New Yorkers are turning on dogs; what’s a dog owner to do?

They used to be welcomed everywhere, but now animus against dogs — or their owners — is growing rapidly

New Yorkers are turning on dogs; what’s a dog owner to do?
Off-leash hours at Brower Park bring a crowd every morning, but also bring concerns: this dirt pit is meant to be a patch of green grass. (Photo by Tim Donnelly).

Something is in the air and you don’t have to have canine sniffing prowess to pick it up: people in New York City are starting to hate dogs — or, at least, their owners. 

“The entitlement is real! Dog owners have ruined the lawn and surrounding once grassy areas,” goes one such complaint about Brower Park in Crown Heights, posted to Reddit earlier this week. “When everyone got their Covid dogs they turned the park’s grassy areas into mud and it just got worse as more entitled people moved to the neighborhood.”

That comment is emblematic of the kind of pushback dog owners have been getting lately, a changing mood in the city where some have started to look askance at furry friends in public, leading to occasional confrontations with pet owners and calls for changes in how parks are managed.

At least a few concrete causes are at work here that are prickling people to be pissed at pooches: for one, it must be said, there is dog shit everywhere — truly everywhere — lately. On the sidewalks, in parks and filing tree beds. A pandemic boom in dog ownership also led to a pandemic bust: abandoned pets that are now overtaxing pet shelters, as Kate Mooney wrote about for us here, or straight up being abandoned in parks

Others complain that entitlement among dog owners has grown to outlandish lengths, as owners parade their pooches into restaurants and stores that are not suitable for pets, another flank of the general breakdown of society that has more people running red lights and waiting an hour for a bagel

But for dog owners, the issue is one of space: not enough dog parks to go around, and some of the dog runs the city does have already are havens for disease, or a gathering spot for the most untamed, chaotic dogs in the neighborhood. 

At least one City Council Member got involved in the issue this week, and the controversy also resulted in the ultimate punishment for anyone exhibiting humiliating behavior in the city: writing an essay about it for The Cut. 

Complaints about dogs in the city are nothing new, but the pandemic-era boom has definitely led to a breaking point for some, even the rich and famous. But if you’re not a Cruella-core person and just love green grass in parks, what’s to be done about the uneasy balance of pooch and person in the city right now? Dog piss kills trees and plants, but what, exactly, are all the dogs supposed to do otherwise? Does the thought of all those dogs in our overburdened shelters not melt our hearts and raise our tolerance for dog pee smell at the playground a little bit? 

To check out the situation, I visited one of the scenes of the alleged dog crime, which happened to be in my neighborhood — Brower Park — during off-leash hours (before 9 a.m.) on Wednesday. The block-wide park is half lawn, with a basketball court and playground on the other side. In the light Wednesday morning rain, the middle of the lawn was full of pups of all kinds running around, on a noticeably widening dirt patch, where once and future grass is supposed to be. The dogs’ accompanying humans were social too, the familiarity of neighbors who have the same routines every morning. I approached a couple whose dog, Waffles, was chasing an orange ball around. 

“When we got her in the pandemic, we didn't know what we were signing up for with her breed,” Waffles’ owner, Kate Block told me. She and her husband had originally thought she was a mutt, but turned out to be a Belgian Malinois — a muscly herding dog that can weigh up to 80 pounds. 

“She needs like a solid hour and a half of exercise every morning,” Block said. “We’re here all the time.” 

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Block and Waffles are an example of the pandemic dog boom: they made the decision to adopt the pup to help offset lockdown boredom — Block was working from home and talking too much to a hawk on the fire escape, and decided it was time for a pet. She and her husband fostered a few dogs, but lightly misjudged what taking care of Waffles would involve. But they also sympathize with others who harbor resentment about how much dogs are tearing up the grass in the park. 

“At first, I was like, why are you so upset about us being on the lawn?” Block’s husband, Tao Owoade, said. “But then, I’m saying ‘oh,’ and looking at the lawn, particularly this year, and seeing people on the weekend or on Sunday wanting to come lay and not having that nice luscious patch of grass to do that.” 

He’d heard there was talk about adding a dog park to Brower at some point, but enthusiasm in the neighborhood seemed thin for the idea at the moment. 

“We could use more dog parks,” he said. “Especially since they’re tearing up this lawn.” 

Neighborhood children demand: 'Don't leave a stinky situation!' (Photo by Tim Donnelly)

A ‘divide’ in Bed-Stuy 

One of the problems seems to be that even at parks that have separate areas for dog runs, dogs still run loose everywhere. This has been happening at Bed-Stuy’s Herbert Von King Park enough that City Council Member Chi Ossé got involved this week. If the park has a dog run — like HVK does — technically it doesn’t need off-leash hours. But still, people reported seeing dogs all over the park at all hours of the day. With limited green space already in our neighborhoods, some asked, why should dogs be allowed to run this one into dirt, when they already have a dedicated space in the park? 

