Paws for concern: is pea gravel injuring dogs in off-leash areas?

A dog owner says her pup was injured by the pea gravel used in some of Toronto's off-leash dog areas. Dilshad Burman with what the city is doing to address long-standing concerns about the stony surface.

By Dilshad Burman

Since 2013, the City of Toronto has been using pea gravel in some off-leash dog parks and the surface hasn’t been pleasant for pups’ paws.

Arson the one-year-old Dalmatian has suffered scratches, a badly injured nail and most recently, a severely scraped paw, says his owner Kelsey Hicks.

“I was [at the park] for probably five minutes and Arson came walking up to me and I saw on his carpal pad … it was bleeding and there was a piece of flesh hanging off of it,” she tells CityNews, adding that while the stones aren’t supposed to be sharp, they are quite jagged and lead to injuries.

“I feel like a bad dog mum because he’s getting hurt and he’s my responsibility. He should not be getting hurt,” says Hicks.

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Raymond Thomson, Policy & Project Advisor, Parks, Forestry & Recreation, says the surface of any off-leash dog park is carefully chosen based on the conditions and needs of a specific location.

“We haven’t done this unilaterally on our own. Over the years we have looked at a variety of surface materials – we look to experts, we look to the community, we look to other jurisdictions to see what they’re doing and what we’ve found is that pea gravel is a safe surface material for dogs and for people.

Thomson adds that pea gravel is not the standard surface used in all off-leash areas across the city, but it is used in locations where drainage is a concern — about 20 per cent of off-leash areas — since it is suitable for that specific purpose.

However, it isn’t suitable for much else, according to Ward 14 councillor Paula Fletcher

Fletcher has been vocal in her concerns and successfully moved a motion at City Hall in April to have Greenwood Dog Park in Leslieville resurfaced. The move came after a visually impaired women fell and broke her cane while walking her dog in the gravel. She was then ticketed by a bylaw officer for having her dog off-leash in the park instead of inside the designated off-leash area where she fell.

Fletcher says the the low cost of the gravel was an influential factor in the decision to use it and despite what the parks department says, it was not properly researched before it was adopted as the official surface of choice.

“The study that was done to make that decision was done on a number of small test sites. The test sites weren’t big enough to actually replicate off-leash areas and large dogs running on it, or anybody else walking on it for any distance,” she tells CityNews. “So that was an unfortunate mistake — not to have really robust testing.”

Parks, Forestry & Recreation says they currently have a city-wide study of the off-leash dog parks underway to see how they can be improved. It will include meetings with stakeholders, online surveys and “pup-up” consultations in parks across Toronto. The study started in the spring and is expected to conclude this winter.

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