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Jan Wong: vicious turf wars at dog parks across Toronto have cost taxpayers a fortune

The Fury Unleashed

(Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images)

Once upon a time, happiness reigned in Ledbury Park, a 1.6-hectare expanse of green tucked into a residential area west of Avenue Road and north of Lawrence. Then, in the late 1990s, the city hired the prestigious firm Shim-Sutcliffe Architects to transform the space into a $2.5-million landscaped gem. Trouble started when one corner of the park morphed into an informal dog playground, where owners removed leashes and let pets run free. As real estate prices soared around Ledbury Park, people tore down the area’s modest brick bungalows and replaced them with $2-million custom homes. A half-dozen of them backed onto the informal dog park.

Six years ago, the homeowners began complaining to the city about noise—chiefly barking (by pets) and shouting (by owners). At the same time, the dog owners wanted more: a formal off-leash enclosure. In July 2007, the city, which had been approving dog parks on an ad hoc basis, adopted a new off-leash policy, including criteria for proposed sites. It also decreed that, henceforth, it would no longer deal with individuals on dog-related matters, only with associations.

Ta-dah! The Ledbury Park Dog Owners’ Association was born, and it quickly applied for an off-leash park on the patch that bordered those new homes. The city approved the dog park in September 2008. Fourteen months later, in December 2009, a chain link fence went up. The fence, which had a double-gated buffer zone so that owners could unleash their dogs in an enclosed area before setting them free, cost taxpayers $40,000.

According to Rob Andrusevich, the PR manager for Parks, Forestry and Recreation, off-leash dog parks cost the city an average of $250,000 each—for fencing, irrigation, drainage and surface material. Toronto currently has 59 of them, typically fenced-in zones within existing parks. Five more are in the planning stages. Last year, Andrusevich’s department received applications from 40 dog owners’ associations, all eager for their own fenced-in area in which to play fetch and scoop poop. The city is also considering establishing “courtesy hours” in some parks, so that owners can let dogs run free early in the morning and after nine o’clock at night.

Ledbury Park residents say that once the new fence was installed, traffic to the dog park soared—both vehicular and four-legged. Paid dog walkers, hauling half a dozen animals, visited throughout the day. Clang, clang, clang went the double metal gates, from dawn until late into the night.

Over the next two years, Karen Stintz, the city councillor for the area, presided over several rancorous community meetings. “When I was elected in 2003, I could never have guessed the amount of time and energy dog issues would take,” Stintz told a journalist in Dog Dazed, a wry documentary about the soaring popularity of dog ownership in North America. (Stintz didn’t respond to my request for an interview.)

Anti–dog park residents say they were mocked at the meetings, and that dog owners sometimes waved sarcastically into their backyards or flipped them the bird. One woman, who still fears retaliation and asked not to be identified, was mooned—or more precisely, half-mooned. “He didn’t pull his pants completely down,” she says, “just halfway down.”

Lynn Fisher, an artist whose custom-built house backed onto the dog park, says the hostility and noise were unbearable. When she reported as much at one of the public meetings, a woman sitting nearby replied, “So move.” Fisher is herself pro-dog. Before moving to Canada from South Africa, she had owned a fox terrier, a rescue mongrel, a boxer and a Labrador retriever. But the park was driving her nuts. “Everyone was vicious. It ruined our lives. We couldn’t open our windows. We couldn’t eat on our deck. All we heard were the dogs, or the owners yelling at their dogs.” Stintz visited Fisher’s house and witnessed the problem first-hand. The councillor proposed moving the off-leash section to another area of the park, but the dog owners objected. In July 2011, 18 months after the fence went up, the city announced it was coming down.

By then, dog park or no dog park, Fisher had had enough. She and her husband, Ian, sold their dream house and bought a condo downtown. Just as they were packing up to move, someone left a parting gift on their front steps: a pile of dog poop.

Meanwhile, the Ledbury Dog Owners’ Association mobilized to reinstate the off-leash area. They enlisted the help of a lawyer, Fred Myers, who lived a few blocks away and owned a goldendoodle named Lyla. An $850-an-hour partner at the blue-chip law firm Goodmans, Myers offered his expertise pro bono. Under his guidance, the association filed an appeal with the city. When the city rejected the appeal, saying it had already made its decision, the association requested and won a judicial review from Ontario Divisional Court. Last fall, a three-judge panel reviewed the city’s decision and ruled against the dog owners: there would be no official off-leash area in Ledbury Park. Myers estimates he spent 150 hours on the file. The dog owners’ association was charged $15,000 in court costs. The city, which was represented by staff lawyers, spent $43,215.

Busy dog parks and quiet residential homes can’t coexist peacefully. The Ledbury Park off-leash area, a pilot project for the city, was doomed from the start. Since its failure, Toronto has amended its policy to ensure dog-run areas no longer abut houses.

I think an off-leash dog park is a privilege, not a right. We don’t have enough green space for humans as it is. Toronto had 250,000 dogs in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available. The human population has grown 10 per cent since then, so it’s safe to assume the dog population has gone up as well. (In the U.S., as boomers age and millennials delay starting families, the number of households with dogs, 43 million, has surpassed the number with children, 38 million.)

