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Critics barking mad about off-leash proposal tabled in Toronto

Kate Ferguson, owner of Unleashed in the City , a dog adventure company, poses for a photograph with her three dogs (from left) Jack, Bean and Sprout. A proposal has been forwarded to make 9pm-9am, leash free hours in some Toronto parks. Kate is not sold on the idea as some dogs with poor night vision might be easily spooked not to mention most users will probably not change the schedules and routines they already have.)

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto's dogs are one step closer to enjoying free rein late at night and early in the morning after a council committee agreed to study a proposal based on New York City's successful off-leash regime.

But if Toronto is to follow in the Big Apple's paw prints, the councillor behind the idea will need to win over skeptical park lovers and Mayor Rob Ford, who said Friday he is against the plan.

"I'm totally opposed to having dogs run off their leashes, even if the owner's there. Dogs sometimes have a mind of their own," Mr. Ford said. "If it's a fenced-in area and the community supports it, fine. But if they're not in a fenced-in area, then I want the owners to keep their dogs on a leash."

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Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a dog owner and father to a toddler and a newborn, asked the Parks and Environment Committee to explore letting canines run off-leash in select city parks after 9 p.m. and before 9 a.m.

The committee approved the study, provided neighbourhoods have a say in which parks make the list. A report is expected next June.

"If you look at the statistics where this has been implemented in New York City, the number of dog bites has gone down, the city has become safer and except for those marginal times when people don't use parks – early in the morning and late at night – dogs will still remain on their leashes," Mr. Minnan-Wong said.

In his letter to the committee, Mr. Minnan-Wong cited figures showing the number of dog bites dropped dramatically after New York City expanded off-leash hours, from 10,739 bites in 1993 to 3,956 in 2005 – and only 88 of the bites that year took place in the city's parks.

The councillor believes dogs like his rambunctious Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Strider, behave better when given the chance to blow off some steam at dog runs after-hours.

He acknowledged however, that some downtown parks are simply too small to allow dogs off their leashes at any time of day or night.

"I'm not suggesting those parks be off-leash," he said.

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Figuring out how to share the rare scraps of green in some densely populated pockets of Toronto has led to heated fights between parents, dog owners and other park users. The city currently has more than 50 designated off-leash parks, most of which are in the former cities of Toronto and East York.

Janice Palmer, a retired biology and environmental science teacher, is a volunteer with the city who has been helping to restore natural environments in parks and ravines since the 1970s. She said the idea of having off-leash hours in all parks at night is "ludicrous" for a number of reasons including noise from dogs playing with each other, difficulty in locating dog poop in the dark, and the protection of environmental areas.

"There are many parks that have naturalized areas, sloped ravines and stream banks where they shouldn't be off-leash," she said.

Ms. Palmer plants native trees and shrubs in city parks. She said she once witnessed one dog demolish seven Jack-in-the-Pulpits, native woodland plants, within seconds while running off-leash where it was not supposed to be in Sherwood Park, north of Mount Pleasant Road and Eglinton Avenue.

"All it takes is one dog that breaks off all these plants," Ms. Palmer said. "Those plants will never come back."

Richard Ubbens, the director of Parks with the city's Parks, Forestry and Recreation department, said there would be exceptions to where dogs can roam off-leash, and that includes playgrounds, horticultural areas and heritage memorial sites. He is aware that some off-leash dog parks like Ledbury Park in north Toronto lost their off-leash designation because of too many complaints from residents in the area.

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Mr. Ubbens said courtesy hours for off-leash dogs could work in Toronto, and they could take pressure off smaller off-leash parks that get a lot of visitors.

Kate Ferguson, a Toronto resident and owner of three dogs, is also the owner of a "dog adventure" company in the Trinity Bellwoods area, Unleashed in the City, which provides dog walking and overnight boarding services. She said that walking dogs at night can be dangerous because some dogs' vision is greatly reduced at night and one never knows what could set a dog off.

As well, owners may not notice if dogs pick up and chew on garbage that is harmful to them. She cautions that more off-leash zones means dog owners will have to be more responsible.

"It would be great to have more off-leash areas, but people have to put more effort into training their dogs to make sure they behave appropriately."

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