The Off-Leash Debate: Fact vs. Fiction - JuniperCivic.com
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Originally published in the September 2006 Juniper Berry Magazine

The Off-Leash Debate: Fact vs. Fiction

Off leash dogs in prohibited area of Prospect Park

There has been a lot of misinformation spewed forth lately by those in favor of allowing dogs in city parks to roam off of their leashes in violation of the NYC health code. These false facts have been repeated by newspaper editorialists and parroted by other uneducated sympathizers, which has muddied the waters of the actual issue at hand.

In this article, the real facts about the off-leash policy will be separated from fantasy. The statements quoted were made by those in favor of the NYC Parks Department's flawed off-leash privilege.

The canine recreation policy established more than 20 years ago by then Parks Commissioner Henry Stern was made pursuant to authority under the NYC charter. – Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG (i)

This is false. The NYC charter states that the commissioner may enact rules and regulations for park use. It does not say that he may alter an existing law or create policy which encourages violation of the law. This is what Henry Stern did by introducing off-leash hours back in the 1980s, and what Adrian Benepe has continued to encourage throughout his administration. This issue is coming to a head now because neither Stern nor Benepe really wanted the general public to know about the reckless policy that was instituted to appease a vocal minority of people who for some reason just can't live without their pooches being able to run around unleashed. The 9 pm-9 am rule does not appear in print or on the Parks Department's official website. It is an open secret that has been passed from one dog owner to the next, to the point where now there are thousands of potentially dangerous unleashed dogs running around in city parks each and every night and into early morning.

Dog owners who walk their dogs in city parks have actually helped lower crime rates. – Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG

We beg to differ. Apparently so does Adrian Benepe: Ten to fifteen years ago, the parks were rife with crises: crime, drug dealing, graffiti, homeless encampments, rotting infrastructure. Many were resolved. The dog problem is the only real problem we have, he told New York Magazine back in 1998 when he was the Manhattan Parks Commissioner. (ii)

More effective policing is what is responsible for the dramatic crime drop throughout the city's streets, subways and parks over the past 20 years. Furthermore, violent crime was never a major problem at parks in our area, because parks in community board 5 are generally well-patrolled by police and close at 9 or 10 pm every night.

Juniper Valley Park Hours: 9 am – Dusk; Off leash hours: 9 pm – 9 am – Juniper Valley Park Dog Assoc. website(9/1/06)

If you are in Juniper Park after 9 pm and before 6 am, you are trespassing. Though they may not agree with it and several have chosen to ignore it, this law even applies to dog owners. Unfortunately, the typical scene each night after 9 pm at Juniper Park's lower ball fields is up to a dozen dogs running around off of their leashes, where it is dark and their owners can't, or pretend that they can't, see the waste that has been deposited on the fields. Therefore, the encouragement of off-leash hours has actually increased trespassing and littering (a.k.a. crime) at Juniper Park and other parks within our district. Apparently, certain people, due to the fact that they own dogs, feel they are entitled to a special right to be in the park after hours while everyone else is prohibited from entry.

Off-leash hours are restricted to specifically designated areas and under specific rules of behavior. – Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG

Ball fields and playgrounds are supposed to be off-limits to dogs at all hours. However, that is exactly where you will find them after dark at Juniper Park and other parks throughout the city. In the morning hours, dogs frequently run across paved paths, impeding the flow of pedestrian traffic through the center of the park. In Prospect and Central Parks, off-leash dogs have been documented entering areas reserved for wildlife. Obviously, dog owners can't be trusted to police themselves. Where can one find an official list of designated off-leash areas in NYC parks? Remember, the off-leash privilege is a dirty little secret that the commissioner really doesn't want you to know about, so don't waste your time trying to get this information from the Parks Department. What are the rules of behavior, who determined what these rules are and who is in charge of enforcing them? The Parks Department won't disseminate this information to the public because of their understandable fear of liability.

Today we know that dogs are social creatures and must be exposed to other dogs and people or they will become neurotic, territorial, or even vicious...Well-behaved dogs are socialized. Responsible owners socialize their dogs.

- Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG

The off-leash advocates have tried to convince responsible dog walkers that if they don't allow their dogs to run unleashed in parks amongst other dogs, then they are guilty of animal neglect or abuse. This is ridiculous. As the vast majority of dog owners have experienced, dogs kept on leashes in public almost always turn out to be well-behaved animals which are not neurotic, territorial or vicious. However, allowing your pet to roam unleashed in the presence of other dogs exposes him to greater risk of attack. Ed Frawley, professional dog trainer and behavior expert, explains, There are too many people out there that don't come close to the label of being a 'responsible pet owner.' With the number of fighting breeds growing, the risk of taking your pet to one of these parks is not worth taking. Owners need to realize that once a puppy or adult has been attacked, it will become a dog-aggressive animal itself. (iii)

Number of annual dog bites in the 1960s: 40,000. Number of dog bites in 2003: just under 8,000. – Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG, quoting NYC Health Dept statistics

His point that better socialized canines do not bite should therefore correlate with a notable decrease in the number of dog bites reported in the city since the institution of the off-leash policy. The dramatic decrease in annual dog bites seems to have occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, before the institution of off-leash hours. In 1987, the Department of Health reported 8,064 dog bites in the city. That was when the off-leash policy had just begun in Prospect Park and few knew about it. In 2003, NYC DOG reports, there were just under 8,000 bites citywide. Therefore, off-leash hours have not been responsible for a dramatic decrease in dog bites over a 16-year period. The actual decrease is less than 1%.

The NYC Parks Department reports that only two incidents have been reported in Juniper Valley Park involving dogs and humans since 2000. During those seven years, only two reports of problems involving dogs have been reported. – Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG (and repeated ad nauseum by Terri Sullivan, President, Juniper Valley Park Dog Assoc.)

No, only two dog bites on humans have been reported. Dogs have also injured people by knocking them down, and have intimidated people by charging at them or by exhibiting other threatening behavior. Unfortunately, the NYC Parks Department chooses not to keep statistics on this. There is no doubt that people who have every right to use the park are being deterred from doing so because of the presence of unleashed dogs; we have received many letters from people attesting to this fact. Off-leash dogs have also been attacking other dogs at Juniper with increased frequency, although the city does not keep statistics on this, either. An elderly woman's dog was killed at Juniper by an off-leash dog, and another woman lost her small leashed dog to a large unleashed dog in Central Park. On the night of September 6th, there was a dog-on-dog attack at Juniper Park (see story on page 11). According to New York Magazine: Parks officials say attacks by big dogs on smaller dogs are multiplying, but fast-moving dogs (and owners) are rarely apprehended. Bad dog owners often choose to deny responsibility for their dogs' bad behavior.

The use of the word only is also very demeaning. The leash law, like all other legislation, is a preventive measure, in place to protect people from suffering. What number of attacks would make the commissioner finally realize that this is a flawed policy? 10? 20? A death? Maybe Benepe is waiting for something tragic to occur before he will decide to enforce a law that's already on the books. True leaders make policy in anticipation of a problem instead of in response to one.

When an incident actually does happen, it's amazing the way the victim gets blamed or the significance of the attack is dismissed by those in favor of this recklessly granted privilege. When Tatiana Grant was attacked and bitten in Juniper Park, she was told that it was her fault because, she shouldn't have been rollerblading there. When Matthew Connolly and his Shih Tzu were attacked at Principe Park, it was after 9am and outside the park, and therefore doesn't count. The Rottweiler was off of its leash, the time was just after 9 am and it ran out of the park to attack them. Dog advocates and the NYC Parks Department seem to believe that this mauling couldn't have occurred 20 minutes earlier, during off-leash hours and on the other side of the fence. How asinine is this mindset? Also, this attack showed that what goes on inside the park can affect what goes on outside of it. Benepe feels he is justified in allowing off-leash dogs to roam within city parks; however, sometimes off-leash dogs find their way out of parks and onto city streets and sidewalks, areas over which Mr. Benepe does not have jurisdiction.

Children and seniors are almost non-existent in most parks during these hours (9pm-9am). – Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG

From 6-9am, the hours that Juniper is open and the off-leash courtesy hours are in effect, many seniors and children are present in the park. Seniors tend to be most active early in the morning, and children are on their way to school at this time. In certain parts of Prospect Park, off-leash hours are from 5-9 pm. This is after school and before sunset. Are seniors and children also assumed to be absent from the park during these hours? Also, there are joggers, bicyclists, birders, etc., who all enjoy parks before 9am and may not fall into either of the age categories mentioned. They also have the right to enjoy their favorite park activity without the fear of becoming the victim of an unleashed dog attack. Let's not forget that there are also people who now avoid entering city parks completely between 9 pm and 9 am because they feel intimidated by the presence of unleashed dogs.

