Belfast Telegraph

Walkies! But is it time to keep our dogs on the lead?

By Amanda Ferguson

They're man's best friends but should dogs be allowed to run free in our parks?

Belfast City Council is pioneering efforts to establish the rules on exactly where and when dogs should be on or off the lead.

But it's an issue that divides even owners on just how much freedom their pets should be given when enjoying a bracing walk in our parks.

The council is consulting the public on whether four-legged friends should have their own time slots or designated areas to be taken off a lead.

There's also a proposal to create 'off-lead' zones for the city's canine citizens to run free, well away from other park users.

Other options up for discussion include creating dog enclosures within parks.

The proposal follows the pilot of an off-lead enclosure at Grove playing fields in north Belfast, which has been in operation for over a year.

Keeping dogs on leads is a park by-law so no fine is incurred for flouting it, unlike dog fouling which attracts a fine of £80.

Sources told the Belfast Telegraph that park wardens regularly take a common sense approach to these matters and will ask dog owners to put pooches on leads if the park is particularly busy. They will not enforce the by-law, however, if nobody else is around when a dog is off the lead.

A Belfast City Council spokeswoman said: "We are continuing to consult and take feedback around the pilot scheme at the Grove; in fact, as a result of that we are relocating the Grove enclosure to another area of the park.

"But the pilot itself has been a huge success and has proved popular with dog owners, while not impacting on other park users.

"We want our parks and open spaces to be enjoyed by everyone and while it is a requirement for dogs to be kept on leads while in our parks, we recognise that larger dogs in particular need to get proper exercise; so providing an off-lead option for dogs and their owners at other parks, based on the Grove model, is something we are keen to get views on."

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Claire Harrison: They should never be allowed to roam free anywhere in the city

Dogs are joy-loving creatures with an unbridled fondness for bounding around in the great outdoors.

Being animals, however, they are not fussy about where they do their business and have not yet been equipped by Mother Nature to clean up after themselves.

They are also sociable little souls but don't always know the accepted etiquette in jumping on strangers with muddy paws, sniffing them, barking loudly and chasing people with a deep-seated fear.

That is where their owners come in and, it has to be said, many good dogs are let down by humans who can't control them properly or lift their mess.

It would be lovely to live in a world where dogs, along with their owners, could co-exist peacefully alongside the rest of us, with the twain never meeting.

But the number of times I have arrived home with dog doo on my shoes or plastered on the wheels of a buggy suggests to me that this isn't possible. Many's a good walk along the pavements and parks of Belfast has been ruined by the constant ground scan required to avoid a steaming pile.

Despite the valiant efforts of Belfast City Council to talk sense to owners, it's still a problem. Despite the increasing frequency with which you see owners producing a bag to lift the mess, it's still not enough.

And that's why dogs should not be allowed to roam free anywhere in a city. For once you allow your furry little friend to bound off, your ability to control what Fido gets up to is severely hampered.

Poo hygiene aside, the issue of control is a much more serious one. Even the most docile dog has an unpredictable streak. They are, after all, animals. And when you are occupying space which is shared by children, such as parks, you can't be careful enough. A split second of aggression from a dog can have devastating consequences. If they're not on a lead, it's hard for an owner to defend they were fully in control. If families are aware of 'off-lead' parts of parks or time zones, they can happily steer clear.

Parks are for everyone's enjoyment and, as hard as it is to imagine, some people just don't like dogs.

It's about 13 years since I could last describe myself as a dog owner, when my much-loved border collie died. Jason was a gentle and quiet soul who never even barked, let alone snarled. He usually preferred trotting at heel, rather than adventuring off, but he was still put on a lead as a case of 'you can never be too careful'.

I was lucky back then to live in the country, where there was the option to take Jason to river banks or mountain forest trails to let him loose if the fancy took him. He only came off the lead if there wasn't another soul for miles. They were always isolated locations and you simply can't find that kind of freedom for a dog in a city, nor are you entitled to.

Alex Kane: A park without space for pets isn't the sort of park I want to see

Public parks are just that - parks for the public to use. Parks that are paid for, equipped, staffed and maintained by ratepayers: parks which are free to use and open to all.

