Comment: Off-leash dogs make it hard to share the trail

We walked the beach at Sidney Spit last week. It’s an idyllic place, part of the Gulf Islands Marine Park Reserve. We are lucky to have it in our backyard.

Except it’s not a backyard. It’s a public place, with signs that say dogs must be leashed.

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Walking toward the dock, we heard a little boy scream. Then we saw a big dog racing around him, jumping up, trying to get something in his hands. The boy’s parents came running and so did the dog owner. Off a boat for a romp on shore, the dog was having a great time; the child was terrorized. A few minutes later, we saw the owner scuttle off with the dog in a dinghy, but not before I said to her that she was supposed to leash it. “I usually do,” she said.

But not today? Explain why to the sobbing child.

That owner might like to know her dog can be off-leash in most areas of Thetis Lake Regional Park. In fact, dog-walkers can get a permit to have up to eight dogs off-leash, if the animals are under control and stay on the trail. A dog off-leash knows to stay on the trail, right?

I found this out two weeks ago. We were on a hike in Thetis, and after we crossed a footbridge, up came a man walking eight big dogs, none leashed. I asked about it. He said eight were allowed and gave what sounded like solid information about where that could happen: Everywhere except the main beach.

A Capital Regional District staffer confirmed to me later that the man was right, adding that it was a pilot project and that dog-walkers must have a permit on a lanyard. (Enforcement will be done by some bylaw officers in the park, plus one parks officer for all parks.)

I didn’t know about the permits that morning. The dog walker didn’t offer to show one. As we talked, one of the dogs knocked my friend into me as it ran between us. My friend is immune-suppressed, which means she can’t touch most animals, and has rheumatoid arthritis; if she fell, she would be in serious trouble.

The man became hostile at this news. He told my friend that if she couldn’t “share” the trails, she should stay home. He must not have read the CRD pamphlet that says: “Always respect others who might not welcome your dog’s attention.”

I like dogs and agree to sharing trails and beaches. Dog owners pay taxes; they want nice places to exercise their animals. So, I take my allergy pills and step aside.

But count me as opposed to this pilot project. “Sharing” is not forcing people to yield to packs of off-leash dogs in public parks. Even in places where signs say to leash dogs, as at Sidney Spit, many people don’t do it. That’s not sharing, either. It’s neither safe nor fun. It’s intimidating.

What is it with otherwise nice people when they have a dog, especially a big one, off-leash in a public place and causing discomfort to others? They say the dog is friendly (like the one on the beach?), give a stony look or lecture you on their dog’s entitlement. Dogs are now considered family members in their forever homes; that’s fine, but human family members don’t leap up on others in public places without charges being considered.

The fact that most municipalities (such as Saanich) allow a maximum of five dogs per household says something about danger in large numbers. It also tells you that a guy with eight unrelated hounds is a for-profit dog-walker, permit or not. Why is the dog-walking business permitted in regional parks as if they’re open-air private offices? Why does the CRD want to profit from commercial activity that could be unpleasant or even dangerous to the public?

Unleashed dogs don’t belong on a busy trail. People of all ages and fitness levels walk the paths at Thetis, which makes it a poor site for multiple dogs loose under one person’s (supposed) control.

I wonder how Thetis bylaw officers will be able to count dogs accurately given how many are off the trails and what they can do about dog-human conflict they don’t see. At Sidney Spit, no park officials were on the beach to enforce leashing; I saw only two in the woods.

Dog owners and walkers need to show the rest of us that they are the good people their dogs think they are, permit or not. When in a public park with your dog, leash it.

Vivian Smith lives in Sidney.

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