Dogs have free rein of Pastorius Park. (Photo by Lane Blackmer)

by Lane Blackmer

As temperatures warm up, Pastorius Park is once again becoming a place where a visitor will find a majority of park users accompanied by dogs. And contrary to the law, those dogs are running free, without leashes.

Should you go with your dog? The question isn’t necessarily an easy one. While the park has a good reputation among dog owners who flock there in large numbers to let their canines run free, it’s not a use that’s technically legal.

Despite the threat of a $25 fine from park rangers – it’s rare but it happens – a number of dog owners and park regulars recommend the park and believe the status quo is fine. Sure, technically the law is broken on a daily basis, but regular complaints don’t appear to bring change at the park anytime soon.

One thing is clear: The Fairmount Park commission isn’t thinking of doing anything different, and neither are the Friends of Pastorius Park (FOPP).

Jamie Hazelton, manager of ranger operations, said rangers are currently not staffed at a level that would make regular leash enforcement practical.

“We are responsible for patrolling over 9,800 acres, which is the entire Philadelphia park system – of which Pastorius is part – and we have a staff of 20 people,” he said. “And for the particular area, [we have] four rangers and one supervisor assigned.”

But how about a fenced-in dog park?

Hazelton said he wouldn’t be opposed to the creation of a dog park at Pastorius, but all costs would have to be taken on by the organization that built it, just as it is at the only official dog park in the city – the Schuylkill River Park.

“It’s the only official dog park that I know of that exists within the system,” he said. “And that is managed and run by the volunteers of that park.”

The benefits to an official, fenced-in dog park, Hazelton said, is avoiding a $25 fine.

When it comes to the Friends of Pastorius Park, president Peter O’Connor said his organization is not responsible for enforcement and is not currently involved in changing the way the park currently works.

“FOPP cannot enforce city laws when it comes to unleashed dogs or curfew violations,” he said. “We urge people to call 911 if they see any crime or vandalism taking place.”

O’Connor also said the park was meant to be a walkable place of reflection.

But some in the dog community wonder if a fence would placate rumblings that some in the community are not happy with free-range dogs in the park. The rumor among several of the dog owners interviewed was that there’s been increased complaining from a couple of unhappy neighbors.

This reporter did not find anyone who objected to the dogs while reporting this article. In fact, so sensitive is the issue that dog owners interviewed by the Local did not want to be identified by their last names.

Some in the dog community said they felt people who are not OK with the dogs should stay away.

“By law this isn’t a dog park, but by fact it is. It is actually prohibited by law,” said Richard, a dog owner. “But the fact is, this is advertised as a dog park. I understand there are websites that specifically say this is a dog park.”

By “advertised,” Richard was talking about the popular review website, Yelp, on which Pastorius is listed under the “Dog Parks” category.

“The people that have been here before are well aware,” Richard said. “They don’t have a problem with it, obviously, because they still come here. The people who do have a problem with it, ironically, are the ones who don’t come here historically.”

Meanwhile, Josh, a frequenter of Pastorius with his dog for the past 13 years, had similar sentiments.

“Everybody brings their dogs here, and some people come here and they’re scared of dogs,” he said. “They just don’t belong here. I mean, they should know a little bit about the place before they show up. “

Although Josh did acknowledge that he thinks parents have a right to be upset by children being knocked over by dogs, he said that type of behavior is generally uncommon in the park.

But his main concern for unacceptable dog behavior is fights – he actually broke his finger trying to break up one at Pastorius several years ago.

“Out of all the dogs parks in the city, this one has the fewest dog fights,” he said. “I’ve been to all the dog parks in the city. Over the years, I’ve seen dozens of dogfights and only one or two [were] here.”

Anne, another park frequenter, agreed.

“I think not having a fence actually keeps some of the dogs that would be unruly away,” she said. “Owners don’t want to bring their dogs here if they’re the kind of dog that would run off.”

For anyone still thinking of taking his or her dog to the park, Dr. Sheldon Gerstenfeld, of Chestnut Hill Veterinary Hospital, offered advice. He said in order to ensure safety at dog parks – for both dogs and humans – the animals should have all proper shots and already have undergone training and socialization.

“You don’t want them running in a park before 17 or 18 weeks of age,” he said. “By the time you get everything done and they’re trained, you can say six-to-nine months would be a good time to take them to a place.”

But even so, Gerstenfeld said any dog owner should be keeping an eye on their furry friend.

“Nobody can be on their iPhone or iPads when they have their dogs off leash,” he said. “You’ve got to be fully committed and mindful.”

He added: “You have to know when dogs look like they’re getting aggressive or don’t like another dog. It’s like kids on a playground.“

Several dog owners said the community commonly outlaws certain unruly dogs.

“We also self-police each other’s behavior,” Richard said. “We sort of mean-grill them and they leave.”

And while some may have problems with dog waste, two women being interviewed, Jackie and an unidentified woman, actually picked up waste they stumbled upon in the park. The women both agreed that while fencing in the park would not be ideal, they’d be OK with it if they had to be.

“It wouldn’t be the same, but it would be something,” Jackie said of the fence idea.

Another dog owner, Susan, suggested a fenced-in area for those who don’t want to be near dogs.

Although opinions on fencing differed, all dog people agreed on one thing: the dog community is essential.

