For the first time in its history, Quebec's network of provincial parks will welcome dogs into three of its parks this spring.

Starting in May, dogs will be allowed on certain hiking trails and camping sites in Frontenac, Jacques-Cartier and Oka provincial parks. 

The dogs must be on a leash, and certain areas will still be off-limits.

"We wanted to be careful because it's a tricky issue," said Raphaël Goulet, a conservation and education officer at Parc national d'Oka. "The rules we are putting in place are going to be strictly enforced to make sure everyone is still enjoying their parks."

The three-year pilot project is a tentative first step to try and open up the parks to dog owners, who until now were unable to visit with their pets.

However, it will be carefully monitored. The three parks are home to a wide range of wildlife, including moose, deer, black bears and a variety of birds.

Scientists to study impact

Over the next three years, a team of scientists will keep an eye on how the presence of dogs affects everything from the number of birds to the spread of disease and wildlife deaths in the park, said Goulet.

A decision will then be made whether to continue the program, extend it to other parks or cancel it altogether.

Matthew Clemente

"It's a first step," said Matthew Clemente about the pilot project to allow dogs, if they are on a leash, in 3 provincial parks. (Courtesy: Matthew Clemente)

The announcement has already generated a lot of interest among dog owners.

Now that his dog Valentino can come with him, Matthew Clemente said he'll definitely visit the parks. 

Clemente started a website a few years ago to help dog owners find dog-friendly places to go in and around Montreal. He found it frustrating that dogs were banned from provincial parks.

"Unfortunately, a lot of places find it easier to say no to dogs altogether then making an effort to make it work," said Clemente.

Dog-friendly attitude in Ontario

A few years ago, Clemente visited Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, and he hopes the dog-friendly attitude he found there can be replicated here.

"I was surprised to see there really were no restrictions," said Clemente. "Dogs can go on the trails. They can go on the beach. They can go into the visitors' centre."

He thinks the restrictions Quebec's parks network have set out for this trial period are fair and hopes dog owners will respect them so the program can be expanded.

"It's a first step," said Clemente. "It's unreasonable to expect them to just open it up across the board."

But other dog owners are less enthusiastic.

Anjali Choksi owns two dogs and says taking them on long walks in the forest – off leash – is one of the joys of being a dog owner.

Anjali Choksi's dogs

Anjali Choksi is not convinced about visiting a provincial park with her two dogs if they'll have to be on a leash at all times. "It kind of defeats the purpose of taking them out to the country," she said.

She'll likely check out the parks as a gesture of support, but she isn't sure how much fun it will be.

"It kind of defeats the purpose of taking them out to the country if they are leashed all the time," said Choksi. "They'll go nuts because they'll want to run around and sniff."

But for people who can't afford to buy or rent a cottage that allows dogs, Choksi said Parcs Québec's decision is better than nothing.

Extra staff, posted signs

Parcs Québec said it consulted with Parks Canada as well as its counterpart in Ontario and some U-S state parks to see what problems they've encountered in places where they introduced dogs.

Owners not picking up after their pets, not keeping their dogs on a leash or not being able to control their dogs are some of the issues that have come up.

To help the project start smoothly, more staff will be hired at the three parks to make sure dog owners abide by the rules.

When people reserve their camp sites online, they'll be notified if it's in a dog-friendly area. Signs will also be posted at the park entrance and welcome centres.

Customers will be asked to rate their experience at the end of their visit.

The three-year pilot project will start on May 20.