A lesser-known promise made by Mark Sutcliffe during his mayoral campaign in 2022 was to build three new off-leash dog parks in Ottawa.

One proposal, for a 350-square-metre fenced space at Andy Shields Park in Greely, has now garnered support from the community.

Some say it’s about time.

Viola Larkin, a local trainer of more than 20 years and owner of A Pawsitive Difference Dog Training, says more dog parks will limit overcrowding and relieve some issues afflicting dog parks.

While the City of Ottawa allows leashed dogs in many parks, it is currently home to just 11 fenced off-leash parks, a number Larkin says needs to grow.

“Access to dog parks is definitely lacking because there are many people who are unable to have their dog off-leash [in open areas] due to the breed or the level of obedience.”

Larkin says she has numerous clients who “insist on going to dog parks,” and the demand is there.

But she also issues a caution.

“Dog parks can be amazing, but they can also be a nightmare because it only takes one dog to ruin it for everyone. When you go to a dog park you see that behaviour daily,” said Larkin. “It can be congestion too. Going to a place with so many dogs and throwing yours in the mix could really easily become an issue.”

According to results from a public survey about Andy Shields Park, the prospective off-leash area was “well received” by community members, though there were concerns about the proposed location of the park and its amenities. The area would share some communal space with a playground and several baseball diamonds and sports fields — areas generally used by families.

Children and dogs are permitted to share off-leash spaces, except for a few dog parks with distinct signage prohibiting kids. For patrons of other dog parks in Ottawa, the presence of children in off-leashed fenced dog parks is a concern for some.

In Greely, the city intends to add benches, picnic tables, trees, dog waste receptacles, a leashing area, a paved area, pee posts and signage. [Map and information Engage Ottawa]

Monika Zawilska, a regular at the McNabb Dog Park in Centretown, says she frequently sees unattended children running around in the fenced baseball diamond used for off-leash dogs.

“I don’t understand it because there are other areas for them to play. I have never seen any children get hurt, but many close calls. I understand if families with dogs bring their smaller children in the dog park,” said Zawilska. “But, it isn’t a safe place to let children play freely.”

Zawilska also said she had seen many instances of bigger dogs being removed from the park because although the dogs were considered safe, they had become a problem if small children were in their path.

Larkin agrees children bring a number of distinct risks to dog parks that hinder dogs from using the limited spaces they have.

“I don’t think kids should be going to dog parks. And if you do bring your child, at least keep a very close eye on them. You don’t want that little toddler to be overwhelmed and possibly get bitten, run over, jumped on or pushed over by a dog that is too rambunctious,” Larkin said.

Aside from expanding off-leash spaces for dogs, Larkin says she doesn’t see a likely resolution from the city that would effectively make dog parks safer for kids, or pets.

“I think people do whatever they want to do and there’s no one there to supervise these parks anyways. I think it would be good to have a separate off-leashed area for smaller and bigger dogs to avoid trampling.”

According to Larkin, the addition of a separate area can help prevent injury and mitigate disputes between dogs, as well as owners.

“I’ve seen it twice where two dogs got in a fight, the owners tried to intervene, and both owners got bit. I think it came down to one dog that just shouldn’t have been there.”

The City of Ottawa relies on the Dogs in Parks Designation Policy; a point system to consistently determine the level of access dogs have across Ottawa based on “whether or not dogs are compatible with activities expected in the park.”

The policy gauges the size of the park, its facilities and proximity to schools or community centres to determine whether dogs are free to roam, have to be leashed or aren’t allowed entirely.

Brendan Butler, the owner of a Portuguese Water Dog named Iara, has loved having McNabb dog park nearby for the past four years, and aside from minor disputes, said it has been mostly positive.

“I’m just glad the park exists. I’ve also made a lot of friends here and everyone kind of knows each other. The city does a great job taking care of it and I’m happy.”

A timeline for the new off-leashed zone at Andy Shields Park isn’t available, but the city is urging people to share their initial comments on the project.