TWEED Shire Council has decided to remove the 'off-leash' status of a dog exercise area adjacent to Arkinstall sports fields in Tweed Heads South.
The exercise area's demise is part of a planned upgrade of Arkinstall Park that will see new facilities built for tennis and netball as well as a children's play area created at the park.
Due to the planned changes there will no longer be any room to include an off-leash dog exercise area.
Local vision impaired guide dog owner and member of the Tweed Equal Access Advisory Committee (TEAAC) Ben Dierikx said "elected councillors and paid employees of council have little comprehension of the value dogs add to human society and little regard for those of us in the Tweed Shire who rely on dogs to live an independent life with dignity".
Tweed mayor Barry Longland said he believed the shire should provide adequate off-leash dog exercise areas as long as it didn't impact on public safety.
"We're not doing this because we dislike dogs.
"We've been trying to find a middle ground and are looking for alternatives.
"However, I can't accept off-leash dog exercise areas should be mixed with children's playgrounds."
Guide dog owner Suzi Hudson who uses the Arkinstall Park off-leash area almost every day said the alternative dog exercise areas indicated by council were either too far away and difficult to access.
"I'd be taking my life into my own hands if I tried to walk to Banora Point to exercise my dog.
"Alternatively, I'd have to spend $20 or more on a taxi to get there."
Ms Hudson said it was extremely important for dogs to become familiar with each other so aggressive behaviour could be avoided.
Dogs also need to be familiar with the area because if they and their owners aren't used to the location, owners and dogs could become anxious.
"To go to an unfamiliar area would be very scary," Ms Hudson said.
The owner's feelings can be picked up by the animals which then refuse to exercise and remain at the side of their owners.
Familiarity with their regular exercise area is crucial for dogs to get proper exercise.
Tweed councillor and member of the TEAAC Dot Holdom said she supported what Mr Dierikx was trying to do but she was looking for a compromise.
Cr Holdom didn't think anyone would be so small-minded as to criticise the existence of the off-leash areas as long as there weren't any children's play areas involved.
However, this matter was all about balance and balancing the needs of all residents of the shire.
Ms Hudson and Mr Dierikx also criticised the council for the manner in which the information regarding the removal of off-leash status was disseminated to residents.
Ms Hudson said the council has used a format inaccessible to her and should have used audio arrangements to get their message across to people who were vision impaired.
If she had found out about the issue sooner, she would have made representations to the council at its monthly community access meeting, and feels she might have made a difference.
Mr Dierikx said the matter showed there was an attitude problem and believed it was a cultural thing.
Dogs' contributions to people's lives are underestimated in Australia and far better understood in European countries such as France.
In France people allowed dogs access to many more places and they understood the impact dogs had on people's lives.
"When people interact with dogs in a positive way, a chemical called Oxytocin is released in the brain.
"This is the same chemical which is responsible for mothers bonding with their babies and is very powerful and beneficial," Mr Dierikx said.
A Tweed Shire Council spokeswoman said the changes to the park had been part of the Arkinstall Park Master Plan since 2006.
Feedback the council received during the public consultation phase of the project was that local residents wanted more basic community facilities included, such as a playground and more paths.
The Companion Animals Act says that no dogs, whether on a leash or off-leash, should be within 10 metres of a playground.
Although this did not apply to assistance animals, unfortunately plans do not provide enough usable area for an off-leash dog park in this location.
There are several off-leash dog areas in the Tweed, with parks at Ducat Street and Darlington Drive located in the Tweed Heads South area.
The council has an Equal Access Committee to ensure these issues are considered.
In addition, the council was the process of developing an access and inclusion plan which would be considered by in the coming months.
"Council is committed to improving the way Council responds to people with disabilities," the spokeswoman said.
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