Skip to content

Unleashing the hounds: Conflict over dogs on Greater Victoria beaches persists

Federal report targets dispute about bird sanctuary in Oak Bay, Saanich
Signs restricting dog access on South Willows Beach may come as a surprise for local dog owners. The change was made in the last year to protect birds in the Bowker estuary, which lies within the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary. (Evert Lindquist/News Staff)

When it comes to which beaches dogs can freely visit in the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary, both municipal bylaws and federal regulations are in play – but not all dog owners are on side with the rules set out to protect bird habitats.

As summer foot traffic fills Willows Beach and Cadboro Bay and municipalities receive a federal report on dogs in Greater Victoria’s three migratory bird sanctuaries, dog owners continue to wrestle with where they may take their furry friends.

Oak Bay doesn’t permit dogs on Willows Beach between May 1 and Sept. 30.

This also applies all year to South Willows Beach, which runs from the end of Bowker Avenue to the south boundary of Glenlyon-Norfolk School.

Oak Bay parks services manager Chris Hyde-Lay said the restriction at South Willows Beach was the only change in that municipality this past year.

“That is to protect all birds that congregate in the Bowker estuary,” he said.

Before May and after September, leashed dogs can be on the north of Willows Beach in “full custody and control of a competent person.”

ALSO READ: Man released with court date after inert military explosives found at Victoria airport

Saanich generally requires dogs to be leashed or “under effective control” in public spaces, which implies they remain in sight and return immediately when called.

In a bylaw amendment made last fall, owners now must leash their dogs at Cadboro-Gyro Park, whether using the park or Cadboro Bay beach, in compliance with federal migratory bird sanctuary rules.

Trish Fougner, a member of the Facebook group Happy Dogs in Saanich Parks, said frustration around dog access is mounting as the summer rolls in.

“I think Gyro Park is one of the biggest contentions in this area right now,” she said, referencing the new on-leash dog policy.

Fougner questioned why such a “sensitive” bird sanctuary has restrictions for dogs but none for people.Laying down the law

Saanich Police Const. Markus Anastasiades said the department often receives calls about dogs at Cadboro-Gyro Park.

Anastasiades said there is now only one full-time animal control officer but that will change when Saanich transfers animal services to the Capital Regional District Wednesday (June 1). He added that Saanich historically performed on-call beach patrols in the summer when it had two full-time animal control officers.

“The bylaws are in place with the hope that they are followed,” he said about the on-leash policy.

Wylie Thomas, vice-president of the Friends of Uplands Park Society and a former dog owner, said there are increasingly limited options for dogs.

“Dog walkers have been squeezed out of all regions,” he said. “People need a place to walk their dog off leash.”

ALSO READ: VIDEO: Security stands on guard for bees at Saanich shopping centre

Environment and Climate Change Canada issued its report on local dog-migratory bird interactions to Greater Victoria’s municipalities Thursday (May 26).

Ken Brock with Canadian Wildlife Service’s pacific region said the federal review was sparked after 2019 reports of off-leash dogs in the sanctuaries, which violates the Migratory Birds Convention Act first passed in 1917.

“It came to light that there was some confusion about what was allowed and where it was allowed, or where it wasn’t allowed between areas that were open for dogs in the municipalities and the sanctuaries.”

The report draws attention to the sanctuaries, their use by migratory birds and harassment of birds, including species of concern, by dogs.

Brock noted it remains an offence to have off-leash dogs in those areas – for now.

“This isn’t personal, and I really understand and have empathy for the position (of dog owners),” said Brock, a dog-sitter himself. “At the same time, the regulation is what it is.”

He said it’s difficult for enforcement officers to determine whether off-leash dogs are under control, whereas having dogs on leash helps moderate and mitigate their effects on birds.

Biologist and Community Association of Oak Bay member Jacques Sirois said using the “priceless” beaches in the sanctuaries for off-leash dogs is “not normal” and “a total circus,” but taking action against dog owners can be difficult.

“Dog owners tend to be more organized as a lobby group, whereas we, the non-dog owners, are not.”Not just about dogs, ‘also human’

Mark Hawkes, president of Citizen Canine Dog Owners Association, said that’s because dog owners have had a lot to lose and argues that dog-walking is just as legitimate as other outdoor sports like hiking and mountain biking.

“The ability (for dogs) to enjoy these parks off leash is very important, both physically and mentally,” he said.

Hawkes, who owns two border collies, said his loyal companions have never chased birds and it drills down to the owner’s ability to discipline their dogs.

“Obviously a lot of things are dog-related, but a lot of it is also human.”

RELATED READ: Vacant lot now closed at UVic had become a popular place for dog walkers

The Rocky Point Bird Observatory encourages against letting dogs roam beaches at times of high-bird activity, including at dawn and dusk and after heavy rainfall.

Observatory board member and volunteer Ann Nightingale said the main issue lies with people who know the rules but choose to disregard them.

Nightingale said on-leash dogs can disrupt resting and feeding birds, as well.

“I would say that generally, if there are birds on the shore, that is a not-good beach.”Pop-up dog parks to return

Saanich will bring back pop-up dog parks later this summer, offering nine off-leash locations from June 1 to Sept. 6.

Fougner said this won’t suffice for the size of her black Lab, adding that off-leash beach access will be vital for dogs in another heatwave.

“It’s a very limited view for the majority of dog owners in Saanich and Oak Bay,” she said.

RELATED READ: Off-leash dog parks return June 1 in Saanich

With the federal report on the sanctuaries now issued to the municipalities, dog owners and environmentalists alike await next steps by the districts of Oak Bay and Saanich.

Meanwhile, surveys this summer will allow Saanich residents with and without dogs to share their input on the various related bylaws.


Do you have a story tip? Email:

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like us on Facebook.

A sign, pictured May 18, 2022, reminds those accessing Willows Beach that dogs aren’t permitted there May to September. Beach access for dogs in Greater Victoria’s migratory bird sanctuaries continues to be a major point of tension for dog owners and environmental advocates alike. (Evert Lindquist/News Staff)