Let’s keep some major existing off-leash zones available—at Sunnybrook, High Park and Cherry Beach, for instance, where they’re far removed from neighbouring houses. But any new off-leash areas—especially downtown, where the demand is highest—should be created by private developers on their own land. Dog parks are quickly becoming a highly marketable amenity. Want to lure buyers for condos? Besides exercise rooms and rooftop barbecues, offer on-site dog runs.

  • mj

    Tearing down houses and building $2 million homes in their place? I’d throw dog shit on your steps too. That’s the real waste of money if you ask me.

  • selkiem

    Well, the writer’s outlook on dogs is crystal clear in this very biased article. First, the dog owners are taxpayers too, so why is it so outrageous that their local park reflected what clearly many desired? An off-leash area safe for dogs, safe for kids (i.e. fenced). Further, my sympathy for Ms. Fisher and the others who came into this existing situation – an off-leash area- is pretty slim. Very like those who buy close to airports then complain about planes or others who get a lower price on their home as it is near the local dump then complain about the smell. I am not a resident of the area nor do I actually go to off-leash parks – but I certainly believe that the vast number of dog owners who are residents of this City and taxpayers are entitled to exercise their pets with reasonable access to green areas.

  • Lindsey p

    I agree this is a very biased article. We don’t have this problem with our many off leash dog parks in the west end off Toronto. The neighbourhood residents really enjoy them, with local kids coming by to say hi and throw a ball or two for the pups. I think this is more of an isolated situation because of the residents, and their $2.5 million dollar homes. Did you know that studies have proven that people who live with pets are actually happier!!!

  • Ripred

    Yes, a person who doesn’t relate to animals, wonder why? To say a dog park shouldn’t be in residential neighbourhoods. Where does she think dogs live? Yes, dear Jan, in their beloved humans’ homes. People can’t drive 5 – 10 miles to the nearest dog park before they go to work and can you imagine how congested those areas would be? Why don’t YOU leave the city, then we’ll be rid of another idiot. Pets and people go together, maybe not in your world, but in the world of decent folk.

  • Slimjim

    Well, we can see that most comments here are biased towards dog parks. Nearly $15 million spent in residents’ taxes, with more on the way? You can see why people would be upset, specifically non-pet owners.
    These parks should be funded by the associations. We barely have parks for people in the Toronto area as it is. Don’t like the thought of having to drive to a leash free park for Sparky to stretch his legs properly?
    To paraphrase: Then move.

  • ramge

    I fully support more off-leash areas – I just wish more dog owners used the bloody things! The amount of dog droppings on the streets of Toronto almost rivals Paris, France! I walk to work daily and avoid disgusting patches constantly. I live in an apartment where weekly sightings in the hallways are not uncommon. If you own a dog – clean up after it and if an off-leash park is in your area haul your lazy butt down there and use the damn thing! I love dogs but I loathe the derelict owners who blithely deposit their pooches’ poop in municipal garbage bins in my neighbourhood. My favourite is the one at Wellington and Portland – the top is often ringed with dozens of little plastic bags. I just want to gag!

    So thumbs up to the off-leash dog parks – you got my vote!

  • sweetl

    For the record, I do have a dog but do not use fenced in off leash dog parks.

    This article is ridiculous. First, dogs are allowed in all public parks. The purpose of fenced dog parks is to allow a safer co-existence within public parks. If the designated dog park area was not there, people would still be coming to the park with or without dogs. Second, living with a yard backing onto a park means that you are forfeiting some of your privacy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dog park or not. Personally I would not buy a home that backs onto a park, dog or otherwise because I understand that while it may look pretty out my window, there will be traffic – that is the point of a public park.

  • ALowlyVirtue

    So, what part of this article is considered ‘balanced journalism’? We now are fully aware of Jan Wong’s *personal* opinion of the efficacy of dog parks and her contempt for the value they bring to communities as conduits for social capital. Either that, or more likely as seems to be the trend for the current crop of ‘bloggers’ who would like to call themselves ‘journalists’, it is a deliberate prod to provoke divisive commentary. Property taxes are used to create spaces for residents to be active, celebrate and connect as a community. The offleash parks are not built for the dogs; they are built for the people who bring them there so that they, along with everyone else who pays taxes, can have a place to belong, connect and renew. Your conclusion that dog parks and residential areas “cannot coexist” is based on the Ledbury Park situation and fails to include the many successful off leash areas across Canada and the world. You should read more instead of tailoring a story around ONE specific conflict. We all have to accept certain concessions when we live in an integrated community. I personally have a large soccer field and playground adjacent my property. EVERY weekend and most weekday evenings, I am subjected to the constant sound of referee whistles, screaming children and parents (“Kick it! Kick it! – Go!!) and the park is littered with empty water bottles and hamburger wrappers after the games. My tax money paid for that park (as did that of every other homeowner here). If you don’t want to support services that benefit the health and wellbeing of ALL residents, then you should reconsider where you live and choose more wisely.

