There are more than 80 public dog runs throughout the five boroughs, and, as we reported last week, there's a marked difference between the well-maintained ones and the muddy, dusty messes. Speaking to dozens of dog owners made it clear that the city takes only a small amount of responsibility in caring for these facilities. And no dog run could possibly be successful without the considerable effort of a handful of dedicated volunteers, willing to spend much of their free time organizing and cleaning up the parks themselves.
It's something the Parks Department says it takes into account before signing off on any new spaces.
"Allowing responsible dog owners to exercise their dogs is good for the community," said department spokesperson Anessa Hodgson. "The key to a successful dog run is 100% about the community and friends groups that program and maintain these spaces. Without a friends group that advocates for a dog run we do not even begin the process of planning to add one, because we know that they are more effective when there are committed community members working to upkeep these areas."
There's no doubt that dog runs are good for our furry pets, who get exercise, social stimulation and the chance to run free in a relatively safe environment.
"I feel strongly that dog runs and off-leash hours are vital to the city's pet owners like playgrounds are to parents — we don't have backyards for our dogs like they do in the suburbs. The parks are everyone's backyard and we have to do our best to preserve and protect that," said Amy Willard, who helps manage Maria Hernandez Dog Run in Bushwick.
For anyone who has spent significant time in one of these drool-and-poop infused spaces, the social dynamics inside the dog run can easily be read as a microcosm of the entire city: the prickly neighborhood personalities, the negotiations over etiquette and shared space, the unlikely friendships that form over time, and the struggles to engage local leaders and city apparatuses.
It's that latter point that prevents many from getting involved with their local dog runs and it's understandable considering the amount of bureaucracy involved. How many of us have the patience and drive to spend 12 years trying to get a dog run installed in our neighborhood?
One person who did was Rick Duro, a local high school teacher who is now president of Sunnyside United Dog Society (SUDS). "Our 12-plus year battle is a long story!" he told Gothamist. "Like a rollercoaster ride."
How Do You Get A Dog Run?
Back in the early 2000s, SUDS was just an informal meet-up of dog owners — a motley mix of "plumbers, teachers, orchestra conductors, architects and cab drivers" — who hung out in Lodati Park in Queens, taking advantage of its off-leash hours at night. "There was no dog park anywhere near Sunnyside — there was one in Woodside, but it was literally the size of your bedroom and no one used it," Duro said. He had recently adopted a Chow-Bassett Hound mix named Matilda when he started spending time with other dog owners there. (Matilda sadly passed late last year.)
"I saw these people [and I thought], oh, hey, maybe I can learn something. This is my first dog, I've never had one before," he said. "I got involved, and I'm like, 'Hey, why are we not pushing for a dog run?' And they're like, 'Well, we kind of tried and we weren't sure what to do. And I'm like, 'Look, I'll figure it out.'"
Duro researched the process, went to several community board meetings, and "made nice" with his local council member, but hit a major roadblock with Queens Community Board 2 (CB2): "They were mainly people who were living in the neighborhood a long time, and they were elderly," he said. "And the response I got when I got to speak was, 'What do you mean, space for dogs? We need space for people.' And I looked at the person and I said, 'Well, what am I? Am I chopped liver? I'm too short for basketball, too old for football and I don't play baseball anymore. So this is how I recreate.' And they turned us down two times."
Another monkey wrench was thrown into the mix: during this same period, Duro and the Lodati folks joined up with NYCdog (New York Council of Dog Ownership Groups), a larger, now-defunct organization that brought together disparate neighborhood dog groups from across the city to fight what Duro calls "the loons that tried to get dog runs banned in the mid-2000s." The anti-dog run argument was that dog runs at that time were not official Parks Department policy — and that dogs, according to the Health Department, were not allowed off-leash on any public property, even in restricted areas. NYCdog was ultimately successful in convincing both city agencies to change the rules and codify the previously-unwritten off-leash policy.
By the late aughts, CB2 finally agreed to give the Lodati Park crew a space inside the park, which meant Duro had to secure funding from the city for construction. Hodgson, the Parks Department spokesperson, explains that after a request for a dog run space comes via a local elected official or community board, it moves to the "needs assessment phase," where the Park Department's "capital team creates a cost estimate for the need and requests funding for the project. Each year, we find out in late June/early July which potential projects receive funding. Once funding is secured, we begin the project initiation phase. The most important factor in this process is garnering community support to establish the need." (You can learn more about the capital process here.)
