Friday, November 7, 2014

Off Leash Exercise for Dogs - Beach Vs Off leash Park Areas Vs Dog Parks

There is a lot of confusion within the local community in Wollongong about off leash areas for our dogs. 

There is a myriad of personal opinions, and unfortunately a whole lot of opinion passed off as information.... aka misinformation!

What is being forgotton, either deliberately or through lack of knowledge, is how our dogs actually behave at the various off leash areas. Whilst they may be "off leash", what they actually do and how they behave differs from one to the next.

As a vet who has an interest in behaviour - how and why we do what we do, visiting the dog parks and beaches this year with Piper has proved inspirational.

One has to look at off leash activities as not  just about being allowed to run "off leash", but everything about what the dog does, and how they feel, when they are in the different areas.

It is only when you understand this, then you can truly appreciate the benefits (and disadvantages) of each of the "off leash" areas available for dogs.

The three types of available off leash areas are
1. Beach
2. Unfenced park
3. Fenced park

Wollongong does not have a fenced park that our dogs are able to run in and play in.  This is a travesty, which I hope that the Councillors have the good sense to rectify.

 I fully support the development of a fenced dog park, as the unfenced parks are potentially dangerous (next to busy roads).

If you want to gain an understanding, then you need to spend time (I mean real time) in the different off leash areas... sit and observe.  Like I have.

Frankly, for me, it isn't about making people happy or unhappy, but in doing the right thing.   Sure, our dogs don't vote, and yes, they can be a public nuisance.
Maybe Council would prefer we got this type of dog!

The reality is, our dogs are part of our community.  Our modern Australian society recognises and accepts dogs (as we do other animals).  Until the day that changes, we need to accept that huge responsibility.

Dogs do not have more rights than people, but it is arrogant to say that we have more rights than them, or any other living creature.  There are societies where animals have no rights, are perhaps a source of food, or , but we don't have that here in Wollongong, or even Australia.

The fact that Australia is a tolerant, animal loving society is one of the many reasons I am proud to call this place home.
Dog's form a big part of every family.

 If we are going to accept them as part of our general community, we also have to accept responsibility for their overall wellbeing.  Those who do not like dogs in our society don't have to like this fact, but they should be mature enough to accept it.

Did you know that there are communities where all pets are banned?  I have visited several suburbs or developments where the residents are unable to keep dogs and cats as pets.

Wollongong is not one of them. You should not create retrograde legislation to make Wollongong an unpleasant place to live with a dog or cat.

Let us talk about exercise and our dogs. 

 Some dogs do not need leash or off leash exercise.  These are the anxious, worried dogs or those who are naturally sedentary.
"It's a big scary world out there, so I'll just stay under my blankee"

Let us talk about "leash " exercise first.  

For most people who walk their dogs on the leash, the dog is either beside them or in front, the walk may be brisk, likely to go on for 20 minutes to an hour.   The dog may be physically tired, but not mentally tired.   Some of these dogs are still bored and continue to do destructive behaviours at home, such as digging, whining, escaping.

I know, we have one ourselves... her name is Piper.  She could go for several leash walks a day, but still have "energy to burn".
These are the dogs whose owners ring me up, frustrated that their dogs are still wanting to escape even though they have been for two walks that day.

There are of course, many other dogs who find this is just their type of exercise, and are happy with that. As a pet owner, you need to know what is the right thing for your pet.

Now, let us talk about "off leash areas". 

I'll start with the off leash parks first.  For those who are not from Wollongong, we do not have fenced dog parks as they have in other areas.  For the locals, you need to visit some of the Sydney dog parks, or read my blog about them, to appreciate what they really are. 

Our off leash parks are not fenced, and are usually large open fields with trees on one boundary, and usually a creek or busy road on the other 2-3 sides. 

But what can a dog do when they get there?
Eleebana Park - a big area, but boundary is a creek and a busy road.
And no other dogs - no surprise.

Well, dogs like to use their noses, and go exploring. They like to investigate, and nosey about.  If there are other dogs, they often like to go up to see who wants to play tag, or run around the place.

Very few are questioning the functionality of our existing off leash park areas.  Whilst I have to be thankful that at least we have some, for day to day "off leash" exercise, I question whether they are truly appropriate or well thought out.

Even so,  the ones we have should still continue to exist... I can't advocate closing what limited off leash parks we do have.

Sadly, Wollongong does not have any "fenced" off leash dog park, in fact, its overall animal management plan is appalling.

Fenced dog park exercise

A true dog park has several features which I have written about before. But what does a dog do there?  

I have observed dog-dog and human - human interactions at dog parks, that I have not observed elsewhere.  As the pet owners are more relaxed knowing that their dog is not going to go chasing something down a busy road, they are more likely to approach and be approached to start up a discussion. 

A local hub or community is formed.  Often people will arrange to go at the same time so their dogs will have a fun time, and they do too.
Paige(my youngest) is sitting whilst Piper (the kelpie)
and her new friends are playing

  It is a way of bringing people who may not know other people together - through the communal love of their animals, as well as wanting to give them a change of scenery.

Dogs can stretch out and run safely.  They may reach out to other dogs to see if they want to play, and if not, go and find another one that does.  Games of "tag, you're it" are common place, with both parties willing participants in this chasing and tagging game.

But the single most important that that I was struck by, and pleasantly surprised too  - the dog parks aren't just for dogs, they are for people.  People who only have their pets as companions, will speak with other people at the dog park (whereas they are unlikely to at other places). 

It is a dog centred community facility, that everyone benefits by.

 And that is what our community needs!

Let us get onto our beaches.

Have you sat and watched what a dog does at the beach?  They will run around, investigate the waves as they ebb in and out, perhaps go for a little swim. Owners will often throw a stick or a ball.

The beach is often full of amazing sea smells, the sand is perfect for dogs to stretch out their muscles and joints.

When we had a couple of busy days at home, and the best we could do was walk Piper around the block, Tegan made the point that she was going to take Piper to the beach so she could get "worn out".   How many other dog owners find the same thing with their dog?

Quite a few, I suspect.

It is inappropriate to say that the "off leash" exercise a dog gets at the beach, is the same as it could get at a fenced dog park, and therefore, you could legitimately swap one for the other. You can't!

Our off leash beaches need to stay as they are (in fact, you need to increase the space available), BUT we still do need a suitably sized, suitably fenced off leash dog park with no need for fancy agility equipment.

The reality, which seems to escape many, is.... our dogs are part of our community.  For good, for bad. It is what it is. Everyone in the community, whether they like it or not, need to understand and accept this. 
Dogs may not vote, but they are still an important part of our

Banning or restricting the available activity areas of our dogs is not only unfair but is totally unreasonable. 

Of course, I am preaching to the converted here. 

Those who have the power to make the decision, are unlikely to read this, or even get off their butts and watch for themselves. Those who have the power, and are reading this,  congratulations and thank you.

I hope you brought an open mind when you visited the dog beaches and park areas,  and not just see the little bags of poo tied up neatly on the foreshore, or hear the abuse hurled at you by nasty dog owners.  

If you opened your eyes and ears, you will see positive human - pet- human interactions being the more common experience, not the dog attacks that make the headlines.

I am Dr Liz, the mad vet from Bellambi. I hope that a shred of common sense walks the halls of our local Council, and those with the power to do so, review sensibly their Animal Management programs.