  • robertlendvai

    Not everyone likes dog parks. A sicko has been leaving rat poison packs at the entrance to the High Park off-leash area. This bastard needs to be caught before a dog or even a child is injured or killed.

  • Joy Henderson

    I have a dog and routinely use a dog park, but I can totally see how people wouldn’t want one abutting their property. My dog park is a 15 minute walk away, so it doesn’t mean I get to use it when I’m short on time, but it’s not exactly a hardship to walk to. Even being 15 minutes away in the middle of a park, it still translates into extra traffic congestion on my small road and irresponsible dog owners who let their dogs off leash outside the area. One of such ran into my house while we were leaving and growled at my children.

    Good dog owners make dog parks awesome, bad ones, make not only the park horrible, but also creates difficulties for local residents.

  • candolf

    ” Busy dog parks and quiet residential homes can’t coexist peacefully. ” …. Jan Wong.

    See, that’s a BIG part of the problem, right there!

  • Aidanist

    Bring it home. That’s what my neighbour does every day.

  • ALowlyVirtue

    “…we barely have enough parks for people in the Toronto area as it is…” Who exactly do you think these offleash parks are for? The dogs don’t go there on their own. Dog parks are for people who happen to have a love of dogs as their common interest…like Tennis, Baseball or Soccer. Last time I checked, those types of parks are all placed strategically for accessibility and dog parks should be no different. That straw man argument that somehow dog parks take greenspace away from people is plain stupid and makes no sense. Offleash parks are just another type of people-park. People go there for leisure and community, just like every other type of people-park.

  • Slimjims

    There’s no straw man here. I wasn’t saying pet parks are taking up space that people parks could. I’m saying $15 million could be used for all and not just some. And pet parks are in No way comparable to people parks.

  • ramge

    I agree with Aidanist! Many of my friends with dogs do just that – bring it home and flush it. Dog poop does NOT belong in public trashcans because in fact that means someone else cleans up after your dog – not the dog owner who passes the responsibility along! I always feel sorry for municipal workers who have to empty trashcans filled with dog crap! Gross!

  • ALowlyVirtue

    What you call ‘pet parks’ ARE ‘people parks’. Are soccer fields made for Soccer Balls? Tennis courts for Tennis racquets? You support my view in your own recent statement that the money “should be used for ALL and not just SOME”. Agreed, Money allocated for active greenspace SHOULD be appropriately allocated for all, including dog-owners, soccer players, tennis players, baseball teams etc. That’s the point. You said that off leash areas should be funded by associations. I guess you’re of the opinion that the Soccer Leagues should fund all the soccer fields we have in the GTA too? You see, I actually don’t agree with that. I think we contribute our taxes to services that address the needs of a community: Transit for those who use it (even if I don’t), Parking lots for those that drive (even if I use transit). I want to live in a community that respects everyone’s needs and desires for connection and vibrancy and I support ALL forms of active play, including that which includes time with our four legged family members.

  • kdawg74

    wow! toronto scum in action.

  • kdawg74

    Airports and dumps are crucial services for a large metropolitan area. A park taken over by obnoxious dog owners who take no account of their neighbours? Not so much. Insane that your comment has 15 up and no down arrows. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Jan Wong, but..

  • kdawg74

    the sense of entitlement of the modern Toronto dog owner in screaming obviousness above. my parents grew up on farms and had dogs and that’s where they belonged, where they could run free, bark their heads off, chase animals, pee and poop where they wanted and be animals. instead “decent folk” like the above are now so antisocial they feel they have the right to impose noise and feces on dwellers of crowded cities, even more so when they’re at work and a pro dog walker is invading public space with six or ten dogs at a time.

  • Fa skate

    I live near an off leash area and I hate it because of the aggressive noise from dogs barking day and night, dogs fighting with each other. It is disturbing. the noise coming from dogs barking is aggressive, noise coming from chidren playing is not. These off leash areas do not belong in residential neighbourhoods , they belong in industrial open areas. People who use these off leash areas do not really care about their dogs as they sit in there fenced in area and socialize with other owners or talking on ther cell phones or texting away and ignoring their dogs, the poor dogs. They just go there for themselves. so if this is a private club, let them privately pay for it then! just like i pay for my kids soccer club, that is a reality you have to pay for what you want. And who pays for this? All city of toronto tax payers regardless if you agree or not. Since there is so much imbalance with this topic, maybe it should be a private investment? No one can use this off leash area but dogs and their owners or dogs and their paid walkers. Whereas a soccer field even after the kids are done playing in it, everyone else can use it too. I wouldn’t step in a disgusting off leash area if you paid me, it stinks, it is dirty. Lets go one more and talk about some of the dog walkers who do not declare their income. S we taxpayers pay for these off leash areas, less green space and also pay for these dog walkers to make an income and they don’t declare it , so they don’t pay taxes and they live off our taxes by collecting social assistance, gst credits, ontariom trillium credits. So in essence all us good folks are being charged twice thanks to these illegal workers! No public off leash areas, you need to privately pay for to establish and maintain them!

  • Murktastic

    I have a few dogs and its pretty obvious how dog parks could bother nearby residences. The city should probably only put them in where the park does not border residential properties.