Unleashed dogs pose potential danger to people and to other dogs. Many park users, horses, park wildlife and leashed dogs have been attacked and bitten by unleashed dogs...Unleashed dogs destroy lawns and flower beds: areas used as informal 'dog runs' have been severely damaged by the combination of wear and uric acid, a known killer of plant life. ‒ NYC Parks Department (iv)

Finally, it's something upon which both JPCA and the NYC Parks Department can agree! Wildlife is always present in our parks and is directly endangered by this policy. Off-leash dogs harass and kill baby animals and birds and trample vegetation. The flora and fauna of New York City already have to battle pollution, habitat encroachment and feral cats in order to survive. Unleashed dogs present an easily avoidable threat ‒ a leashed dog under its owner's control is much less likely to do harm!

Robert Holden is an official of an organized amateur sports group that helps maintain the ball fields at Juniper Valley Park...His leadership of both the JPCA and within the (unspecified) sports league does not vest to him the authority or right to prohibit the legal use of Juniper Valley Park by law abiding dog owners and their dogs. – Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG

Robert Holden is the president of JPCA as well as of the Juniper Valley Park Conservancy. Prospect and Central Parks have similar organizations, which raise funds for and oversee park maintenance and generally have a say over what goes on in those parks. For example, the Central Park Conservancy does not allow anyone to use the Sheep Meadow before 11am. Apparently, dog advocates and the NYC Parks Department feel that the Juniper Park Conservancy should not have the same right that the Central Park Conservancy has to declare that certain areas are off limits for certain activities. Mr. Holden is not prohibiting the legal use of the park by law abiding dog owners and their dogs, as the vast majority of dog owners obey the law by walking their dogs on a leash.

While I am sympathetic to those who want to maintain the off-leash rules, it might no longer be practical in your area. ‒ Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG

We usually go by the community board's advice and consent—in terms of dog runs, we are usually guided by their decisions. ‒ Phil Abramson, Parks Department Spokesman (v)

...it's almost impossible to get the go ahead [for a dog run] without approval from your Community Board. ‒ from Starting a Dog Run at Urbanhound.com

The solution that NYC DOG, JVPDA and NYC Parks has come up with to resolve the problem of unleashed dogs at Juniper Park is a dog run. The way for them to get their wish is to approach our community board and local elected officials with their proposal and go through the public process, as mandated by 197-c of the city charter. The Juniper Park Civic Association may offer an opinion on the institution of a dog run, but we do not have control or authority in this matter. The ball fields, hockey rink, and other Juniper Park improvements have all gone through the community board. Basically, anything that changes the use of public land has to go through this process so that the public is thoroughly informed and is given the opportunity to comment on it. Why should a dog run at Juniper be a special case where community board input is not first sought?

Speaking of community boards, JPCA agreed to drop its lawsuit against the NYC Parks Department if they would consider the votes of individual community boards who may decide to opt out of off-leash hours. It was felt that community boards would be best at determining whether or not the policy should continue in their parks, as they are most familiar with individual circumstances within their districts. Though not a perfect solution, it was proposed by us as a compromise at a July 7th meeting with Queens Parks Commissioner Dottie Lewandowski and Parks Department attorneys at the Arsenal in Central Park. They brought our proposal back to Commissioner Benepe, who flat out rejected it, citing that he does not want different rules to be in place in individual parks throughout the city. However, he has no problem instituting his own differing rules at individual parks, such as the special 5-9 pm off-leash hours at Prospect Park. The fact of the matter is that most parks in the city have their own special rules.

It takes approximately $125,000 and several years of community activism to build a single new dog park in New York City. The Parks Department, though strong supporters of the Offleash Movement through their commitment to both build dog parks and to all Offleash Hours, does not have the budget to build enough dog parks. ‒ nycoffleash.com

Then there's the budget for maintenance (garbage bags, poop bags, periodic surface restoration, sanitation treatments, etc.) which generally runs around $3,000 to $5,000 a year in a public park. ‒ Urbanhound

Other dog runs in the city were started by private groups who raised the money first. Interestingly, the commissioner seems to be making an exception for this one, with the Parks Department assuming the cost of the entire proposed project. Their budget has already been cut to the point where it is currently insufficient to cover the department's existing costs. The Parks Department currently relies heavily upon unpaid volunteers to maintain our city parks because they simply can't afford to take the burden on themselves. Therefore, one has to wonder how a new, fully-funded dog run at Juniper could even be a consideration at this time.

Off-leash hours are not observed in parks that have a dog run. – Robert Marino, President, NYC DOG

According to the NYC Parks Department website, dogs are permitted off-leash from 9pm to 9am in most areas of Riverside Park even though that park has multiple dog runs within its confines. Go to the website: Urbanhound.com, the city dog's ultimate survival guide, and you will see that descriptions of dog runs located at Cunningham Park in Fresh Meadows and Wolfe's Pond Park on Staten Island tell you that, Dogs can enjoy the rest of the park off leash before 9am and after 9pm. (While there, also read the descriptions of other dog runs in the city and you will see that many suffer from lack of funds, poor maintenance and an accumulation of waste, indicating that many dog groups have difficulty sustaining their dog runs.) Furthermore, dog owners who have been taking advantage of off-leash hours for years have complained that being forced to use a dog run now would be too confining. In fact, a dog run in Brooklyn's Marine Park was recently rejected by that area's community board for just that reason.

