PEOPLE ACROSS THE country have raised concerns with councils about dogs running off leash in their local parks, streets, playgrounds and beaches.
A litany of complaints to local authorities in the past three years included numerous incidents in which members of the public were met with aggression when asking dog owners to control their dogs.
People wrote to their local councils to complain about off-lead dogs fouling parks, beaches and even in a cemetery with no owners in sight. Many complaints referred to restricted breeds.
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Many complainants said they or their children were increasingly nervous about visiting local amenities such as parks and beaches because of out of control dogs, with several saying they believed the problem had deteriorated since the pandemic.
There has been renewed public interest in the question of responsible dog ownership in recent months.
Debate has reignited on how and whether to regulate certain breeds, as discussed on a recent episode of The Journal’s The Explainer podcast, while dog charities have warned of a growing crisis of unwanted dogs, following the significant increase in ownership that occurred during the pandemic.
In many public parks and on some of Ireland’s most popular beaches, dogs are required under council byelaws to be kept on leash either at all times or for most of the day. Regardless of local byelaws, under the Control of Dogs Act, all dogs should be under effectual control in public areas at all times, even if not on a lead.
However, council records indicate these rules are widely flouted by dog owners who are unable or unwilling to control their pets.
Records show councils logging and responding to complaints, including by despatching dog wardens to specific locations, stepping up patrols and erecting signage.
However, councils sometimes noted that their dog wardens could not be in all places at once, while a large volume of complaints came from members of the public who believed the level of enforcement in their area was inadequate.
Numerous complaints about restricted breeds
Over 150 complaints related to dogs off leads in both parks and residential areas were logged by Dublin city council last year, with a high proportion referring to restricted breeds including akitas, rottweilers and Staffordshire bull terriers.
By law, restricted breeds should be muzzled and kept on short leads at all times in public.
In Cork city, one owner’s two dogs – both restricted breeds – were found without their owner and seized by a dog warden on two separate occasions. On one occasion the dogs were running around near shops and on the other chasing birds in the Lough. Calls were also received on a third occasion about the same dogs being out on their own.
Records indicate the council built a case to prosecute the owner, as well as levying on-the-spot fines and charging him fees to reclaim his animals.
South Dublin County Council received an email in June from someone who was attacked while out with their wife by a bull terrier in Corkagh Park.
The complainant, who appealed to the council to improve enforcement of its byelaws against unleashed dogs in the park, said the “frightening attack” occurred when the dog’s owner was unable to get it under control.
Meath County Council has received several reports since 2021 of restricted breed dogs running off-lead, including pitbulls and rottweilers.
‘I now walk in fear’
Vulnerable park users, including children and older people, have been affected by the problem.
One wheelchair user told Wexford County Council in June 2022 that they and their carer had previously walked a small dog morning and evening in the local park, where other park users were now letting dogs “run riot” off their leads.
The complainant’s dog had been attacked on two occasions, while their carer had had to “fight” a dog on one occasion as they tried to pick the complainant’s dog up.
“The fact of the other dogs is what has put me off going to the park and I miss it,” the wheelchair user said.
One complainant told Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council their daughter had been “terrorised by an off-lead dog” on the way to school through Carysfort Park in Blackrock, Co Dublin.
Another resident complained that “numerous dogs” were off their leads every day in nearby Rockfield Park in Blackrock, adding: “A German shepherd off its lead knocked my five-year-old off his bike today – the owner had no control over the dog”.
In both instances, the council responded that the parks in question were not listed in its byelaws, meaning dogs off leads were not prohibited. The dog warden was requested to carry out additional patrols.
An older woman told Cork City Council last February that “very large, vicious dogs” were often loose in Clashduv. The official who reported her complaint to the dog warden noted that she was “in fear” that something would happen to someone in the park, where children were playing.
Dogs off leash and defecating on graves were reported at St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.
A family who had a picnic in Regional Park in Ballincollig, outside Cork city, said they were beset by unaccompanied dogs “running for our food”, with one dog “so aggressive that he took one packet of food despite our effort”.
The family’s children were “so scared and screamed for help, but no dog owner showed up”.
When the dog owner arrived and the family asked her to leash the dog, “she insisted that everyone let the dogs run around without a leash and that we should not be having a picnic in the field”.
In February 2021, a Lucan resident complained to South Dublin County Council of seeing two dogs off-lead in Griffeen Valley Park playground, and several others over the previous week including a bull terrier.
“I am constantly having to ask people to put dogs on the lead. I shouldn’t have to do this,” the complainant said.
More and more people have dogs due to Covid. You need to police this and invest in it.
“It’s not fair to those of us who want to exercise in the park. Priority should be given to humans, not animals!”
In January 2022, Wicklow County Council received reports of an attack by an uncontrolled dog at Brittas Bay which had left an older person requiring medical attention for a wound on their leg.
“I am a regular walker on the beach and it has become very noticeable in the last year the large number of dogs on the beach, especially large ones roaming the beach with little or no control by their handlers,” the complainant said.
“I now walk in fear as with Covid and my age, this is my only outlet for exercise and mental wellbeing.”
The council replied saying the dog wardens would be asked to place more emphasis on advising the public on control of dogs.
‘Running wild’ on beaches
Many concerns were raised about out of control dogs on beaches and at popular swimming spots – even at locations where dogs are prohibited off-lead.
Fine Gael junior minister Jennifer Carroll MacNeill complained to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council last year after she received representations that Killiney Beach was “overrun with dogs off-lead at all times of the day”, with the rule that dogs are not permitted on the beach at all between 10am and 7pm during the bathing season “completely ignored”.