And it's amazing the variety of people who use them. Mums pushing prams while keeping an eye on their other children roaring ahead on bikes and scooters. Joggers. Cyclists. Picnickers. Footballers. Sunbathers. Groups of friends just sitting chatting. Old folk relaxing on benches. Children in the playgrounds. Tennis and basketball players. Daydreamers. Strollers. Children throwing sticks to knock down conkers. Music groups in the bandstands. Birthday parties. Muscles being stretched and honed on keep-fit machinery. Romantic walks. Teenagers revising for GCSEs. Beer drinkers. Lonely people who just want to see someone, anyone in fact, and hear a kindly voice or get a gentle nod of recognition. A three-year-old having their first lesson on a tricycle. Whole families just enjoying an afternoon out together.

That's the joy and sheer magic of parks. They are the source of so many happy memories. They are there to be shared and they're always at their best when "all human life is there".

That's why dogs and dog owners love them. The dogs romp and sniff and roll and bark and roll again and then fetch a chewed-up old stick again and again and again. And the whole time they're doing that their owners are quite often just chatting to each other and building their own friendships. It's the walk with the dog in the park which is often one of the first acts of independence and responsibility for children.

Letting a dog off the lead is important: as long as it is well trained and responds to the come back call from its owner. And in my experience most dog owners are responsible. They know when to put it on a lead again. They know not to let it run through groups of small children. They know when people, for whatever reason, are not comfortable near a dog. They know that their dog can look very, very big to a youngster. In other words, the relationship - although bond is usually a better word - between dog and owner is usually so good that the dog will do anything to please the owner.

Meeting and knowing how to deal with dogs is also a very good social skill to learn for people and children who don't have them. Dogs are mostly loving, kindly animals. They don't want to hurt people. They don't want to be seen as threats. Yes, sometimes they can be a little boisterous in their determination to demonstrate their affection and sense of play - but that is something that good, responsible owners can spot and deal with.

Dogs are not usually dangerous: unless, of course, they are being subjected to cruelty. But the sort of person who abuses a dog is not the sort of person who takes that dog for a walk and romp in the park. A park without the sound and sight of dogs chasing each other for fun, or fetching a stick, or rolling through grass is not the sort of park I want to see. Dogs like to be introduced to new people and love a pat on the head and a nuzzle under the chin.

So let's not treat dogs as though they are a menace, the sort of menace that needs to be confined to its own area and kept on a lead at other times. Dogs are a fact of everyday life. They are fun. They are friends. They are therapeutic. They are part of what a walk in the park is all about.

Paula: 'Plenty of space'

Paula Wynburne from the Ormeau Road has two dogs.

Dogs are better on the move than they are staying in one restricted area. If you come into the park on any but the sunniest days the only people are dog walkers. On the rainiest days they are desolate except for dog walkers. In the winter, there's nobody here but dog walkers. It is only at the weekends, on sunny days and evenings that you get others. It is difficult to say when dogs should be on leads. I can understand (introducing more control) at the weekends but otherwise there is enough space in the park that if people don't like dogs they can walk the other way. Dogs don't tend to go near people."

Dave: 'Guide dogs need a run'

Dave Cunningham, from the Lisburn Road area, was at the park with his guide dog Teddy and his mother Noeleen Jones.

"Teddy is my guide dog and this is his free run. A designated area would be fine but as a guide dog it is very important Teddy gets his free run because this helps him unwind. It's a way of me saying thank you for your hard work, now go and be a dog for an hour. People let their dogs off the lead in this park. The dogs know this area.

"As a guide dog owner I think a designated area would be fine but we need to let our dogs off the leads to let them de-stress and be dogs."

Brenda: 'I always use lead'

Brenda Stewart, from Magherafelt, was walking two rescue dogs, Dasher the greyhound and Oscar the Lancashire, on leads yesterday.

She believes dog owners who let their animals run free in the park are irresponsible.

I would be very keen on designated areas. I always keep my dogs on the lead. Owners that don't cause more trouble. If dogs are let off leads, what are you to do when a dog comes charging over to you? I wouldn't want to use my stick on a dog and hurt it."

Hanna: 'It's more strict than in Holland'

Hanna De Boer (26), originally from Holland and now living in Belfast, was walking her four-month-old Staffy Megan on a lead.

It does seem a little bit more strict here than it is in Holland. Megan is quite young so I try to take her off the lead but you are not allowed to in a lot of places. I think designated areas would be brilliant.

"In Holland we have those spaces where they are also just allowed to poop. You can let them go and they can do whatever they want. Also, there needs to be more little boxes where you can put your poopy-bag because there are not a lot of bins around in the neighbourhood and sometimes you can be walking with your stinky bag for 20 minutes."

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