Things were finally moving along for Lodati. And then, around 2008, the recession happened.
"When you get money from your City Councilperson for a Capital project, it's discretionary funding," Duro said. "So [the city] can take the money back in times of economic crisis. And that's what happened to us, because the recession hit."
Duro had to start the cycle all over again with the community board, Parks, the Council's Land Use Committee, etc. But at that point, SUDS had made a name for itself in the neighborhood by having volunteer "pickup the poop" days, walking dogs for sick locals, helping people get their dogs to the vet, and raising money for sick people who couldn't afford to care for their sick animals.
By now, their goal had grown larger: "We went through so much to get the run approved ... We didn't want to simply build a dog run, we wanted to get enough funding to fix up all of Lodati Park, so that everyone in the neighborhood wins," he said. "People met, became life-long friends, watched each other's dogs — a few even got married and had kids — and organized with the greater good of the community in mind."
By 2010, they had $1.4M in funding secured, with approximately 30% going to the Parks Department for administrative costs. But because it was discretionary funding, they had to wait another year before they could touch it. In 2011 they went through a nine-month bidding process with construction companies. After that, construction took another year. All that effort paid off in June 2013, when the Lodati Park Dog Run — which technically doesn't have an official name, even now — finally opened.
But this was only half the battle.
What Happens After You Get A Dog Run?
Making a dog run a reality is a big commitment. But actually managing a dog run is arguably the really hard work. Duro said this had been emphasized to him repeatedly throughout the process.
"The hope is that the group that is doing all this fighting to get the run built are the ones that are going to maintain it, because the Parks Department doesn't do day-to-day stuff for dog runs," he said, stressing that he has a lot of sympathy for a Parks Department that is perpetually underfunded and undermanned. "They do two things: they're supposed to fix something when it breaks, and they take the garbage. That's it. So everything else that's involved with the dog run is up to the dog run people, so to speak." This is also why NYC dog runs often have trash cans outside of the fence line, because the Parks Department will not empty anything inside the fencing.
This was the unspoken rule generally understood by dog owners when the city started to build dog runs in the early 1990s. The city helps build them, then hands them over to the local community to care for them.
Problem is, back in, say, 1995, there were only a dozen or so dog runs, and they were a relative novelty. "I think that concept worked for a time when there were less dogs in NYC and the upkeep wasn't as time consuming," said Amy Willard, who got involved with Maria Hernandez Dog Run in Brooklyn about five years ago, after she became a first-time dog owner to a beagle. "But over the years, there's been more dogs using dog runs and the faults/errors in the city's designs of dog runs have started to show."
While she was happy to find a dog run in her neighborhood, Willard was alarmed by its condition: there was "black stuff" coming up through the gravel. The city directed her to Partnership for Parks, a public-private entity through the City Parks Foundation that serves as the liaison between public volunteer groups and Parks. She learned how discretionary and Capital project funding works, and how to organize cleanup efforts. She was able to borrow shovels and wheelbarrows from Partnership For Parks. And she soon found herself the volunteer director for the entire run.
But Willard also quickly butted up against the limitations. "Partnerships is really like, 'we'll help you get volunteers and we'll give you some tools,' and that's kind of where the buck stops," she said. "Really, the only thing volunteer groups can do on their own is shovel ... Anything that requires machinery, you [need] Parks to get it done. Like, we have a dead tree sitting in the middle of our dog run; we can't touch it, we can't chop it down. We pointed it out to Parks a few times, not sure what the plan is if they're going to remove it or anything. We can't even install umbrellas [for shade]. Apparently, umbrellas are a thing."
A Parks spokesperson noted, "We don’t have maintenance costs broken down by facility. But again, we rely on our user groups to help maintain these spaces."
The problems at Maria Hernandez Dog Run are not lost on anyone. When we asked dog owners across the city to grade their local dog runs, Jude Banks complained that Maria Hernandez was "not paw-safe gravel, gross standing water and gross gravel in general. My dog consistently tears up her feet there." In addition to the gravel, Katharine Overgaard said, "the mesh which lines the dog run surface, below the terrible gravel, is constantly tearing and peeling up, and is generally not well designed or maintained." Shannon Postrion said there are drainage issues that cause flooding every time it rains. Even Willard gave the dog run an overall grade of a C- in its current condition, though she gave the dog owner community an A, and the volunteers an A+.
There are about 10 core volunteers who help her, but Willard, who works in digital marketing and social media management during the day, spends much of her free time focused on the park, whether she's physically there or not.
