New Yorkers love their dogs, and their dogs love their parks.
Four-legged city dwellers thrive on the open space and fresh air. It’s not bad for their two-legged companions either.
But that complex relationship has often been tested as dog owners push for more amenities and freedom in city parks.
The Parks Department is launching a series of town hall meetings with dog owners across the city to hear their concerns, and discuss ways to share coveted park space.
The series kicks off Saturday in Queens with a 10 a.m. meeting at Forest Park’s Oak Ridge building.
“Dog parks are often the busiest part of any given park,” said Garrett Rosso, a dog trainer and volunteer manager of the Tompkins Square Dog Run. “And dog parks are not just about dogs. They are about getting folks, especially seniors, out of the house and getting exercise.”
Animal rescuer Phyllis Taiano, who founded the Queens-based Four Paws Sake NYC, pointed out that most dog owners are very community-oriented residents.
“Many city dog owners may not have the luxury of a backyard,” said Taiano, who lives in Middle Village. “Dog parks can offer an outlet for stimulation and work many breeds today require, while also allowing dog owners to engage with residents in their communities … A tired dog is a happy dog.”
Many park users appreciate the constant presence of dog owners, which provide a perceived layer of security, said Deborah Zingale, administration manager of the Parks Department’s Urban Park Service.
“We have heard convincing, anecdotal information from parks managers that parks are generally safer because dog owners go for walks early in the morning and late in the evening when usage is lower,” Zingale said. “Their presence is another pair of eyes.”
That sense of harmony, however, can be delicate to maintain. Dog owners and non-dog owners have battled over several issues: Where to place dog runs in parks, waste that is not picked up and designated areas that allow dogs to roam off their leashes during certain hours.
Tensions hit a high point a decade ago when Parks tried to codify its off-leash regulations and was countered by a movement to require dogs to stay on leashes at all times.
Some parkgoers felt threatened by the sight of dogs running loose in parks, while owners argued it was safe and important for their pooches’ health.
NYCdog founder Bob Marino emerged as a voice of reason during that time, negotiating with city officials on behalf of dog owners and helping to organize public meetings.
Marino passed away in 2014, and in recent months several advocates — including Rosso and Taiano and Sunnyside United Dogs Society president Rick Duro — joined together to reboot NYCdog and continue the work he started. They are trying to mobilize dog owners around the city to help advocate for more maintenance and better materials in dog parks.
Partnering with conscientious dog owners also benefits the agency, Zingale said, because they are sticklers for following the rules.
“As a group, they are very supportive of parks,” she said. “And they are very good at self-policing and peer-policing.”
Despite the self-sufficiency of many community groups, Duro knows just what a “quagmire” it can be to install a new dog run. While advocating for a run in his neighborhood, he was overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of getting approval, funding, design and beginning construction.
“… We still need help … more funding would be welcome,” he said. “Dog owners use New York City parks more than anyone, 365 days a year in all weather. But that means city government needs to step up and properly fund the Parks Department.”