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Getting a handle on Whistler’s off-leash dogs

Should the RMOW take a page from Coquitlam’s award-winning ‘Train Your Human’ campaign? 
Aaron Hilgerdenaar, right, at a 2019 community pet outreach event in New Westminster.

As the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) once again explores ways to curb off-leash dogs, one of the more persistent and long-running issues in the community, it may do well to look south to the City of Coquitlam. 

In 2015, officials there launched the “Train Your Human” campaign, a multipronged approach that paired education with increased off-leash areas and enforcement, along with a push to get as many dogs licenced as possible. The campaign, which in 2017 earned a CivicInfo BC Excellence in Action Award, resulted in a 44-per-cent drop in tickets issued for off-leash dogs, and a 39-per-cent rise in licenced dogs between June 2016 and May 2017. 

“Compliance is great here and our community is great here, but everybody has a part to play in ensuring our parks and open spaces are accessible to everybody,” said Aaron Hilgerdenaar, Coquitlam’s manager of bylaw enforcement and animal services. 

Despite Whistler’s Animal Responsibility Bylaw, which requires all dogs to be on leash (outside of designated off-leash areas), passing in 2019, countering the deeply entrenched off-leash dog culture here has proven a tall order for the RMOW. 

“I think that our community has long had a very dog-focused culture, and I think that has been a part of Whistler since I’ve been around,” said Councillor Jen Ford, who discussed the issue with other elected officials at Whistler’s July 6 council meeting. “Because we have such wide-open space and so many parks and trails where people can go, it’s just super common for people to see others with their dogs off leash. That continues the expectation or the feeling that off-leash is fine.”  

Bylaw officers have ample discretion when dealing with off-leash dogs, often resorting to a warning over a ticket, and even handing out free leashes to owners without one. 

As previously reported in Pique, the RMOW received a dozen complaints of off-leash dogs in the first half of 2020, double the amount from the same period the year prior, but handed out zero fines in that time. 

So far this year, eight dog bites have been reported to the RMOW, five of which received warnings, while two complainants did not provide additional info after filing their complaint, and one was closed due to a lack of information.

"Dog bite files can be complex and require a thorough investigation. Therefore, it’s important to provide sufficient information to the Bylaw Department so the claim can be adequately investigated, and if required, advanced," wrote a municipal spokesperson in an email. At a minimum, bylaw requires the date, description of incident and injuries, location and breed and/or description of dog to advance a complaint. 

One incident, on June 25, involved two young girls who were walking with their family on Nicklaus North Boulevard when they were both injured in a dog attack, police confirmed. The dog’s owner was issued a bylaw ticket. 

“They are pets, they are wonderful, but they are animals and despite what owners say, they are sometimes unpredictable,” wrote Dr. Bruce Mohr of the Whistler Health Care Centre in an email, who treated injuries to one of the girl’s back and forearm. 

One of the key ways Coquitlam has successfully reduced the number of loose dogs is through the introduction of two bylaw officers dedicated to a multitude of issues in the community’s more than 80 municipal parks. 

Hilgerdenaar acknowledged he had concerns about resourcing when the idea of committing two bylaw officers full-time to Coquitlam’s parks came up, but the ongoing presence has proven effective in shifting the culture. 

“It definitely supports the voluntary compliance and community engagement aspect of things,” he said. “The reality is we can’t have a bylaw officer in every park at every time. But in terms of positive impacts to the community, I would suggest the presence of bylaw officers in parks during peak times significantly supports ongoing compliance.”

Hilgerdenaar also credited the push to licence dogs as one way for City staff to get a handle on the number of animals locally, which “can be reflected in community amenities to parks staff when planning and operationalizing off-leash dog areas,” he said. 

Whistler has four parks with designated off-leash areas: Alpha Lake, Bayly Park, Rainbow Park and Lost Lake Park. There are also three mixed-used off-leash areas: Spruce Grove, where dogs are permitted off-leash when the fields are not in use; the Meadow Park ball fields, again, when the fields are not being used; and in the winter, on several sections of the Valley Trail: from Rainbow Park to the Meadow Park Sports Centre; from the Fitzsimmons Trail to PassivHaus; and the Riverside Campground dyke at Mons Road along Green Lake, from Nicklaus North to Alpine Way. 

“I’ve heard a few comments from different dog owners that the dog parks in various spots are inadequate for the type of use that would encourage them to go to those parks, so they end up not using those parks and would rather be out on trails,” explained Ford. 

Along with helping to fund operations at the Coquitlam Animal Shelter, licences—which are mandatory for dog owners in Whistler—are “the easiest and most efficient way to have your dog returned to you in a quick and efficient manner,” Hilgerdenaar said. “Having your dog licence displayed on your dog is not only in the bylaw as requisite, but it allows us to easily find your address, your phone numbers, and oftentimes reunite you with your pet without your pet even coming to our animal shelter.” 

In 2020, the RMOW said there were 546 paid dog licenses, and in 2021, that number was 387. 

Whistler’s council has asked staff to come back with suggestions on solving what Ford called “a very large and complicated community issue,” and she believes it essential to hear a range of perspectives. 

“I think the most important thing about any … change in how this is managed is to engage with the community, and not only dog owners but non-dog owners,” she said. 

A condensed version of this article appeared in the July 22 print edition of Pique.