Monday, January 14, 2013

Going to the Dogs


Even Chandler eventually is shamed into liking this dog
If you ever watched the television show Friends, you may remember the episode where it was discovered that Chandler really didn't care for dogs that much. When his "secret is out" everyone—other than Joey, who already knew of this "failing"—treats the hapless Chandler as some kind of social leper, apparently because he has angered the enormous "dog lobby" in North America. Well, I can empathize with this fictional character's situation to some degree and I hope that, by the end of this blog post, I am not shunned in much the same way. However, this is an issue that has been very much on my mind for several years now and, in light of a recent addition to Stan Wadlow Park, I think it's time to come out with this.


A rare sight: leashed dogs leaving off-leash area
I love animals—pretty much all animals—and if this is news to you then I urge you to stop now and read a different blog posting before you continue. Seriously, just about any of my other posts would likely do the trick. Ok, are we good now? Let's continue. As I was saying, I love animals to a fault but over the years my feelings towards dogs in the city of Toronto have undergone a drastic change. It's now at the point where, when friends tell me they have recently acquired a dog, my first instinct isn't to say, "Congratulations!" but rather, "Why on earth would you do that?" I don't like this about myself, but it was a long, slow evolution and it comes quite naturally after many years of living in this dog-crazy city. It's important here, however, to point out one thing: this is by no means the fault of the dogs themselves. Rather, it's because of the myriad self-centred, irresponsible and careless dog owners living in Toronto. Oh, I know there are a great many good pet owners—they may well outnumber the bad—but, as the saying goes, "one bad apple spoils the bunch" (unless you're an Osmond) and there are myriad "bad apples" in Toronto.


Taylor Creek park in an all-too-typical scene
When Sarah and I moved in 2000 to be near my kids, our first apartment building backed onto the Taylor Creek ravine (which I can see from our second building, the one we live in now). That first summer, we used to take my kids down into the valley virtually every weekend to go rollerblading, cycling or just throw a frisbee or baseball around. By the next summer the descent into doggie anarchy was well under way. The few times we were courageous enough to venture down the hill we were menaced regularly by unleashed canines who snapped at us on our blades or bikes, or chased down the frisbee and ran away with it. Sometimes they would just charge at my young kids for no particular reason whatsoever while their idiotic "owners" just watched. The summer after that, 2002, we stopped going down there altogether. The inmates had taken over the asylum. The park was most definitely not an "off-leash zone"—there were plenty of signs alerting dog owners to that fact although many of them had been vandalized or broken—but at no point did I ever see a single individual capable of handing out a ticket for the offense patrolling that pathway in all the time we spent down there. For a couple of years afterward I took my bike down to the valley to cycle through the park system and down to the Beaches; not once did I ever see anyone be reprimanded for having a dog off-leash.


Toronto's Financial District
But even though it's become an epidemic to the point of keeping humans from enjoying the parks that they pay for, if you try to have a discussion about it in an average group of people in Toronto it becomes more of a heated debate than if you wanted to discuss abortion. The "Dog Rights" lobby has become very powerful here and they are starting to push for things that make absolutely no sense. The way I look at it, owning a pet in this city—or anywhere else, for that matter—is a privilege, not a right. If you abuse your pet it can—and must—be taken away from you. But there are far too many people around these parts who insist that their "right" to own a dog is sacrosanct and, in fact, supersedes any "rights" you or your family might have. People are constantly moving into the high-rise condos of downtown Toronto, adopting a dog too large for their apartment (or bringing one with them) and complaining that there aren't enough places for the dog to "run free". Well, duh. How on earth did that come as a surprise? If you moved to a remote community to get away from it all would you then complain that there were not enough art galleries there? Or if you moved to a place beside the airport, would you then complain that the noise....er, hang on. People do that all the time, so that's not a good example.


