What You Might Not Know About Leash Free Dog Parks

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While most people know there are leash-free areas in several of Mississauga's parks, few know that those areas are not actually funded or maintained by the city -- they're run by a group of dedicated and passionate volunteers from Leash-Free Mississauga (LFM).

"I'm a volunteer and I found out [LFM] about two-and-half or three months ago when I went to [my city councillor] Karen Ras to ask about an area for small dogs," says Eileen Wright, a volunteer and advocate for the organization.

"I was asked if I was a member of LFM. I thought it was a city initiative, but it's not. Now, I feel an obligation to give back."

LFM, a not-for-profit organization, currently funds and operates designated leash-free areas for dogs of all shapes and sizes in seven parks -- Etobicoke Valley, Garnetwood, Jack Darling, Lakeside, Parkway Belt, Quenippenon and Totoredaca.

The organization started to take shape in 1995 when three groups of dog owners contacted the city to request that bylaws be amended to allow the formation of off-leash zones. The city acknowledged the request by permitting the owners to launch a pilot program -- a very successful one. Eventually, the owners realized there was power in numbers and decided to form a singular organization that could better advocate for dogs and owners. After forming LFM, the group connected with a city liaison who helped them with set up, fundraising and the complexities of municipal policy navigation.

Now, the group is responsible for fundraising, sponsorship and liaising with the city. The volunteers oversee the general operation of the spaces and provide poop bags. They host cleanup days and various fundraising events and they're responsible for all the costs involved in setting up and maintaining the off-leash zones. Although the city is not responsible for the zones, it will cover up-front costs that LFM is required to reimburse. To help make ends meet, the group charges a voluntary membership fee of $15 or $20 depending on the number of animals the member owns.

"People think the parks are city-run," says Gayle Laws, president of LFM. "People can just use the parks [without being members], but they don't know there are volunteers running them in their spare time."

Right now, Laws and Wright (and others) are working to raise LFM's profile so that it can standardize and improve the parks in terms of fencing and lighting (some parks have better fencing and nighttime visibility than others) and garner more community support. Forming a united organization certainly helped dog parents better pursue their ambitions, but Laws says that the organization has really come together over the past two or three years.

"I joined the board about two years ago as a volunteer, first as director of membership and then was elected president in December 2014," says Laws. "We have a full, active board this year and are making progress on a number of issues to promote membership, spread the word about how the parks run and enhance the parks. We also are working with the city to promote more parks -- ideally one per ward."

While the organization has done a wonderful job keeping off-leash areas afloat, members are always looking for ways to bring bigger and better improvements to the areas that operate under their watch. They're also hoping to expand their mission.

"We definitely need more leash-free parks, hence why I got involved," says Laws. "The current parks are around the periphery of Mississauga and most people have to drive to get there, sometimes 15 to 20 minutes. It is against the city’s bylaw for dogs to be off leash, especially in public parks and schoolyards, so we need more parks that are located within communities, ideally within walking distances.

Laws also brings up a salient point about the necessity of more and better off-leash parks in a city brimming with new condo and townhouse developments. Although residents are living in smaller and more compact homes and neighbourhoods, their desire for big and energetic fur-babies hasn't gone anywhere.

"Basically the population of Mississauga has grown substantially and the dog population has grown as well," Laws says. "The city told us last year that there were about 50,000 dogs in the city. We know a lot of dogs live in the new condo buildings and in townhouses with small backyards, so they need these parks to run around, exercise and socialize."

One big initiative that LFM is working on -- one that was Wright's baby -- is setting aside space in Jack Darling Park for small breeds.

All too often, horrific stories of petite dogs being killed or maimed by large dogs in off-leash areas hit the news. Since small dog owners want their pets to experience the joy of exhilarating leash-free exercise, the formation of size-specific zones is a godsend.

"Jack Darling will soon have a designated spot for small dogs," Wright says. "My husband and I took our small Jack Russell Terrier Nina to Florida and we saw a segregated area for dogs under 20 pounds and Nina, who is a rescue, just thrived. I find Jack Darling to be big and overwhelming when you have a small dog. If she runs around a corner and I can't see her, I panic."

Fortunately for Wright, the city was listening. When she reached out to Ras for help regarding a small-dog area, the councillor was quick to connect her to Laws.

"I'm grateful to these people," Wright says. "I'm grateful to Karen Ras -- she's pro-dog."

Wright says the small dog area should be completed in June or July of this year.

The city's approach -- both proactive and hands-off, strangely enough -- makes sense. Although off-leash areas might not seem terribly important to the average resident who doesn't own a dog or doesn't care to bring his or her furry friend to a leash-free zone, they actually work to segregate dogs from park goers who might be afraid of canines and they ensure that dogs -- and owners -- are getting sufficient outdoor exercise in a city that gets denser by the day.

"The benefits are numerous," Laws begins. "For the dogs, they can run around. Many of them have lots of energy and need to run for health reasons, and [the parks] promote socialization with other dogs. They play, they sniff, and they get a few minutes of total freedom that a leash does not allow. The benefits to owners are great. They get to meet other dog owners, develop friendships, share stories on dog training and behaviour, share a laugh, and get exercise themselves as they walk around the parks."

Right now, LFM is looking for more members and volunteers to help the organization raise money for upkeep and growth. They're also hoping to get some younger people on board.

"We're looking for kids who need to do their community service hours," says Wright. "They can help with graphic design [for promotional materials], written content, social media and park cleanup. Young people have grown up with technology and they can help us."

As for current fundraising, Laws says that LFM sells a calendar full of photos of local dogs and hosts adorable and seasonally appropriate events. Earlier this year, the organization put on a doggy Easter egg hunt. Last year, they organized a dog Halloween party. They've also hosted dog parades.

"We engage people and friendships are formed. People who meet at the park become friends. People love to talk about their dogs," Laws says.

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