POLITICS

Toronto's crackdown on off-leash dogs unusual move for a big city; observer

06/17/2015 09:17 EDT | Updated 06/17/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Toronto's bark was once worse than its bite when it came to dog leash laws, but not this summer.

The city is planning to hound its residents about the importance of keeping their pets tethered to their owners in public spaces through an enforcement blitz that some observers say is unusual in Canada.

John Decourcy, the city's bylaw enforcement director, says the campaign, which could see disobedient dog owners slapped with fines of up to $360, is meant to ensure that both adults and children can enjoy common spaces safely.

An organization that compiles a national travel guide for pet owners says Toronto's move stands out.

Angela Wu of Pet Friendly Canada says many municipalities hold educational campaigns to remind people of the importance of leashing their dogs, but says enforcement efforts are extremely rare.

Wu says Toronto is taking an unusual approach to a common and serious problem that needs to be addressed more directly.

"What we tend to hear is that there are education blitzes that last for a month or two, but beyond that we've never heard of a citywide, continued enforcement of leash laws," Wu said.

Toronto did focus its efforts on education in the summer of 2014, advising residents that dogs were to remain tethered to their owners at all times except when on the owner's personal property or in a designated off-leash zone. The city investigated 829 reports of dog handlers violating that law and laid 161 charges last year.

But Decourcy said the number of complaints posted so far in 2015 has already topped 1,000, adding the city needed to remind residents of the need to show respect in shared spaces.

"These calls are often from residents who have small children," Decourcy said. "When a dog runs up to children, regardless of the size of the dog, this can be a frightening experience for the child and the parent."

Animal rights advocates say it's more than just the humans at risk from uncontrolled canines.

Barbara Cartwright, chief executive of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, said animals are much like humans in their reactions to rogue dogs. Some welcome the chance to play, while more anxious types are more likely to get aggressive and possibly spark a confrontation.

Rogue dogs also pose a safety hazard to service animals on the job and the humans they're helping, she said.

Bylaws such as the ones governing Toronto, Ottawa and most other major cities, she said, are in the best interest of pets and pet owners alike.

"We all love to see our dogs running, chasing balls, enjoying themselves if it's comfortable, but that's what the off-leash areas are for," she said. "People know that...if they don't want to be around dogs running at large, then they can choose another route."

Follow Michelle McQuigge on Twitter @mich_mcq