Denzil Minnan-Wong, rocket scientist
Toronto City Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong could be a poster child for the spoiled, selfish, whiny, entitled dog owner. Apparently he even brings his dog up to the press gallery at City Hall to pee on the carpet from time to time. Last Hallowe'en—in a shining example of "trick" versus "treat"—this shameless city official declared that he had asked the parks and environment committee to "study introducing off-leash hours at all parks" in Toronto. He stated that, "if dog owners don’t live close to an off-leash park, they must struggle with the hassle of transporting their pets." Or they could, you know, research where they are going to live before actually moving there. As people sometimes do. I am so sick of people who, out of their own ignorance or laziness, get themselves and their helpless pets into a situation that could have been completely avoided and then cry that somehow it's up to the rest of us to fix it for them. Look, when you are searching for a place to live you make conscious decisions and compromises. You should have a list of "musts" and be willing to bend in other areas because no place is perfect, not in a city of this size. If you want to live close to the action, you have to give up the freedom to have your dog run around wherever it wants to. If you want to enjoy access to large parks with the room to contain an off-leash area for your dog, then move someplace where that is possible. In the city, other people have to come first and it's time to stop treating dogs like they are "citizens". The day after the Minnan-Wong idiocy, The Star ran another article in which they interviewed someone on each side of the issue. The dog-owner's comments would be absolutely laughable if they didn't so tragically represent the feelings of so many others with similar ideas of entitlement. She says that, "dogs are part of the community"; asks,"who else is using the green space right now other than the dogs?" (which, you know, is exactly the point I was making a few paragraphs back); and complains that, "if you live downtown, you don't have a backyard...this is their [the dogs'] space". After a lot of other blather—all of which I have heard many times as "arguments" in discussion about dog laws—she offers this positively Socratic bit of logic: "Parents have the option to have their children play in the park, so we should have the option to let our dogs off-leash." Because dogs should have the same "rights" as real human children when it comes to our parks. Of course.


The new (and ugly) dog run at Stan Wadlow
There are, thankfully, other potential solutions with good intentions to this "problem" and that brings me to the catalyst for this blog piece today. Over the past few weeks we have watched as first some orange safety netting and then actual fence posts and rails has been erected in the playground below our balcony. At first we thought the netting was setting out the boundaries for an outdoor rink and we were quite happy; over time, though, it became apparent that the city had something very different in mind. As the project neared completion we realized, with sinking hearts, that this was to become a new dog run. Now, I agree with—and wholeheartedly support—the theory of off-leash dog runs and I think it ought to represent an excellent compromise with the unleashed dog fanatics. The problem in this park—as it has been in so many other places where they have created these runs—is that they have now taken this space away from children at a time where childhood obesity is at near-crisis levels. Have a good look at the picture here. The building at the very front of the picture is an elementary school. The nearer ball diamond is one that benefited from the largesse of the Jays Care people last spring, ostensibly to keep the youth of this community active and outdoors. But the soccer field is what really strikes me. The near side of the new dog run comes within a couple of feet of the far soccer posts, meaning that any ball kicked in the general area of that goal stands an excellent chance of ending up in the paddock with the dogs running free. This is a horrible planning mistake, in my opinion. I imagine the fencing takes the shape it does because of the undulation of the land, but why does the run have to be that big? Again, let me say: I agree in principle with having off-leash dog runs in areas that would support such an effort; however, it has seemed to me that, in most cases, the creation of these runs has come at the expense of the activity of our children.


Karen Stintz at another failed dog run venture
There's one more point about this that I would like to make, but I feel it's very important. Regarding just the specific new dog run in Stan Wadlow Park, it seems to me that we are rewarding bad behaviour with a gift, much like giving a little kid having a tantrum at Wal-Mart the candy he is demanding just to shut him up. The area where the dog run has been created has, for quite some time now, been overrun with off-leash dogs even without this fencing. It's been an issue for me for years now and I have never—not even once—seen nor heard of a single person in Stan Wadlow Park being charged with violating the city's hilariously ineffective off-leash laws, despite the fact that they are within a few yards of the back door of a school full of small children. Putting this new run there is not only a tacit approval of the previous actions of these inconsiderate boors, but it now will also attract a whole new crop of inconsiderate boors to the area. Yes, there will be some responsible owners who show up as well, but these are not the issue for me. Do not for a second think that this new off-leash area will make people understand that their dogs need to be leashed everywhere else. In the time I have written this blog post I have seen four different humans and their canine companions (numbering far more than four) come and go from the dog run—and I have only popped up from my chair to observe the proceedings a couple of times. Only one of these humans left the park with his dog on a leash. Every other pooch was still running free once they left the area and headed towards the school. So these people have learned nothing, for there has been no lesson to be learned other than if you whine loudly enough and have enough people in your complaint group you will eventually have things given to you. If the creation of these leash-free zones was accompanied in each case by an increase in the frequency and amount of non-compliance fines everywhere else—at the very least in the areas immediately adjacent to the dog runs—then I would likely be on board with this compromise. But as it is, it is not a compromise at all.