"My nights and weekends are spent researching grant opportunities, coming up with fundraiser ideas," she said. "It's been a challenge to keep the community involved ... because people move in, they move out, it's pretty transient. So it's kind of fallen on my shoulders to really research, get things done, keep people motivated, update our Instagram. I built out our website. I go to all of our community board meetings, to just show our community board that I'm present and I'm here and I'm trying. It's a lot of hours."
But it's worth it, Willard said, because she takes a larger, holistic view of the role of dog runs in the city's ecosystem: If these spaces are clean and safe enough that people feel comfortable bringing their dogs, they won't use ball fields, courts and park space dedicated to humans. If the dog-friendly areas are better utilized, "then the longevity of the fields and grass in parks is extended, which could save the city a significant amount of funds, and re-allocate those saved funds to playgrounds, comfort stations, etc."
A Thankless Job
Many other overworked dog run volunteers offered similar stories about their frustrations trying to keep their park in shape. Karyn Fender said that the Murray Playground Dog Run in Long Island City was never properly surfaced, so volunteers are constantly monitoring it.
"The park is littered with broken bricks, sharp rocks and broken ceramic," she said. "Those of us that utilize the park have rakes and shovels in the park to dig these up each time it rains and more become exposed, but it is nearly impossible to keep up with. Not to mention it then creates a hole, which is an ankle injury waiting to happen. I have seen countless falls by dog owners in this park from tripping on rocks, tree roots and holes."
"From a maintenance perspective, the city does not maintain anything inside the fencing, it is up to the local community," Fender added. "This makes sense from a general 'pick up after your dog' point of view, but how exactly am I supposed to resurface an entire park?"
Esta-Joy Sydell, who has volunteered at Forest Park Barking Lot in Forest Hills/Kew Gardens since it opened in 2015, said the amount of labor that people like her do is underappreciated, both by the city and by fellow dog owners.
The city calls that labor "volunteer appreciation and stewardship, but we're working for the city for free," she said. "If we want to have a dog park, it's really up to the community to keep it going. And if our conditions got really bad, because none of us were doing anything, I don't know if they would step in or close it up."
Sydell started out by working on fundraising and events to promote better etiquette, adoptions and responsible pet ownership, and took over as the dog run president three years ago. She's still dealing with certain fundamental problems. When the park first opened, the city put up chicken wire around the edges and called it a day; it took over six years before volunteers could replace it with permanent fencing.
One of the biggest issues is drainage, which local dog owner Chris Kelly said "creates a stagnant pool of mud, water, and dog excrement that smells bad and puts fear into the hearts of dog owners, because of what it may contain."
Recently, four dogs died from allegedly catching leptospirosis, a bacterial disease spread by rats, after visiting the McCarren Park dog run in Williamsburg. Sydell said it was a perfect example of "why drainage issues are extremely important."
Volunteer Hannah Bridgham, who works for Nickelodeon as an artist and has become vice president of the Forest Park Barking Lot, said that with no help from the city coming, she dug a little trench in the park last summer to try to improve the situation.
"It worked for a while," she said, but unless she digs it out every week, it becomes a mess again. "So now I'm kind of like the person that does that," she said. "We have some volunteers that are good about helping out if we kind of guilt them into it, or if they see me digging, they'll grab a shovel for like five minutes while they're there and help me out. But other than that, it's really up to me to do that big physical labor at the dog park." That also goes for other weather conditions, whether it's raking leaves or shoveling snow.
"You know, it's kind of a thankless job," said Willard, the Maria Hernandez volunteer. "I'm obviously happy to do it. And I think if any dog owner is reading an article about this, I would hope that they would connect with either their local group, if they have one, or be encouraged to start their own and make changes in their own community."
Still, the volunteers need more support from the city to really make things better. "The only way we can have safer parks is by having amenities for dogs, and having amenities for humans, and making sure those are safe for everyone to enjoy," she said. Several people brought up the idea of having a department to handle dog parks, or a standalone "dog czar" to take on dog run issues, just as there are departments for other wildlife issues.
But there's plenty to do in the meantime. Maria Hernandez Dog Run turns 10 this year, and it has never had a significant resurfacing. The volunteers have been fundraising for a few years now, and in January finally reached their goal of $15,000 to get new gravel installed.
"My next phase is figuring out how to order gravel, coordinating with Parks to figure out how we're going to get a truck on the city property," Willard said. "That's taken us four to five years to even get this far. And that was on our own."