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Dog owners simply want to give their beloved pets a bit of freedom. It must feel good to see them explore their surroundings. But that’s no excuse for breaking the clearly posted rules against it. There are good reasons for following them.Aaron Chown/The Associated Press

One day last month, away from home on a summer vacation, I went for a morning walk in a lovely provincial park on one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. Near the end of the trail, I stopped to look out over a bay filled with sailboats and mooring buoys.

Directly beside me stood a sign that said: “These wetlands are home to many migratory and waterbirds, including great blue heron, common merganser, greater yellowlegs, killdeer and goldeneye. Please keep your dogs on leash so that these birds and their habitat will not be disturbed. Thank you for your co-operation.”

I heard a snuffling sound behind me, then a moist feeling around the ankles. A small terrier-like dog was introducing itself to me with his tongue. His owner called it away – “Come on, Bernie” – to join two identical, low-slung dogs who were accompanying him on his morning walk. The man looked slightly sheepish but said nothing and made no move to put a leash on any of them.

This happens all the time. “Please leash your dog” must be the most ignored order in the whole country. When I’m closer to home, I often take a morning walk in a conservation area near the headwaters of the Credit River, which wends its way down through Greater Toronto. It has equally prominent signs asking owners to leash their dogs. In my experience, about one in four obeys. The rest let their dogs dash about at will, rooting in the underbrush and following their noses on all sorts of adventures.

When I wrote to the conservation authority, an official replied: “Your concerns are valid and warranted. Dogs off leash in conservation areas is a growing trend in all of our parks and one that we are trying to address.” He said they were sending out more security officers to remind people of the rules. Yet when I went back again last weekend, only one set of owners had their dog on a leash. The rest smiled indulgently as their dogs gamboled through the fields and woods.

I understand the impulse. Dog owners simply want to give their beloved pets a bit of freedom. It must feel good to see them explore their surroundings. But that’s no excuse for breaking the clearly posted rules against it. There are good reasons for following them.

The sign at my conservation area lists five. One: Your dog might get lost or hurt. “Our parks contain some unfriendly terrain, steep drops, cliffs and wildlife (coyotes, skunks, etc.).” Two: diseases. “Rabies, distemper, parvo and lyme all can be contracted from encounters with wildlife.” Three: Dogs can harass and injure native animals and birds. “Remember, you’re in their home.” Four: Not everyone loves dogs. “Your dog rushing up to someone else may be an unwelcome or scary surprise.” Five: It’s the law. “Dogs must be leashed” on conservation-area lands.

That sign stands right at the entrance to the trail, in clear view of everyone that passes – and utterly disregarded by the majority of them. I’m sure most are good, law-abiding people who wouldn’t dream of running a stop sign or tossing litter on the street. Many are no doubt ardent nature lovers who care about the planet and its vulnerable creatures. Yet when it comes to their pets, they have a giant blind spot.

They assume that their dogs are just having a bit of harmless fun, not thinking of the effect on other animals – such as the threatened bobolinks, a bird of the open fields, that I often see on my morning walks by the Credit. They assume that fellow walkers will share their delight in their pets’ adventures and they simply can’t understand why anyone might be bothered. When a big dog growled at me and bared his teeth while I was on a recent walk, his owner said the dog must have been startled by the binoculars I wore around my neck. In other words, it was my fault.

I used to get the same defensive reaction when my kids were little and frightened of dogs. If a dog barked in their faces or jumped all over them, leaving them in tears, the owners would say: “He’s just being friendly.” It didn’t seem that way to the terrified children.

Most owners are more sensitive than that. So it’s a mystery why they unleash their dogs where it’s clearly and reasonably prohibited. There are plenty of places where dogs can run free: on private property or in designated dog parks, for example. All that the rest of us are saying is that their owners should keep them leashed in public places where the law requires it. It doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?

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