Dog lovers celebrated connection and inclusivity at the Cornell Woodlot Park opening on Aug. 28.
The park includes a brand new, fully accessible playground, a shade structure, walking paths, and an off-leash dog area.
For the Markham Dog Association, the new off-leash park is a step in the right direction.
"The reality is that we have a lot of dogs in Markham, and the demand (for off-leash parks) is really high," said Gregory Calleri, president of the Markham Dog Association.
The association started as a small gathering of dog owners who met at the Cornell Woodlot park during the pandemic.
"None of us were seeing family or friends, and we would go there every single day because there was nothing else to do," said Calleri.
The group soon became a "tight-knit community" and would celebrate occasions such as dogs' birthdays. The events grew bigger, and the group decided to establish the Markham Dog Association.
Now with over 2,500 members and growing, it's clear that dogs and their owners have a significant presence in Markham.
"Dog parks are becoming increasingly necessary across Markham as both an obvious form of recreation for the abundance of our four-legged friends, but also an important element of socialization for people too," said Ward 1 Councillor Keith Irish, whose family owns two dogs.
In addition to the new Cornell location (319 William Forster Road), Markham has three other off-leash dog parks: Boxgrove (6780 14th Avenue), Huntington (116 Huntington Park Drive, Thornhill), and Miller Avenue (560 Miller Avenue).
"I am pleased to have secured funding for a second new dog park in Thornhill, and I am working with the city's Parks Planning staff to determine the best location," confirmed Irish, who added that the park will be fully accessible, have running water, and a designated small dog area.
"When you think of pets and animals, it doesn't tend to be the priority when it comes to infrastructure and investments," said Calleri.
The association hopes to improve accessibility for dog owners with a leash-free park in every ward.
"The reality is that a lot of the people that go to the Cornell dog park are not from the Cornell area," said Calleri, who resides in Markham Village. He added that people approached him about the possibility of a leash-free park in the village.
The group is also proactive in ensuring the well-being of the dogs and their owners at the parks.
Through crowdfunding, the association purchased and installed motion-sensor lights to ensure safety after dark and sought the donation of storage bins for each leash-free location from Home Depot.
The Markham Dog Association is about inclusivity, connection, and well-being for both dogs and their owners. It's about enjoying quality time together without the pressure of spending money as so many activities require.
The association's first big event was a Pride celebration at the Miller Avenue location. City councillors attended along with the many dogs and their families. With 15 vendors, over 200 free giveaways, and "pride flags everywhere," it was an exciting atmosphere.
The group's vision, explains Calleri, is to connect and give back to the community. Organized events provide an opportunity for the group to support dogs and dog owners in need. To date, the group has donated to five charities.
"Every one of our events has some sort of aspect of charity involved which is really beautiful," Calleri said. "We try not to ask for monetary donations because we know it's a tough time for people."
The collection of bed sheets for the OSPCA and a bottle drive to raise money for No Dogs Left Behind are two such community-support initiatives.
Last Christmas, the group held a raffle that raised enough money to donate 750 pounds of dog food to the Markham Food Bank and some local rescue organizations.
Members connect using various social media platforms.
Facebook is a community-wide platform the group uses to post events, health news, and other relevant information. According to the group's Facebook page, the goal is "to connect dog owners in Markham with each other and facilitate an open forum for knowledge sharing and friendly discussion."
The Facebook page also welcomes questions from owners, like where to find a good vet or groomer or recommendations for overnight care.
"People will write in and ask questions, and the overall community will answer, which is amazing," said Calleri.
Each leash-free park has its own WhatsApp group. Group members can arrange meet-ups or keep each other advised of weather-related and safety issues.
Instagram is for daily "free sharing" of information and comments.
Looking ahead, the association wants to see more ways for families to be able to spend time with their dogs. In addition to increasing the number of leash-free parks in Markham, the group would like to make it easier for people to take their dogs along on outings.
Calleri acknowledged a noticeable increase in families with dogs during the pandemic, given the at-home lifestyle it created. With more people working and socializing away from home as the pandemic subsides, people spending quality time with their dogs becomes more challenging.
"In between people working full-time jobs and having social lives that are coming back, their dogs are being left at home. So for us, it's really important to see people out with their dogs," he said.
The association's newest initiative encourages local businesses to post a window sticker to indicate that dogs are welcome to join their owners inside. Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops are among the businesses being asked to participate. The response so far has been very positive.
The next big event is the Tricks for Treats gathering on Oct.23 at Rouge River Brewery.
Visit the Markham Dog Association on Facebook or Instagram @MarkhamDogAssociation.
Jennifer McLaughlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Markham Review