It's war on dogs — at least, that’s the fear of hundreds of dogs owners who believe new control measures are “Draconian” and will cause suffering to their pets.
Just before Christmas, Belfast City Council announced that it was consulting on an outright ban on allowing dogs into cemeteries, children’s play parks and playing fields.
Meanwhile, more than 1,600 people have signed a petition opposing North Down Borough Council’s plans requiring that dogs be kept on leads on the beaches lining the North Down Coastal Path.
Objectors say the measures are overkill, will only penalise responsible dog owners and will make it impossible for many people to provide their dogs with the level of off-lead exercise they need.
Larne Borough Council is banning dogs from playgrounds and playing fields, but following strong opposition from dog owners has backtracked on plans to ban dogs from a number of beaches between 10am and 8pm from April to September. Instead, they will have to be kept on leads.
Plans by Newtownabbey Borough Council for dogs to be kept on leads in most areas of its parks and amenities have sparked such a public response that the council has been forced to rethink.
On Monday the council will be launching a consultation on revised plans that will provide larger park areas where dogs can be exercised off-lead.
Three other dog control orders put forward by the council are to go ahead as planned — one controlling dog fouling, one requiring owners to put their dog on a lead if asked by the dog warden, and one banning dogs from playgrounds and playing pitches.
Newtownabbey council’s environmental health officer Garth Tenning said that, unlike Belfast City Council, it will not be banning dogs from cemeteries, but it will require them to be kept on leads.
“They don’t cause that much of a problem in cemeteries. A lot of people who use graveyards are elderly and some have dogs as companions when they’re visiting their partner’s grave,” he said.
“As long as the dog is under control and kept on a lead, we don’t have an issue with that.”
Animal experts are concerned that many of the measures being proposed — since the Clean Neighbourhoods Bill provided new powers to councils to set dog control orders — are too Draconian.
Requiring that dogs stay on the lead across areas of the city could actually cause more animal behaviour problems there, according to animal management lecturer Dr Sarah Millsopp. New animal welfare legislation was brought in last year which puts a legal obligation on owners not to do anything to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal.
“Stimulation is key to the welfare of a dog and for people who don’t have access to cars and don’t have an area nearby where dogs can run, you’re asking the public not to do something and then making it very difficult for them to comply with that rule,” Dr Millsopp said.
“All dogs need a good relationship with their owner, appropriate exercise and opportunities to carry out breed specific behaviour,” she added.
“More and more huskies are being seen in Northern Ireland, but they require up to 10 miles of exercise per day.
“How are people going to achieve this if we have these tight restrictions placed on where they are going to exercise the dogs?
“There is no evidence to suggest that banning dogs has any effect on the kind of problems we are trying to tackle.
“There have been studies carried out suggesting that just providing more bins in the right place will really make a difference — there was an 82% reduction in fouling at one place in England.
“Rather than imposing these blanket bans, we need to encourage responsible dog ownership.
“We need to explain the need to pick up after the dog and provide the facilities to do so.”
Dogs Trust Northern Ireland campaigns manager Ronnie Milsop said: “Most responsible dog owners do not allow their pet off-lead in inappropriate areas such as school grounds and playing fields, and ensure they pick up after their dog, so we are cautious about unnecessary dog bans.
“The availability to access sufficient public space in order to receive enough exercise and exhibit natural dog behaviour is a ‘duty of care’ stated in the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2006.
“Dogs Trust therefore considers it important that responsible owners should not be discouraged from keeping a dog by Draconian measures such as those proposed by Belfast Council.”
On Wednesday, East Belfast Green Party will hold a public meeting at 8pm in the Dundela Club on the proposals by Belfast City Council. More information is available from Ross Brown at 079 3036 6842 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.