Ossé tweeted that he agreed with the complaints, and helped get new signs installed that told park visitors to leash their dogs outside the dog run area. Still, complaints rage online about a “divide” in the neighborhood. One person on Reddit proposed a field day event to help bridge the old vs. new residents schism at the park; others chimed in that the event would be nice, but that it wouldn’t address the real problem.

Dogs are “the root of the divide over the park,” one commenter wrote. 

The outer boroughs have gone to the dogs 

At least in terms of white-hot online outrage, the dog battle seems to be mostly an outer-borough phenomenon. Manhattanites surely have their own dog park politics and class warfare, but it seems to be less online at the moment (though I cannot — and for my own sanity, would not — read every neighborhood’s Nextdoor page). The hottest vitriol about the current state of dogs and parks seems to be coming from Brooklyn and Queens. 

In Forest Hills and Bayside, dog shit complaints abound, as they have everywhere. In Astoria, there are pleas for people to stop letting dogs run wild in playgrounds

“I get it, the lack of dog parks is a huge problem in the neighborhood, but the solution is not to punish toddlers and their parents,” one resident recently wrote

In Greenpoint, complaints have racked up about dog waste in artificial turf ballfields — fields just for sports, without any real grass. Someone posted a video in a private Facebook group for residents of the Rockaways, scolding a dog owner for letting their pooch harass a seal — already a rare sighting on our beaches — and chase it off the beach. 

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What do we do about it? 

Well, you could be like Willy Staley, a long-time staffer at the New York Times Magazine, and call for punitive measures to be taken. 

“There should be an enormously punitive tax on dog ownership in New York City, to fund a Judge Dredd-style task force to ‘get a handle’ on the sidewalk shit situation…by any means necessary,” he tweeted, part of his ongoing, semi-serious campaign for a punitive dog tax in the city. 

Or you could build a dog park of your own: in 2022, Gothamist put together a rundown of what it takes to start and manage a dog park. In Astoria, Richard Khuzami, president of the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association, is now in the process building a dog park in Whitey Ford Field, part of an effort to get ahead of the tensions that have arisen elsewhere. He had noticed new residential tower construction in the neighborhood that would have brought thousands of new residents — and expected hundreds or thousands of new dogs. 

“And we had no facility for them,” he said. 

Right now, he’s putting together a volunteer group to help manage the park, and then taking the proposal to Queens Community Board 1. He said he was motivated to act early to avoid what happened in Bushwick, an incident laid out succinctly in The Cut piece about dog hatred: 

Residents at the Denizen — a luxury building in Bushwick that advertises amenities including a brewery, a winery, hot tubs, and an art gallery — have come under fire for using the no-dogs-allowed park across the street as a dog run. They’ve deteriorated the space to the point where local youth-baseball leagues don’t want to practice there anymore: Children can’t play without getting ringworm on their hands from dog feces or twisting their ankles in holes the dogs dig, according to Bushwick Community Board members Celestina Leon and Robert Camacho. Dog owners have even resisted efforts to keep them out of the park, they say, breaking locks on the gates and making holes in the fences to get in.

Astoria made other efforts to install dog runs in other parks in the past, Khuzami said. But installing a dedicated dog run can mean a park loses its off-leash hours, the hours accused of being responsible for tearing up grass in parks in Brooklyn and Queens. 

When advocates found out they might lose those off-leash hours, he said, they revoked their dog park requests. 

They got that dog in them (they being the parks). (Photo by Tim Donnelly)

What if we just had more parks for everyone? 

Back at Brower Park, Owoade said he’s experienced some anti-dog hate lately, including last weekend, when someone at Herbert Von King Park threatened to smash Waffles, and nearby humans, with a cane. Another dog dad on Wednesday morning, Josh Drama, said he got yelled at last summer in the park for entering the lawn by someone who told him to go back to where he came from, and that he’s not welcome there — the kind of anti-gentrification animus that seem to undergird much of the dog hate (Drama has lived in the neighborhood for well over a decade, he noted). 

He proposed a compromise that he’s seen in years past: fencing off part of the lawn for reseeding, and then putting up signs that designate dog free zones for the rest of the season. The Parks Department, like a lot of things that contribute to the overall mental health in the city, has faced budget cuts under Mayor Eric Adams. 

“The thing that bothers me about people getting so upset about dogs using this area is, look at how people treat a lot of it,” he said. “The amount of garbage that’s left behind after people have events here. I think everybody has the responsibility to enjoy the park and use it whether you have a dog or not.”