“I think Pastorius Park is just one of the happiest places around,” Anne said. “I meet people here and form friendships with neighbors.”


  • guest

    This is an incredible park and an asset to the community. People come to Chestnut Hill for this unofficial dog park. It is cleaner than any fenced in dig park I have been to the city.

  • Dogpoop

    As a 20 year resident of CH I am always amazed when the topic of dog leash law surfaces in the Local. Dog owners are suggesting that families who come to Pastorious Park without a dog might like to enjoy the park inside of a dog free fenced area? Dog owners will just never get it – they are breaking the law and have told me to my face that Pastorious is a De facto dog park as their dog knocks over my wife who is nursing an infant… And these same folks are indignant when told to control their dogs. I can only leave the park as I have also left the Valley Green area so many times – little kids and their parents should be allowed to venture into public parks without being terrified of running dogs who come up on them at eye level at 20 MPH. I like dogs just fine but the law is the law for a reason – these people need a place to go with their dogs but non dog owners are not second class citizens at Pastorious I hope.

    • Mike

      Could not agree more. I am a dog lover, but the degree of these dog owners’ arrogance is stunning and the disregard they have for the law is just sad. Even more stunning is this article’s cavalier treatment of these folks breaking the law. Anyone who pays taxes has a right to use the park without the fear of being run down by an errant dog or stepping in dog poo. If you want a place for your dog to run free of a leash, invest in a fence for your yard…otherwise have a little respect for your neighbors and keep the leash on.

    • Brad

      Agree 100%.

      And the attitude of the people interviewed in this story is downright appalling. They’re basically saying that if you don’t like it, stay out – but the park is supposed to be for everyone to enjoy, not for them to dominate. (And the logic of the guy who says that the people who complain about the park don’t hang out there alot is incredible – maybe the people don’t go there alot because the unleashed dogs deter their use?)

      And I don’t care if it’s “generally uncommon,” according to “Josh,” that dogs have knocked over kids. That’s a big problem, in my book, even if he attempts to minimize the problem and its chilling effect on others’ use of the park.

      Like many of the near neighbors of the park, we don’t have a big yard at all, so we like to be able to access the park with our toddler daughter, but the free rein of the dogs in the park make that almost impossible unless we stay well away from the center near the roads, which is a problem too with a toddler. I have had numerous interactions with dog owners whose dogs are overly aggressive as we try to enjoy the park with our daughter, who is now deathly afraid of dogs as a result. Too often the owner simply shrugs off our criticism of the dog’s behavior and being unleashed by saying that the dog is gentle – but how the hell am I supposed to know or trust that, and how can a 2 year old possibly know that when the dog is running at her – and that it’s a dog park. I suppose I may just have to stay away, as these dog owners hope – or perhaps I will assert myself, just as they do, by use of fear and aggression.

  • susan

    I am really tired of unleashed dogs bounding around the corner on the upper trails of the Wissahickon. It is dangerous to be startled as you are climbing over or under something. The dog owners are FAR more “entitled” than the bikers, who — in my experience — try to be courteous;
    the dog owners, not so much.

  • jag

    I personally, have nothing against dogs and their owners, but the arrogance displayed by the people in this article is astounding! People have let their dogs run free at Pastorius Park for a long time, even though it’s clearly against the law. According to them, they, and they alone, have a right to use the park, even suggesting that the other taxpaying members of the community go elsewhere. If they want a place where their dogs can run unleashed, I suggest they buy a private piece of land and make it into a real dog park. The park belongs to everyone, even dogs (on a leash).

    • Cara

      I heartily agree! I am sometimes more afraid of the owners than the dogs on the trails and in the area parks. I have been threatened that I would get beaten up when I said “bad dog, go home” to a snarling dog that has me backed up against a tree and told that no one has the right to tell dog owners that there is a leash law in the parks and on the trails.
      The real sad story is that the Rangers do not realize that they are a joke and that dog owners brag about how they disrespect any authority to tell them to leash their dogs on Forbidden Drive or while biking or jogging on the trails. “So what! Call a Ranger” is the usual reply to dogs that run across Forbidden Drive to knock people down or charge other animals.
      Then there is the denial of any reports of dogs biting people, other dogs or horses in the Wissahickon. Dog owners say they have never heard of anything like that so people just lie because they don’t want cute, sweet little puppies to have fun in the park.
      It is going to take a serious incident such as a child being mauled before the matter is considered actionable.

  • Jbondelid

    Dog owners: there is a fenced dog park nearby in Cheltenham Township at the Curtis Arboretum. Enter from the Washington Lane side of the park.

  • Polkareski

    I think it is possible that I may be the Susan referenced in the article. To be clear, there was someone else who said something to the effect that they opposed any limitations on dog activities, and what I was saying is that I understood the desire of people to have a dog-free area, so maybe there could be some areas where dogs were prohibited. I too have kids and completely understand wanting to be able to not have to worry about someone else’s dog. I also have a dog and I really like having a place to take my dog to run, and I think it would be a mistake and a shame to take away what exists now for the dogs. My comment wasn’t meant to be a slap at people’s desire to place limits on dog’s activity, it was a genuine respect for the fact that figuring out shared uses and how we can all work together to try meet all of our various needs and interests sometimes needs to be worked out instead of either “dogs everywhere or no dogs allowed”.