“Beach goers have reported unleashed dogs urinating on beach bags, chairs and towels, fouling the beach with no owners in sight. Some parents have commented on dogs running up to small children and frightening them, again with no owner in sight,” the minister wrote.
After receiving complaints about dogs at Sandycove, a popular swimming spot in south Dublin, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council asked its dog warden to increase patrols there last year.
Records stated that the warden was “extremely busy patrolling all the beaches and parks in the county”.
Despite dogs not being permitted on Co Clare beaches between 11am and 6pm, dogs were reported to be “running wild” at Spanish Point in July 2022.
In September 2022, a regular walker at Kilkee Beach in Co Clare said they were “exasperated at the flagrant disregard of the beach byelaws” on dogs.
Since Covid, dog lovers seem to have decided that not one, but two or even three dogs are necessary to keep their owners company.
“I don’t object to this but I do object to dogs of all shapes and sizes roaming freely on the beach without official enforcement,” they wrote.
A regular visitor to Curracloe Beach in Co Wexford said in 2021 that they had stopped walking there in the mornings because of the number of dogs off leads.
“Dogs of all sizes and breeds are left run wild,” the complaint said.
It is most frightening at times. The belligerence of the owners is also an issue.
“[They] feel they are doing nothing wrong. What gives them the right to make us walkers uncomfortable on our own local beach? There are also many dangerous breeds of dogs visible on the beach without both leads and muzzles,” the complainant said.
Several internal reports of dog warden patrols on beaches in Wexford were released.
In one such report from Easter 2022, the warden said he found “lots of dogs loose and not under any control” at Curracloe. Some owners he spoke to were “very nice” and some were “quite aggressive and refused to use the leads”.
On the same day, the warden also found dogs off leads on Duncannon and Ballinsker Beach, but no issues at some other beaches visited.
Donegal County Council recorded many complaints of dogs loose or out of control on beaches, including an incident in July when a pup was attacked on Dunfanaghy Beach by a “bulldog type”, with both dogs unleashed at the time.
In July 2022, one regular swimmer at Salterstown reported to Louth County Council that dogs off leads came “sniffing around” her children, who do not like dogs, and one “peed on my swim basket”.
In the same month, another swimmer complained of dogs “running loose everywhere” on Templetown Beach in Louth, with one peeing on her clothes.
Other owners reporting unleashed dogs
A large number of complaints came from other dog owners, who, while walking their own dogs on leads, were approached by off-lead dogs.
Many reported other dog owners being dismissive or becoming aggressive when asked to control their dogs or to leash them.
In February 2023, a pregnant woman, whose leashed dogs was attacked by three off-lead dogs on Port Beach in County Louth while their owner watched, said she had to throw a metal water bottle at one of the dogs “to get him to run off”.
A separate incident on the same beach in which a pregnant woman and children were approached by a dog in April 2022 was reported by an onlooker.
South Dublin County Council received a complaint in June from a dog owner, who walks their dog on a leash in Corkagh Park in Clondalkin, about “large dogs off-lead and irresponsible owners not able to control them”.
“My dog is on a leash and gets approached by large dogs that are absolutely scary and have zero recall with their owners. It’s usually men who are walking those dogs, and they also act abusive to women who ask them to put their dog on a leash,” the complainant wrote.
Another Clondalkin resident complained this year about dogs off lead in St Cuthbert’s Park making their dog, a Jack Russell, “very nervous”. The complainant was abused by a group of “kids” when they asked them to put a dog on their lead. The complainant said:
I am so upset and it will stop me walking in the park or anywhere again.
Social Democrats Councillor Eoin Ó Broin complained to South Dublin County Council of dogs “constantly…off their leads running around” in Rathcoole Park.
“We’ve lost swans, we lost ducks. We love our park and it’s a disgrace it’s not valued by a small number of people,” Councillor Ó Broin said.
A council official responded in July that park rangers would continue to monitor the situation, but noted that under the Control of Dogs Act, responsibility for keeping dogs under control – generally be leashing them – rested with owners.
“Unfortunately, it is the case that despite the notices in our parks, some dog owners choose not to make themselves aware of their responsibilities and ignore signs until directly challenged,” the official said.
Responsible dog ownership key
Gillian Bird, head of education at the DSPCA animal welfare charity, said the problem of out of control dogs running off-leash has become more prevalent in line with the significant increase in dog ownership of recent years, particularly during the pandemic.
“At the end of the day, dog owners need to understand they are responsible for the behaviour of their pets,” Bird said.
“Most dog owners are pretty responsible, although they mightn’t always have the dog on the lead when they are supposed to. But the law is that you have to have the dog under ‘effectual control’.”
That means a dog “walking to heel and [which] will come to your side whenever you call them, no matter the distraction”.
Bird said even the best behaved dogs cannot be trusted 100% of the time.
“They have good days and bad days, they get distracted, there’s a smell, another dog can pester them. It’s often a better solution, if in doubt, to keep the dog on the lead,” she said.
She added that most dogs can be exercised effectively without needing to be let off their lead, but owners will need to make the time and effort to do so.
“Bringing a dog for a walk is as much about the mental stimulation which they get from stopping and sniffing and marking their territory. So a dog will be really stimulated by walking in an unfamiliar place,” she said.
Put your phone in your pocket and concentrate on your dog.
“You can take half an hour out to concentrate on your dog and enjoy your dog and if your dog wants to stop and sniff, let them. Don’t be pulling them on.
“Obviously dogs love to run but if they don’t get out for a huge big run, can you got to the garden and play ball with them or give them interesting ways of eating their food? It’s as much about mental stimulation.”
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Why are authorities failing to tackle violent attacks by off-lead dogs?
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