Dogs and owners building their social bonds at Lake Cowichan

The term “pack mentality” typically has a bad rap, but that’s not the case for one group of dog lovers in Lake Cowichan.

Elvira Valdes

The term “pack mentality” typically has a bad rap, but that’s not the case for one group of dog lovers in Lake Cowichan.

Since January, a group of dog owners has been meeting regularly with their canine companions to enjoy some off-leash fun, forming bonds they say are not only good for the animals and humans alike, but also for the broader community.

“It really is a remarkable gift to give them,” said Brenda Bernhardt, speaking of the opportunity for dogs to play together. “So often we see young dogs that haven’t been socialized. They’ve only been around a couple of two-legs and maybe seen a dog [at a distance], but have maybe forgot what it’s like to be around other dogs.”

The group has a core 10 or 12 people who come regularly with their dogs, but many more who come and go more sporadically. They originally started gathering at Centennial Park, but then relocated to the soccer field below the former A.B. Greenwell School. The group meets there at 10:30 a.m. every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Bernhardt, a veterinarian who attends regularly with her dog, Cody, said the chance for dogs to be social and establish a pack of familiar faces they see regularly is very positive.

“We can be the boss, but we don’t speak their language, we don’t smell like them, we don’t have the same social cues,” she said. A chance for the dogs to run and play together has a number of benefits, both in terms of their quality of life and also the safety of Lake Cowichan residents.

“All these dogs being socialized makes them safe dogs in the community. So everybody benefits,” said Bernhardt. “These dogs have more confidence being here, they’re able to handle stress better, they’ve been exposed to other people and other situations. So they’re safer dogs. They’re less apt to fear-bite.”

Last Wednesday there were eight humans and seven dogs in attendance despite the gloomy weather. While the dogs ran about the field, chasing and wrestling playfully, the people who brought them caught up and socialized, all the while keeping an eye on their animal and cleaning up any messes.

Community members are invited to bring their dogs, no matter the breed or size.

“One of the differences between other parks and our park is that we have little chihuahuas here, pugs, and we have humongous dogs,” said Elvira Valdes, who comes with her young boxer/pitbull, Mali. “When a new dog comes we, all the owners, welcome them and make sure the new dog feels welcome and all the other dogs give them their own space.”

Valdes said its critical that if owners see their dog being aggressive, they temporarily put it on a leash and give it a “time out.” The dog learns quickly, she said, because it wants to be off-leash playing with its pals. The regular attendees have worked hard to cultivate an environment in which people are comfortable speaking up if they feel another person’s dog is being too rough.

“So it’s helpful that all the owners are here and correcting our dogs, so if there’s a new person who wants to come with a smaller or shyer dog we tell them not to be afraid because we’re always here watching,” she said.

Valdes also noted that one dog, a chihuahua named Angus, thinks he’s boss of the pack.

“He’s a little guy, and he feels so comfortable because none of the other dogs are aggressive. That the tiny little chihuahua feels like [that],” she said.

Anne McNabb has been bringing her two black labs, Jack and Pearl, all year, and noted the location at A.B. Greenwell, which is set back from the nearest residential area and surrounded by forests, is perfect for their gathering.

“With a site like this in particular, we’re not disturbing neighbours,” she said.

Last month, McNabb and Bernhardt met with Lake Cowichan mayor Ross Forrest to discuss the possibility of the town setting up an official dog park.

“Right now it’s too premature to comment on where. But we think it would add a lot of value to our community for sure,” said Forrest.

The A.B. Greenwell property is Crown land and belongs to School District 79. Forrest said he could not comment on whether the town is planning to purchase that land.

“I think we would build [a park] similar to where they are in most municipalities that have them,” he said. “Just a fenced in area. Most of them are double-gated so dogs can’t escape and a lot of it’s at the responsibility of the owner. They clean up after them.”

Forrest referenced North Cowichan’s dog park, which has separate areas for big and little dogs.

“We don’t want to see anybody hurt, people or dogs,” he said.

Currently, the town has an animal control bylaw requiring owners to “have control of a dog when in any street or public place by means of a leash not exceeding 2.5 metres in length.” Any dogs found “at large” may be taken and impounded.

Forrest acknowledged there are people in town who let their dogs off leash, usually without issue.

“But there are times when dogs are off leash in parks where they’re not supposed to be off leash and there are a lot of people who are frightened by dogs,” he said. “So we want something that works for both the dogs and the people so everybody can be happy.”

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