It would be considered too confining because people are choosing bigger dogs. Why do people choose large dogs when we are so much safer these days? According to Benepe, it's a fashion statement. Previously, keeping a large dog holed up in a small apartment for the entire day was considered to be inhumane, and people instead smartly chose small dogs. Now, some feel that as long as they let them stretch their legs for a half hour or so off of their leashes in a city park, then it is acceptable to keep a large dog in close quarters for the other 23 1/2 hours of the day. This is not a rational way of thinking and unfair to large dogs.

People are almost compelled to let them off the leash, because they need so much more exercise and space. They say to us, 'You need to allow us to exercise hunting dogs in crowded nineteenth-century parks.- Adrian Benepe, 1998

Though he may no longer wish to admit it, our Parks Commissioner seems to have realized a long time ago that inappropriate choices of breed made by a small percentage of dog owners have had a negative impact on the rest of park-going New York. However, instead of allowing the big dog fad to die out, as it likely would have, Mr. Benepe actually encourages people to continue the oversized dog trend by telling them that it is ok to let their dogs roam all over our parks unleashed.

I've made friends with people that I would normally, in the course of my daily life, never meet. It's my social life. It's my friends and extended family out here...If I can't come here with my dogs, if I have to keep them on the street all the time, I'd pack up my business and go. – Mary McInerney, President, FIDO Brooklyn (vi)

The truth of the matter is that these dog groups have formed because a social scene has developed around canine off-leash recreation. People are using their dogs as icebreakers and dog runs and off-leash hours to find people with whom they share a common interest. We are all for people becoming more friendly with each other. Unfortunately, what has a tendency to happen is that while dog owners are busy socializing with each other, they stop paying attention to where their pet is going and what he is doing. When dogs veer away from where they should be or start to exhibit aggressive behavior, often times it is too late for their owners to gain control of the situation. Distracted owners have lost their dogs this way; some dogs have run into the street and been hit by cars or have wandered away, never to be found again. People are letting their dogs loose in parks without realizing the risks they are taking with their companions' lives by doing so.

Some people have asked why we would take on such a cause. It has been planted in their minds that that the leaders of the Juniper Park Civic Association must hate dogs. Nothing can be further from the truth. We care very much about both people and pets and have the obligation as civic leaders to look out for the health and safety of those we serve. We do this voluntarily. Adrian Benepe not only took an oath to do this when he assumed the office of NYC Parks Commissioner, but actually earns a very nice salary in his role. Mr. Benepe inherited a reckless policy which, judging by his past statements, he disagrees with, yet lacks the backbone to rescind now that he has allowed the situation to spiral out of control. In the meantime, our quality of life continues to be adversely impacted and our safety is jeopardized daily in parks paid for with public money. During our court hearing on August 29th, Paula Van Meter, attorney for the Parks Department, admitted that the undeniable conflict between the off-leash policy and the leash law gives cause for confusion and that in the next ninety days the NYC Parks Department will attempt to clarify the commissioner's authority by working with the NYC Department of Health to amend the Health Code to allow off-leash hours. Changing a law to accommodate lawbreakers is never a wise path for a municipality to take. As of this writing, Judge Peter Kelly has not yet rendered his decision on the case; however, a ruling in our favor may be circumvented should the law be changed. It is time for the city to stop kowtowing to the demands of the relatively few vocal dog owners (two dozen at Juniper Park), and instead focus on what is in the best interests of millions of New Yorkers.

(i) All Robert Marino quotes are taken from NYC DOG's Amicus Curiae Brief, which they attempted to file in court in defense of the NYC Parks Department. It was rejected by the judge.

(ii) All Adrian Benepe quotes are from the article, Turf War by Tony Hendra, New York Magazine, May 18th, 1998

(iii) From Dog Parks: Why They Are A Bad Idea!!! by Ed Frawley, found at www.leerburg.com

(iv) From Leash Law in Parks found at www.nycparks.org

(v) From Parks Department Poops Out On Marine Park Dog Run, by Gary Buiso, Kings Courier, August 17th, 2006

(vi) From Prospect Park: Where the dogs are, by L. Johnston, AM-NY, August 11