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Proposed Plan For Service Dog Park In Barrie Welcome

Cheryl Browne – Barrie Examiner – January 21, 2016

Michelle Woolfrey is giving two thumbs up for a service dog off-leash park in Barrie.

The blind, 24-year-old Barrie woman said she often takes her guide dog Thomson to the dog off-leash park near the Barrie Molson Centre for recreation.

"They need a healthy balance of work and play," Woolfrey said.

Thomson is a seven-year-old standard poodle. He has been Woolfrey's eyes since she was diagnosed with a spinal fluid build-up in her brain that caused her blindness when she was 16.

Woolfrey's mother Diane drives the pair to the south-end dog park. Michelle sits on a bench as dogs burn off energy running around her.

But it's not the best-case scenario for Woolfrey and Thomson.

Woolfrey said Thomson was bitten by an aggressive dog at the park and another time he sliced open his paw on a piece of glass dropped in the enclosure.

"We have a challenge with that because being bitten or hurt, he couldn't work. He was off work for a few days to heal, and that leaves me stranded," she said.

A motion brought to city council in November could change all that.

Cheryl Dillon, who works in the city's accessibility office, said there are very few cities in Canada to offer their residents a service-dog park.

"It's quite unique. There are no other places like this in Ontario," Dillon said.

Dillon said while sighted people can watch their dog interact with other dogs – and break up a fight if one occurs – blind people or those with mobility issues can't always intervene.

A service dog only park would allow non-aggressive guide dogs to play with other non-aggressive dogs.

"A blind person doesn't have the same opportunities to exercise their dog," Dillon said. "When service dogs are working, they're at work. They're incredibly well-trained dogs and for their health and fitness, they do need a place to exercise."

The sole off-leash service-dog park in Canada opened in Halifax in 2009, but was recently closed when the city needed the land to construct a round-about.

City staff expect to open a new dog park at Ardmore Park in Halifax this year.

The site was chosen because it has good access to public transportation, the area is well-lit and well-maintained, has a flat lawn, as well as trees for partial shade.

A four-foot fence surrounds the 90-foot by 45-foot area that is approximately 4,000 square feet, said Tiffany Chase, spokeswoman at Halifax city hall.

"And, there is a paddock area where the dogs will transition from the outside to the service dog park," Chase said, adding the paddock is 10-feet by 10-feet, and contains a bench.

The Maritime site was built with about a dozen service-dogs in mind, but media reports said they expect 100 dogs will use the park each year.

Locally, there are approximately 30 COPE therapy dogs, said Kim Jeffery with the Barrie chapter, that assist with everything from mobility issues to psychiatric concerns, such as anxiety or trauma.

"Our dogs have been specifically trained not to be aggressive and quite often at the dog park there are aggressive dogs," Jeffery said.

She also noted that because proof of vaccinations are not a requirement for entrance to dog parks, viruses like kennel cough can spread easily.

Each COPE dog costs between $25,000 to $30,000 to breed, raise and train, she said. Having a place for them to run and play while service-dogs are training would be helpful, too.

Dillon said the Barrie accessibility centre will research the feasibility of a service-dog park in Barrie and report to council in the spring.

Editor's note: Michelle Woolfrey is a GDUC life member, and is currently serving as secretary to our Simcoe-Muskoka Chapter. Please Contact Us if you would like more information about establishing a GDUC Chapter in your region, city, or town. We believe that the creation of chapters is one of the best ways of encouraging advocacy at the grass roots level.

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