Public play parks for dogs trialled in England to fight rise in unruly pets

dog play park
Maggie Davies

More new owners and a lack of training during Covid has ignited a pushback against rowdy canines

It’s a common enough sight in the large, securely enclosed dog park: let off their leads and given a licence to play, small dogs and big dogs racing up to one another, gleefully wagging their tails, the bold ones attempting a judicious sniff of their new acquaintance’s most intimate body parts, the young ones embarking on a “zoomie” together around the perimeter.

“I’ve seen German shepherds playing with jack russells, huskies playing with miniature schnauzers, lurchers and rottweilers playing with bichons and cockapoos,” said Pat Heard, a dog charity worker who recently persuaded her local council to create one of the UK’s first public dog parks in her home town of Cramlington, Northumberland.

Now other councils are sniffing out the advantages of the idea as well. The latest is Hillingdon council in west London, after a petition for an enclosed “dog play park” to be created inside one of the council’s local parks received 100 signatures.

“This well-thought-out proposal, if introduced, would put Hillingdon on the map as an innovative council that was thinking outside the box,” said Hillingdon councillor Reeta Chamdal at a recent council meeting.

The move to hive off council-owned spaces for dogs has been sparked by what now appears to be a growing backlash against badly behaved dogs in the UK’s parks and nature reserves after a sharp rise in dog ownership during the pandemic.

Then, social distancing and lockdown restrictions prevented many new dog owners from adequately socialising their pets or taking them to training classes, leaving behind a legacy of unruly animals ever since.

Last week Cambridge council more than doubled the number of open green spaces in the city where dogs must be kept on a lead “to help protect wildlife” during the bird nesting season, while
Liverpool council last year banned dogs from more than 70 playgrounds and sports pitches.

Dog owners in urban areas say their needs are not being properly considered by councils that are banning dogs from spaces.

“Issues like this stoke division within communities,” said Dan Janes, chair of the Guest Road Area Residents’ Association in central Cambridge. “Dogs need to be exercised off-lead, and I commend other councils that are allocating resources for this.”

He lives near Mill Road Cemetery, a green oasis in the city centre which is popular with dog owners and now subject to the new restrictions. “Having to get into a car to drive to an alternative walking spot is counterproductive and will add to the congestion on the city’s roads.”

Matthew Nelson, a Hillingdon resident, put forward the idea of an enclosed dog area to the council after realising there were no local parks where he could safely let his beagle cross, Bertie, off the lead to have a good run. “I rehomed Bertie in December 2020. During all the Covid restrictions, very few dog trainers were doing group classes for puppies,” he said.

Owners need dedicated spaces to go to train their dogs off-lead, and offering such a space in the local Dowding park would give owners of “reactive” dogs peace of mind, he said, especially if the council agreed to let the dog park to one owner at a time in half-hour slots for a £2 fee.

Designated dog areas in public parks are commonplace in big cities in the US and Canada, and can also be found in Milan, Berlin and Paris.

But in the UK, most dedicated dog spaces are in privately owned fields in the countryside which must be rented, typically for about £10 an hour.

In Cramlington, the council’s fenced-in dog park is entirely free to use. Formerly it was an empty green space within Alexandra Park, which already contained a children’s playground, skatepark and football pitch – all spaces where dogs were not welcome and could be a nuisance.

“There was clearly a need. Owners wanted somewhere safe they could let their dogs off,” said Heard, a town councillor who runs Dogs First animal rescue. “Dogs were encroaching where kids wanted to play.”

She suggested the idea to her fellow councillors after noticing lots of dogs coming into her rescue shelter with behavioural problems.

“During Covid, an awful lot of people went out and got dogs who hadn’t had dogs before. And with social distancing, they didn’t let their dogs off the lead or meet up with other dogs to socialise,” she said.

Unsocialised dogs can appear to react aggressively to people and other dogs, especially when they are on a lead and unable to run away: “Dogs learn to be dogs by playing together off the lead,” she said.

After a public consultation, the council allocated £20,000 to the park’s creation and it opened in March. “We are now hoping to open another one,” said Heard, who often visits the park with her five pets. “It’s been incredible. So many people have made friends through their dogs making friends with other dogs. We watch the dogs enjoying themselves – you can’t help but smile.”

She helped to design the space to ensure there are no 90-degree corners where dominant dogs can pin other dogs and make them feel threatened: “In a dog park, dogs realise chasing can be fun.”

(Story source: The Guardian)

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