It was three o’clock on a Monday afternoon when Baxter, my Chocolate Lab and Pointer mix, walked to the center of the Schuylkill River Dog Run and proceeded to poop in front of everyone.
“Hang on,” I told a guy named Joseph, who owns a two-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier named “Pickles.” He had agreed to share some thoughts with me about the park itself and the type of people that bring their dogs to this turf and concrete playground that also features a kiddie pool with running water hookups.
If would be in poor taste if I continued the interview while leaving a “number two” on the ground, but sometimes people are asleep at the wheel.
“For the most part people are very attentive,” Joseph says. “You occasionally find an owner who just ignores their dog, which is fine if all their guy does it just sit around, but it becomes a problem if their dog is aggressive and they’re hesitant to get involved.”
That’s a sight you’ll see at any park, the person who is buried in their iPhone and oblivious to what’s going on around them.
Trotting around the park with Pickles was “Poe,” a one-year-old ex-runt who showed some interest in playing with Baxter between rounds of fetch.
His owner, Mikhi, says Poe was a slow developer who needed time to acclimate to new surroundings.
“He was always kind of weird,” says Mikhi. “But we took him here to be around other dogs. When we first started taking him here he would stay around us or cling to our leg, and he was really intimidated by the other dogs. Now he’s really calm and does his own thing and tries to play with other dogs. He really enjoys himself here.”
I had to stop that interview as well, since Baxter had attracted a crowd of about five other dogs that flipped him onto his back and pinned him to the ground. In fairness, my dog probably riled up the rest when he decided to start sprinting in circles around the park perimeter for no apparent reason.
Fair play to the owner of “Rocco,” however, who came right over to remove her dog from the pile. Mikhi did the same with Poe.
In fact, everyone responded within five seconds to defuse the admittedly minor situation.
“There were some instances where Poe was getting ganged up on and some of the owners would just watch,” said Mikhi in response to the scrum. “I would get real uneasy, like, ‘hey, back off.’ Just because you’re at a dog park doesn’t mean they’re wild dogs now.
“You still have to pay attention, whether they’re off-leash or on-leash. Some owners just don’t. There will be instances sometimes where these dogs are really showing teeth, and really not trying to interact. The owner still doesn’t do anything, or they’re on their phone. It can be really annoying.”
From there, we packed up and headed to the Palmer Doggie Depot, a smaller park on Frankford Avenue straddling the Kensington and Fishtown line.
Jeff was there with his one year old hound mix Stella, an SPCA rescue.
Also at the park was Laura, owner of a nine-year-old Husky and Samoyed mix, and a two-year-old Pointer/Beagle mix.
It’s a smaller space here, covered mostly with Old City-style cobblestone and some rocks and dirt. It does tend to get a bit crowded with more dogs per square foot and less room to run. The propensity for squabbles is probably magnified for that reason alone.
But the guidelines are mostly the same, as is the culture. Rule number 12 on a sign posted at the front gate requires handlers to be within view and voice control of their dogs, which is something that not everybody adheres to.
“There are times when I see, not dogs attacking people, but a dog fight where everybody pulls their own dog away and you’re thinking, ‘okay, now where’s the owner?'” Laura said. “A lot of times it’s innocent, like they’re on their phone in the corner, or they’re dealing with another dog or something. But everybody who comes here usually looks out for each other and everyone else’s dog. Nobody really stands there and just watches it happen.”
Other rules at Palmer restrict non-neutered dogs and puppies under four months old. Young children are likewise banned and others must be accompanied by a parent. No toys are allowed except for standard tennis balls, which makes sense when you consider the territorial nature of dogs claiming a specific chewy item or frisbee.
I’ve seen Baxter get a bit too aggressive when someone else has a toy that he wants.
But Jeff and Laura both say that situations resulting in true danger or unease are infrequent, with the majority of people playing by those rules.
“The only thing I see that bums me out is the lack of care that some people have, whether they’re buried in a book or on their phone,” Laura explains. “Even though it’s a dog park, it’s like being at a playground with your kids. You still have to keep an eye on them and pay attention.
“Sometimes when these incidents happen, I can understand if you had a quick phone call with your boss, or you didn’t see it, but the reaction sometimes leaves more to be desired … You could have been a bit more apologetic or come over more quickly instead of just sauntering by to pick up your dog after they got in a fight.
“Sometimes it feels like they rely on the kindness of everybody else here, and it’s a little less about personal responsibility.”
From Palmer, Baxter and I went over to Triangle Dog Park, the aptly-named open space bordering the section of Aramingo Avenue that dumps you onto Girard.
We’ve been going to Triangle for 10 months now, so we’ve become familiar with the people, the pups, and the park rules. We don’t have anything posted on the front gate, so you could say we’re on the honor system, right?
It’s a little more of a free-for-all, with maintenance handled on the fly by a smaller group of patrons. We don’t have running water, so people take home jugs and fill them up. A guy named Tom rakes the mulch and wood chips. I’ll take out the trash on Thursdays.
Triangle’s de facto warden is a guy named Mike, a lifelong Fishtown resident who regularly brings his pair of Beagles to the park.
He says most people follow the rules.
Most, but not all.
“Especially the late night people and the early morning people, they do not pick up their shit,” Mike explains. “I come, after the fact, and walk around the perimeter and pick up other people’s dog shit. It’s a pain in the ass. They’re your dogs.”
He’s not wrong—we have more poop problems than the average park. There are more trees and shaded green areas where feces can be covertly deposited. Baxter has a habit of walking 70 feet to the other end of the park, sneaking behind a bush, and popping a squat.
For the most part, it’s the same issue here – lack of attention. We might be talking among ourselves, or become distracted by social media while our pets go about their business.
“Even someone like you, you’re on your phone sometimes,” says Mike, who isn’t wrong. “Nikki is on her phone. It happens. Truthfully, I’ve been here at three o’ clock in the morning, and Eagle will poop over there by the far tree and I can’t find it, but I’ll come back the next day and pick it up. You, Amy, Nikki, John, and Tom will (help out), you know, ‘hey, the trash goes out tonight,’ you’ll take it out. I weed-whack. Tom and I will pick up glass.
“I’ll walk around and pick up the dog shit. But people have to chip in. It’s not Eagle or Baxter’s dog park. It’s a public dog park. If everybody chips in, it’s a great place. It shouldn’t be up to just a few people to watch the dog park.”
In a weird way, the experience we’ve had at Triangle probably makes my wife and I better neighbors.
We know more people in our area, we bump into other dog owners, and we’re more inclined to pick up litter and take care of our streets, which is definitely needed sometimes. That wasn’t always the case, as we generally kept to ourselves and tried not to bother anybody in the past. Now it feels like we’re a little more in-tune with the area where we put down roots two years ago.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Nikki Uy, whose dog, Darwin, is a good wrestling partner for Baxter.
“I got Darwin at the end of May, and I only moved here at the beginning of March,” Nikki says. “It was a good way to introduce myself to Fishtown, too, by talking to everybody who comes here regularly. (You hear about) places to eat and other things to do. I know familiar faces. I know what people are up to. If not, maybe I would still be just hanging out with my college friends in the area.”
And maybe the takeaway is this: it’s not just a dog park, it’s about a sense of community.
It’s not just about servicing the needs of your dog, but bringing a couple of beers, sitting down at the picnic table, and enjoying the company of your neighbors, a simple concept that doesn’t always resonate in modern day Philadelphia.
“It’s me and you talking,” Mike says. “It’s me and Nikki talking. It’s a place to come down, relax, talk, maybe get something off your chest and let your dogs roam.”
Just keep an eye on them.