When Sonja LeBorgne adopted Bentley from a shelter in 2008, she thought that the fenced dog park near her condo in Vancouver's West End would be the ideal place to take him for unleashed play time after work.
That hope evaporated when Bentley was attacked by a small, stocky dog in what turned out to be a "dry, dusty, boring field" filled with dozens of hyperactive dogs working off their pent-up energy after a day indoors. When the attacking dog's owner also threatened Sonja and her husband, she stopped even walking nearby.
Now, the only option for an off-leash run for Bentley is a half-hour drive to another other park. "I find it incredible that I have to get into my car and drive to take my dog for a walk," the soft-spoken Ms. LeBorgne says.
The fight over dogs in parks is long-running, but it's one fought on many fronts. There is the familiar face-off between those who want more space for their dogs in the parks and those who want stricter limits on where the pets can be taken. And then there are people like Ms. LeBorgne, who are caught between those two camps, wanting the troublesome dogs to be under control, while resenting the ever-shrinking urban space allocated to their own canine companions.
Celena Benndorf, part of a group called iCare Vancouver, is pushing hard to bring what she sees as the problem of canine chaos to heel, lobbying for more restrictions on dogs in parks and more enforcement of current bylaws. She says she is tired of watching what seems like a never-ending stream of pets running unleashed all over Kitsilano Beach, near where she lives.
Dogs scare and attack other dogs and sometimes, even kids, she says. Some of them have run up and licked her, which gives Ms. Benndorf, who is allergic to dogs, a rash. And "aggressive, entitled" owners are just as irritating, she says, especially when she asks them to leash their dogs, or go to off-leash areas. "Someone threw hot coffee on me once when I did that. Another one said, 'Do you want to die?'"
It looks like the anti-canine side is getting a leg up in Vancouver, as the city says it will move this year to a zero-tolerance policy for rule-breakers, and the park board considers major restrictions on dog-friendly areas – with the issue emerging just ahead of the November civic elections.
Vancouver park staff, at the prodding of Vision Vancouver park board chair Aaron Jasper, recently produced a 45-page report that stressed the need for better planning of off-leash areas. But Mr. Jasper wants to go much further, saying the current system – which depends on dog owners and their animals staying within set hours and designated but unmarked boundaries – is broken. "The current direction with staggered hours and imaginary boundaries really isn't working," he says. "We need to press the pause button."
And while he's waiting for the staff to come up with more research, he says he has a clear sense of the way parks will be heading. "The direction we're going in is definitely more fenced-off off-leash areas."
Mr. Jasper's Vision-dominated park board turned down a request for an off-leash trail at Stanley Park, saying that there were too many concerns about dogs destroying habitat.
The city's more than 200 parks have 35 off-leash areas. Only two are gated, while the rest depend on owners respecting designated hours or unmarked boundaries.
Park-board commissioners are routinely bombarded with requests from dog owners for more off-leash areas. They're equally bombarded by complaints from people who don't want the dogs there.
It's not clear if dog parks will emerge as a partisan issue. Non-Partisan Association park-board candidate Dave Pasin – a dog-catcher in the city two decades ago – is advocating for more creativity in creating off-leash areas (under the SkyTrain in southeast Vancouver is one of his suggestions), and is personally in favour of more off-leash trails.
Ms. Benndorf's group has been pushing for a moratorium on new off-leash areas, a greater proportion of fenced areas and more enforcement, so she wholeheartedly supports Mr. Jasper's stand.
Ms. LeBorgne said she will want to know candidates' positions on dog parks. "This will matter to me when I vote. It's my tax dollars," she says.
The electoral ripples won't be limited to Vancouver. The dog-and-park issue has become even more complicated in recent years throughout the Lower Mainland as more people use parks, as large-dog owners and small-dog owners say they need different kinds of spaces and as conflicts over dogs have arisen with several groups, including horse-riders, cyclists and ecology advocates worried about the effects of dogs on forest habitat.
While Mr. Jasper says the dog conflicts are more intense in the denser parts of the city, where so many people are competing for green space, park managers and dog owners say it is just as bad in places like rural Langley.
"It's not easier here," says Gudrun Jensen, the operations manager for Metro Vancouver parks. "In the rural areas, you have people who have this picture that they can just go to any park and walk their dogs off-leash."
Ms. Jensen, too, is looking at more restrictions to reduce the conflicts about dogs in parks, including more fenced areas, both in conventional flat parks and on trails, to reduce the impact on habitat. It's an idea the District of North Vancouver introduced 10 years ago on some of its off-leash trails around Lynn Canyon and Mosquito Creek.
The move to more fenced parks and limited off-leash trails enrages dog owners like Jane Whitehead, who is mounting her own campaign in the Township of Langley to scrutinize council candidates' positions on dog access to parks.
"There are 20,000 dog licences in Langley; that means probably 40,000 owners, and there are only 90,000 voters here. We count," says Ms. Whitehead.
Dogs by the numbers
Number of dogs in Vancouver, according to various estimates
Current number of dog licences (increasing by 5 to 6 per cent a year)
Number of parks
Number of off-leash areas
Number of tickets handed out yearly to owners without dog licences or who are letting their dog run off-leash in an on-leash area
Amount of money to build the fenced dog area at Nelson Park
Special to The Globe and Mail