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March 02, 2008

Power to the pooches: Calgary’s off-leash parks

Plethora of pup parks gives canine condo dwellers a new leash on life in the city

Anne Morris

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Condo living has its advantages, but sometimes it can cramp things for a pooch itching to get beyond the four walls.

Fortunately for Calgary canines, this city boasts more off-leash parks, from small green spaces to popular places like River Park and Southland, than most cities in North America.

Bylaw boss Bill Bruce credits the plethora of dog parks to a low number of dog-related issues.

The bulk of Calgary canines—about one per nine people—are well-socialized, thanks to the opportunity to blow off steam with other four-legged friends. “We are really a dog-friendly town,” he says. “As new communities develop, that’s one of the first things they ask about. ‘When are we getting an off-leash park?’ ”

There are some basic rules of etiquette, however, that make it a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone involved. Small issues, as they often do or in this case, doo-doo, turn into big stinks, for instance. Bruce says it’s not aggressive dogs but instead people not picking up after their pooches that is a top complaint. But the number one issue is control or lack thereof by users over their canine counterparts.

“Understand off-leash doesn’t mean out of control,” Bruce says. “Your dog should be in sight of you.”

As an owner, it is your business to see Fido do his, and to simply be a watchful eye over a dog’s behaviour. “How can you know what your dog is doing if you can’t see it?” Bruce asks. “If he looks like he is going to get into a mix up with other dogs you want to be able to call him back.”

A grab bag of tricks is good, but any dog venturing into a dog park should be trained to respond to an owner’s commands to come when summoned. “Dogs know how to be dogs but we have to train them to be pets,” Bruce says.

The Humane Society offers classes, like Toto Recall, to make sure dogs have the manners for off-leash antics. It costs $250 for those caught not picking up and it’s just a fact of life that a dog owner has to stoop when their dog takes a poop at the park.

“I don’t like picking up dog poop,” Bruce admits. “But nobody likes to tip-toe through the land mines. It’s like changing diapers—it comes with the territory.” Veteran dog park user Nora Tuckey is well aware of etiquette, which comes with her being a regular at Southland off-leash where she and pooch, Jimmy, are daily visitors.

She has been going there since about 1984, before it was a Mecca for fellow dog owners and even before it was officially deemed an off-leash park. Back then she enjoyed the spot overlooking the Bow River with her dog Woof (“We let my daughter name him,” she says), and has been a regular at the lovely piece of city-owned prime property ever since. “At the time very few people walked there,” says Tuckey

Populations of those who enjoy the company of fellow dog walkers and a harmonious medley of canines and wildlife—from a herd of deer to bunnies and birds and wide open space—have not only grown, but the surrounding area has also morphed into residential communities over the years. “All the people you would meet would be there for the same reasons, to enjoy the wildlife and exercise and socialize and enjoy the dogs,” she says. “We didn’t have to pick up then,” she recalls.

How times change.

Now people not picking up is among Tuckey’s pet peeves, so she carries extra bags for forgetful folk, and polices the place for offenders. The 62-year-old is on the Southland Natural Park Society ( board of directors, a group of volunteers dedicated to protecting and improving the green space.

They have raised thousands to improve pathways, add park benches and plant trees and have fought to thwart plans to see the spot turned into a golf course years ago and protected for the pooches.

Now the place is packed with visitors, some who drive across town just to mingle with dogs and people. “These off-leash areas are a privilege, not a right, and absolutely precious,” Tuckey says.

There are some basics for joining the dog park realm. The first is to sign up for obedience classes, so your dog has the basics, and start with one-on-one playmates to get a pooch socialized before you embark on park visits.

Experts say not every dog will enjoy the experience. Bruce doesn’t go to dog parks, given the temperament of his tiny, rescue dog, Amy.

“She’s rotten,” he says. “She will get into trouble and, when she gets out of range, will pretend she can’t hear me and run away with other dogs—and only comes back when she wants to. I know every training technique in the book and she doesn’t listen.”

Seeing the importance of dog-to-dog interaction, Bruce takes Amy on play dates.

Barbara Walmer, the Calgary Humane Society’s animal behaviour department head, suggests the book Off-leash Play (available at the shelter,) to help owners understand dog behaviour, and what’s appropriate—and what’s not. “A lot of people chalk almost all behaviour up to play,” she says.

But that’s often an excuse for unacceptable behaviour, which really has no place in a dog park. If a pooch is too aggressive or fearful, the off-leash park can actually be a breeding ground for bad etiquette. “Off-leash dog parks can be excellent outlets especially for young, very playful, easy-going dogs,” she says.

“I compare it to people and the whole bar scene,” she says. “They are very friendly and into socializing when young or adolescents, but that only lasts for a very short period in most people’s lives. We have this idea all dogs should be able to go but not every person wants to go to the bar all of the time—and not all dogs can handle it.”

Walmer advises training your pet to see you as top dog, so no matter what the distraction, they are “fixated” on being with you. “It’s really understanding what is a social dog and making sure your dog is enjoying it and not bullying other dogs,” she explains.

And she urges people ease puppies into the experience because a bad start could lead to lifelong scars, both physical and mental, should it have a run-in with a bigger dog.

Bruce says off-leash parks can offer dogs lessons in positive interaction with fellow mutts, while acquiring manners needed to meet and greet new people. And for the two-legged, dog parks can introduce a world where like-minded people forge friendships. “There are actually people who don’t own dogs who go to dog parks,” Bruce says. “They can’t have one of their own and just want to be around dogs, to get a dog fix.”

And as long as you are a responsible pet owner and ensure your experience isn’t sullying it for others, expect anything from a trip to the dog park—where mutts have fun, owners make friends and even love may be in the air.

Of the latter—Bruce says there are no rules.

“Whatever transpires between two consenting adults isn’t the City’s business,” he says.

Calgary has 141 off-leash parks, covering 1,000 hectares, from small, narrow strolls alongside rivers to larger areas like Nose Hill, River Park and Southland off-leash. For a complete list of off-leash areas,

Doo-doos and don’ts for shedding the leash
• Stay away until a dog is three months old, has all its vaccines, a licence and been spayed or neutered.
• Animal bylaws require dogs to be under control of owners at all times, including in off-leash areas. In other words, your dog must respond when called.
• Read the signs. If there isn’t a posted sign then it isn’t an off-leash area.
• Don’t let your dog jump on others.
• Dogs three months of age and up must have a licence, or owners may face a $250 fine.
• If they are possessive over toys, leave toys at home.
• The fine for failing to pick up and dispose of feces is $250, while leaving behind a plastic bag filled with feces hanging in a tree or along a path is subject to a $100 fine.
• Picking up is the law and also a healthy practice, given dog feces can carry the eggs of parasites—which can be transmitted to people and other pets.
• Know your dog’s stress tolerance and socialization levels and be prepared to skip the park altogether.
• Ask an owner before approaching a dog on a leash.
• Carry a leash with you, water on hot days and have a first-aid kit in your car.

Your dog cannot:
• Chase or threaten people or other dogs, a person riding a bike, on rollerblades, jogging or walking on pathway or in the park.
• Injure or bite people or other dogs and it is illegal for a pooch to chase or harass wildlife.

***Source: City of Calgary

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