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For 19 years, I’ve been taking my dogs to play at Trout Lake Park, a popular East Vancouver oasis within striking distance of home. All that time, I’ve never fully understood where the off-leash area begins and ends. I know generally the north side of the park is dog friendly and the south-side playground and picnic areas are not. There are two reasons for the confusion: The park isn’t well signed and so many dog people flout the rules that following the example of others inevitably leads you astray.

It’s possible some of these rule breakers do not understand the boundaries, but it’s likely most simply choose to ignore anything curtailing their dog’s desire to run free. You see the same thing on trails in Metro Vancouver regional parks, few of which allow dogs off-leash.

I admit I’m a judicious offender. On early summer mornings at Trout Lake when the park was nearly empty, I used to break the rules and run around the park with my dog, both of us off-leash. It is a joy people living near the University Endowment Lands and some places on the North Shore routinely experience, but in most other places in the Lower Mainland they cannot. As Trout Lake Park became more crowded, I smartened up, but I still offend in regional parks when the trails are lightly used, because dogs love to run free.

Demand for off-leash areas has increased across North America. In the United States, dog ownership is rising, particularly among higher income-earning millennials. Similarly, dog parks are among the fastest-growing park amenities, up 40 per cent since 2009, according to the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit that helps communities raise funds for new parks. In the U.S., as here, there are disagreements about allocating precious park space to dogs over humans, dog park etiquette and how best to design places where dogs can run free.

As cities grow and parks become more heavily used, conflicts among pedestrians, joggers, cyclists and off-leash dogs that stupidly dart out in front of them, have become more common. Occasionally people get knocked over by dogs in chase. It happened to me and I blew a knee, but I didn’t complain overmuch because one of the culprits was my dog. But after I was hurt, I started obeying the rules in heavily used city parks, because anyone who doesn’t own a dog and gets knocked over would not be as forgiving.

In recent years, Vancouver’s park board has started to erect dismal chain-link-fenced enclosures for dogs to play off-leash to meet the demand for more dog parks. To me, they more closely resemble dog pounds than parks – some are barely large enough to chuck a ball across. They are, I suppose, better than nothing and might be the only option in high-traffic locations.

But now, after another round of community consultations, the park board is looking to introduce fences at Trout Lake, too, along with relocating the bike and foot paths to separate the different user groups. Fences would mar the natural feel of the park and many people, mostly dog owners, don’t like any of the three proposed plans. A community pushback halted similar suggestions a few years ago. But this time it seems the park board is determined.

It’s possible relocating the bike and pedestrian paths, better signage and a public-information campaign explaining the off-leash boundaries and the rationale for them, might have negated the necessity for fences. They could also have thrown dog owners a bone – perhaps an hour a day when dogs and their people could have the entire run of the park. Instead, they seem to have settled on fences as the solution.

I predict this will lead to another community battle that will pitch dog owners against other user groups. When the dust settles, my guess is fences will go up and the same people who break the rules now, such as the three I spotted on the South Beach in Wednesday’s downpour, will keep breaking them, relying on other dog people to sound the alarm when bylaw enforcement comes around. The dogs, of course, will be oblivious to the fuss; they’ll run when the leash is unclipped. It’s in their DNA.

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