Whose off-leash dog beach is it, anyway? Answer: not your dog's

Maudie, left, susses out another dog at the off-leash dog beach. Photo: Neil McMahon
Maudie, left, susses out another dog at the off-leash dog beach. Photo: Neil McMahon

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On Saturday night I went to the off-leash dog beach with my puppy for our regular twilight romp on the sand.

Typically here's what happens: Maudie, a seven-month-old English Staffy, runs and wrestles and plays with the rest of the Port Melbourne canines, whose owners assemble on the shore for the last wear-the-buggers-out dog walk of the day. Then we all go home.

On Saturday, after nearly an hour on the beach, I went home as usual - and here's what had happened in the meantime.

There was a woman with a baby on the off-leash dog beach. The baby was lying on a blanket on the sand. My dog briefly licked the baby. The mother called the police - triple zero - telling them: "A dog has attacked my baby."

The police came. They advised me of my rights - a version of "you have the right to remain silent" familiar to everyone who's ever seen a cop show - and questioned me. After interviewing the baby's mother, they came over and questioned me again.

Read more: Wollongong council’s $55,000 crackdown on dog owners

A little while later, I wandered home from this week's twilight beach romp with a puppy who'd worn herself out and earned me a hefty fine in the process - the most straightforward outcome to an incident that could have involved a charge and a court appearance. I also went home with a headache and a feeling that lingers two days later: did that really just happen?

My crime (Maudie's crime to be more precise about it, but we take it on the chin for our dogs): failing to maintain what they call "effective control" of my dog in an off-leash area. My penalty: $238.

My question: whose off-leash dog beach is it, anyway? The answer: not your dog's.

Off-leash dog beach rules are open to wide interpretation. Photo: Neil McMahon

Off-leash dog beach rules are open to wide interpretation. Photo: Neil McMahon

It's for people who may or may not have dogs, and if they do have dogs, it is their responsibility to maintain "effective control" of them at all times.

Sounds sensible. But what does "effective control" mean? This was my expensive lesson for the weekend, and if you're a dog owner you'd be wise to listen up because it could become yours.

"Effective control" is defined as follows. It means your dog will return to you upon command (fair enough, though I don't know a dog owner who has a 100 per cent success rate on that front). It means that you "retain a clear and unobstructed view of the dog" in the off-leash area at all times (fair enough, and usually not a problem unless the whirling dervish of romping dogs gets too big or they head off into the shrubbery in pursuit of a tennis ball).

But here's the kicker that got me in trouble: "effective control" means your dog "does not bother, attack, worry or interfere with other people or animals".

Read more: 12 places near Wollongong to go bushwalking with your dog

Remove the clear-cut essential prohibition on "attack" from that line-up and you're left with three words that are wide open to interpretation and are very much in the eye of the beholder.

Bother, worry, interfere. And that applies to "other people or animals" - the latter meaning other dogs, to all intents and purposes

This rule governing behaviour in off-leash dog parks was obviously written by someone who has never been to an off-leash dog area - and possibly has never met a dog.

So here's a tip that actually makes some sense: tell mums and dads that an off-leash dog park is no place to put your baby on the ground. Surely the Nanny State can squeeze that bit of common sense on to a sign along with everything else.

In my case, I'd been in breach of this requirement for somewhere between three and five seconds - the interval between Maudie trotting over to investigate the baby lying on the sand and me realising it was a baby and calling her back. She came immediately, but got a lick of the baby's chest in before I got her attention.

The baby was physically unharmed (in the ensuing hour of police visits and interviews, his mother at no point sought or requested a doctor or a hospital trip), and while I'm sure he and his mum got a fright, he showed no signs of distress. But, as I admitted to the police in eventually copping the fine, I had clearly breached the law as the officer patiently explained it to me: for a few seconds, I did not meet the definition of "effective control". And the baby's mother believed she had been bothered, worried or interfered with.

I was cooked. But so is that law, whose wording needs a thorough revisit.

And while authorities are about it, they might consider some improved signage at the off-leash areas under their control.

In recent weeks, I've seen babies or toddlers in off-leash dog parks crawling on the grass or stumbling about while a large group of dogs of all shapes, sizes and temperaments runs around revelling in the freedom they imagine these designated areas provide them.

I've seen two kids bowled over by dogs, including one little boy whose mother thought it a good idea to walk him through the dog park eating popcorn. She did not have a dog herself, nor much in the way of common sense, and after that incident her son didn't have any popcorn.

Australia is a nation in which you cannot walk three steps without a sign warning you of some or other danger or telling you what you can and cannot do.

So here's a tip that actually makes some sense: tell mums and dads that an off-leash dog park is no place to put your baby on the ground. Surely the Nanny State can squeeze that bit of common sense on to a sign along with everything else.