created in 2006, has a lot of the same elements, particularly the mixture of forests, ravines, and fields that the dogs enjoy navigating.
The designation of Harmony Valley as an off-leash dog park contrasts instructively with the process in Peterborough. Harmony Valley was, before its designation, a wooded area that people used for various activities, none of them officially sanctioned or forbidden by immediate regulation. One of those activities was dog walking, to the satisfaction of some and the annoyance of others.
By officially designating Harmony Valley an off-leash dog park, Oshawa’s City Council showed its willingness to take the reasonable, inexpensive demand of a modest lobby group seriously; this alone makes a clear contrast with the Peterborough case. But making the area officially a dog park showed an admirable willingness to accept an existing activity in a particular site as the appropriate activity for that site.
Peterborough’s Council insisted on designating a site that no one had ever used for dog walking as the official place for dog walking, with the utterly predictable result that a great many people adamantly refuse to follow the rules, and continue to walk their dogs on trails that officially require dogs to be leashed.
There’s nothing wrong with walking a dog on a leash. Much like a cat can have a perfectly healthy and full life without venturing outside, a dog will be very happy to be tethered to a human whenever they’re outside. (Putting leashes on cats is still super weird and unnecessary, though.) Marshall McLuhan would have said that the leash is an extension of the human hand, but it’s also an extension of the human heart. For most dogs, it’s a joy to be tethered to a person.
Running free on a richly fragrant forest path is a luxury for dogs, not a necessity. For many dogs, unless they’re the only dog on the trail, it’s an impossibility. For dogs that can, though, it’s a joyful and healthy experience and, provided it’s happening in a place that is reasonably isolated and where everyone knows it’s happening, affects no one negatively.
Setting aside an appropriate space for the specific, official purpose of letting dogs run free would, by steering people who wanted to walk their dogs off leash safely and without threat of repercussions to one location, make the leash laws on other trails more effective. By acknowledging the reality that people do walk dogs off leash on trails, and meeting that reality halfway, it would lend weight to a currently unenforced regulation and accomplish what that regulation ostensibly intends to do: set aside wilderness trails on which dogs don’t actually run free.
Photos by B. Mroz.