It's merely one more sign that the city of Toronto has gone to the dogs.

4 comments:

  1. In my mind, part of the problem is that people forgot somewhere along the way that animals are in fact, still animals. Dogs are treated like "children" (in fact, many are treated better) as are cats and monkeys (yikes).

    There was a time when it was understood that people came first. No, I'm not advocating cruelty or abuse of animals, but enough is enough with animals being given free reign over other people's rights. I want to walk in the park without a dog barking or lunging at me. I pay taxes to enjoy the park system. The dog does not.

    If I had a child in that school yard, I would be furious. Dogs should be banned from even walking through school yards, especially during school hours. It is a safety and hygiene issue.

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    1. Thank you for trying to deflect some of the heat from me, Sar. ;)

      Seriously, though, your first two paragraphs—especially—crystallize this whole issue for me quite nicely. If you don't have your own backyard or access to an open area that is not public property and no way of getting yourself and your pet to the country to run free....then perhaps a big dog is not the appropriate pet for you to adopt at this point in your life. I know that may be shattering news to some, but sometimes the truth is cruel. Our culture of "have whatever you want whenever you want it" has a great deal of fall-out and not all of it is related to our crushing debt load.

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  2. I could not agree more with this post and its comments. I am a dog lover, but in the past few years, I find dog owners' childish sense of entitlement and lack of perspective to be perfectly infuriating. I see dogs at airports, dogs in restaurants, and dogs at doctor's offices (pet dogs, not service dogs). I was brought up to love my dogs, but to treat them as animals. In fact, I remember my father insisting that respecting a dog meant respecting its animal-ness and NOT treating it like a toy, a baby or a plaything created for MY amusement. We had dogs because we had a large property in the country where they could indeed run free.
    Today, I often go hiking and mountaineering in wilderness parks and backcountry, esp. in the USA. I can't tell you how happy I am when I see that there are restrictions about dogs on the trails or in the parks. Why? Contrary to popular belief, dogs and wildlife don't mix so well, particularly in fragile ecosystems like deserts. Also, dog-owners seem unable to respect the most basic rules, such as keeping their dogs on leashes and picking up feces. When you have parks (like Yosemite) that see hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, these problems become enormous.
    An urban environment, likewise, is not dog-friendly, and can be made moderately hospitable for dogs only if their owners are perfectly able to follow strict rules. Yet even then, their dogs will not be very happy. Large dogs in condos? On city streets? Dogs thrown into an urban environment by people who have never trained them to behave and have no inkling on how to do so? How many times have I had a huge dog lunge at me, barking furiously, on the street, only to hear the owner sheepishly claim that "he's really nice, really, he is." Sure, ok. No amount of green space can fix the fact that dogs will be happier in a different environment, as you point out. They don't belong in the city.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for this, Julie. I can imagine you have run up against the same sort of thing when you try to broach this subject yourself: the nearly—if not outright—attitude of the "dog apologists" is nasty and quick to materialize. Your comments about all the dog-unfriendly places we are seeing these unfortunate pooches of late are bang on. I've seen a dog in the produce section of a grocery store, for heaven's sake (the owner was told to leave).

      But it's the lunging that makes me the angriest. So many times have I encountered a large dog and an owner who is barely able to keep from being pulled off of his or her feet. If you can't control your dog when it is on a leash, then how in the hell do you expect to have any say in its behaviour when it's off the leash?

      And you made the most salient point, I think: dogs (especially large dogs) will never be truly happy in the city; the unfairness to the dogs themselves is something I never really touched on in my post and I want to thank you for adding it. :)

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I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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