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Leash Free Zones

by Richard Kelly

History:

Q: How did we get started?

A: About three year's ago a group of dog owners, mainly from the north portion of Mississauga and adjacent Brampton, Ontario used to congregate in a secluded Conservation Area to break the law and exercise our dogs off-leash. The Mississauga By-Law, like most municipalities, is quite strict on this rule.

Unbeknownst to us a similar group of dog owners were also gathering in a park in the south of Mississauga generally doing the same thing. The northern group was known as the "Puppy Club" the southern group called themselves "R-Dog" Responsible Dog Owners Group.

To cut a long story short, the Puppy Club approached their local city councillor (Pat Saito) to request that the council consider a motion whereby the by-law would be amended to permit the existence of designated Lease- Free Zones within the boundaries of Mississauga. The next part is a little sketchy. City Council, with the assistance of Animal Control and Parks and Recreation, both city controlled organizations, approved a 12 month pilot project to allow dogs to run off-leash in authorized designated areas.

This pilot project didn't go to council but was approved by the senior city staff. (Parks & Rec. & Animal Control)

The area designated was a small parcel of land in the Meadowvale Conservation Area. Initially, this was not fenced and we had to rely heavily on dog owners discipline to ensure they remained within the "invisible" boundaries. The pilot worked well, with very few incidents. Unfortunately, people became complacent and the rules started to bend, so did the invisible boundary. It became so bad that new people considered the whole park as off-leash which as you can appreciate upset a few local park users trying to enjoy a Saturday afternoon Bar-B- Q. (Dogs and Bar-B-Qs don't mix).

In parallel to the pilot project, we had representatives interviewed on local cable TV that drew more interest and before we knew it we, and R-Dog had quite a following.

The pilot project spread to 3 other park areas all located in Public Parks and 2 with temporary fences and I without.   After the 12 month pilot project the subject was again taken to council for further discussion

Problem Areas and Opposition:

During the pilot project a group of local residents had joined together, from both the north and south who live in close proximity to each park, to oppose our objective and started to escalate and create phantom situations that were generally the figment of someone's warped imagination such as dog attacks that never occurred, or a unleashed dog being over excited and licking someone's treacle laden face - this was defined as a "vicious dog attack". It didn't matter that the incident actually took place within the leash-free zone an attack is an attack.

The Debate:

When the actual debate took place at city hall a vast number of supporters of Leash-Free attended the meeting. The opposition, fortunately in lesser numbers, also turned-up. Our Mayor, who was neutral on the subject was impressed by the turn-out and commented that this was the first time she had seen the Council Chamber full, to overflowing. Every one was given an opportunity to have their say. The anti- Leash Free contingent played dirty and spent most of the debate showing pictures of dog bites and mauled victims, mainly from guard dog attacks and uncontrolled incidents. The Pro-Leash Free camp, although ready to throw a few words of education in their direction surprisingly maintained their composure ... just.

The Verdict:

After deliberation, Council members elected to pass the amendment to the by-law which allowed the existence of Leash-Free zones, BUT there were condition applied.

The Rules:

Two of the pilot project sites were considered unsuitable for Leash-Free Zones. Meadowvale Conservation Area because it was not considered appropriate for dogs to be running "wild" in a conservation area - "might scare the Canada geese, don't you know" and another park where there was insufficient parking and local residents protested about not being able to get into their own driveways. The latter decision was reasonable and justified.

Rule 1: All parks had to have an organizing group to police the activities and educate other dog users.

Rule 2: All parks had to be fenced, some fully, some where practical. - the cost for purchase and installation of this fencing would be borne by the organizing group. "The tax payers of Mississauga were not to spend a dam nickel towards these lease-free parks" exclaimed the Mayor. Actually she exclaimed this many times.

Rule 3: Leash-Free zones located in Public Parks would be have restriction as to when dogs would be unleashed From Victoria Day, (May) through to Labour Day (September) on weekends between 1 1.00am and 7.00pm. Weekdays restrictions did not apply.

With these rules in place the organizing groups got together to apply thought as to how we would raise funds to pay for the fencing.

Now the decision had been made to amend the by-law the politicians bowed out of the picture and Parks and Rec. took over. By the way Parks & Rec. were sympathetic to our cause and got other City Community departments involved. Mississauga loves to promote community spirit and involvement which is one of the reasons why Mississauga really is a great city. (my words).

Leash -Free Mississauga

During these discussions the City wanted to deal with just one voice and not with each organizing group who all had different requirements, so we developed an interim committee with representatives from each of the groups It took a while for everyone to become comfortable with working together and accepting the fact that without cooperation divided we fall became very a strong message. Out of this Leash-Free Mississauga was formed.

Leash-Free Mississauga is made up of volunteers, like the organizing groups and handles high level issues. How to pay down the debt for the fencing, provide education dog and non-dog owners about the importance of being responsible, attend animal related events and promote leash-free to citizens, create new leash-free sites and determine criteria for new sites and generally persuading people to get involved.

We meet every first Tuesday in the month discuss new ideas, problems that require resolution, etc etc. We are quite new at this so we are still trying to find our feet. We will be shortly affiliated with the city which gives us a little more credibility with the citizens form both Mississauga and other towns and cities that are also venturing into Leash-Free.

The key thing to our success is to gather as much support from dog owners as possible. - large numbers impress and get councillors attention. Present your case as professionally as possible, Councillors need happy voters. Don't make demands that cause politicians to be turned-off. Honey works a lot more effectively than vinegar. If you can get the message across that you are just citizens, and not activists, that are only looking for a safe, legal place to run and exercise your dogs you will have a fighting chance of success. Encourage other dog walkers to contact their politicians to make the point that Leash-Free zones will reduce the number of uncontrolled dogs in public parks and consequently reduce the amount of doggy poop left behind by irresponsible dog owners.

When we started debating the idea of leash-free parks in Mississauga our local paper was full of articles, some for, some against. Since the by-law was passed we have little or no negative press.

We currently have five (5) Leash free zones in Mississauga and popularity is growing. I just hope we can keep up with the demand for space.