Central Park is an oasis for urban-dwelling dog owners and their pets alike. There are 600,000 dogs (or a ratio of 6.8 dogs to every 100 humans) in NYC, and along with our 42 million human visitors, NYC Parks estimates a whopping 1.5 million canine visits to Central Park each year!
It may be tempting to think that you or your dog don’t have an influence over such a vast and bustling ecosystem. But imagine, for example, if each dog dug only one hole during their visit, had a single negative interaction, or if every owner neglected to pick up after their pets just once. The cumulative effect would be substantial, posing safety and public health risks. The Park's vibrant environment—with its diverse communities of users and various species of birds, small mammals, and flora—suffers when its delicate balance is disrupted.
How can you keep your dog’s Park outings healthy and happy for your pet, your park, and the other animals that call these 843 acres home? We consulted the experts to bust some myths and share some tips to make your dog’s next visit harmonious for everyone involved.
Look for Compatible Play Styles
“One of the first things we learn as a dog trainer is that dogs have different play styles. It can be dependent on personality, breed, and other factors—and it also can be cultural or geographical. Rescues can bring dogs from around the globe and other parts of the country to NYC,” dog trainer Julie Wintrob explains. Julie is a trainer with the NYC-based organization Pawsome Pupstars and is Fear-Free Certified and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA®).
Especially in a place like Central Park—where millions of people come together with different dogs from various backgrounds—it’s understandable that dogs don’t always know how to communicate with each other effectively. Much like their human companions, they have unique preferences toward who they want to spend time with and how they enjoy spending time together. Whether you’re new to dog ownership or a longtime companion to canines, it’s essential to know your dog, their playstyle, and their limits before joining in on the fun.
Learn to Speak Your Dog’s Language
Leashed or not, the best way to promote a positive experience for your dog and the Park community is to stay proactive, present, and mindful of your dog’s cues. Knowing your animal’s body language can take some time and attention, as cues can be tough to spot or unique to your pet and the situation. Think of it like learning another language. When your pet displays signs of stress or heightened arousal, it's necessary to recognize that they may need help feeling safe or creating space from a stressor.
In such cases, Julie advises owners to briefly call their dog away to reduce their arousal levels. This step can prevent potential conflicts or misunderstandings with other dogs. While it doesn't necessarily imply a dire situation, it's an opportune moment to give your dog a well-deserved break.
Understand the Benefits of Leashed Outings
Not all dogs benefit from off-leash time—and that’s okay! In fact, off-leash outings may be detrimental for your dog in a number of cases. Dogs who become easily overwhelmed or have a history of negative experiences around other dogs might feel safer, more secure, and happier on a leash and at a distance.
“There’s a misconception that all dogs need a lot of physical exercise, or that [exercise] has to look a certain way. A related myth is that dogs should—or even need to—play with other dogs to be happy or healthy. These misunderstandings could cause pressure or shame for owners whose dogs aren’t able to partake harmoniously in these activities,” says Julie. “But some dogs are not actually getting the benefits of that off-leash time, because they’re stressed or anxious.”
No matter how well-behaved or adjusted your dog is—or how stellar their recall is—it’s important to remember that off-leash time always presents a degree of risk.
“Especially when it comes to an active public setting like Central Park—where you don’t have much control over the environment—it’s better to err on the side of caution, go slow, and decrease the risk of negative experiences,” Julie explains.
Be Mindful of Your Dog's Impact on Wildlife
Dogs and their owners also have a significant impact on Central Park's wildlife and their habitats—including a variety of native and migrating birds, squirrels, and other species.
Tristan Higginbotham sees the impact of off-leash dogs in Central Park firsthand in her work as a wildlife rehabber and the Songbird & Baby Bird Supervisor for Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation and education center for NYC’s birds and small mammals.
“We see the highest number of dog attacks and dog-related injuries during baby season, because that’s when you’ll find the most vulnerable birds and other wildlife, like squirrels and possums,” says Tristan. This tends to be in the spring and summer months. “These animals are often found on the ground and learning [to fly], so they’re more susceptible to getting stepped on or attacked by dogs.”
As of October 2023, Wild Bird Fund had received 56 patients due to dogs so far this year.
“It’s often an accident or a playful incident. Even if your dog doesn’t have a strong prey drive, they’re probably interested in something that’s moving, and it doesn’t always take much,” Tristan explains. “[And] bites can do some serious damage. It causes tearing, so you end up losing some skin, which makes it harder to suture. And if the skin isn't there, it just takes longer to heal.”
Even if a dog doesn’t cause direct physical harm, animal behavior can be negatively influenced by a pet’s presence alone. “Say there's a mallard who's nesting on her eggs, and there's a dog running around unchecked or in an area where they’re not allowed. The [mallard] is going to leave because there's a predator there,” Tristan says. “If you let your dog get too close to wildlife, bad things are going to happen.”
Foster a Sense of Belonging and Community
Dogs and their owners also have a profound direct and indirect impact on the humans who care for Central Park. Serina Griffin, a member of the Central Park Conservancy's Community Relations team, interacts with Central Park’s dog community daily. This tight-knit team of warm and knowledgeable Conservancy staff aids and fosters relationships with a vast variety of Park groups—including dog owners.
"As a member of this team, I want to develop a relationship with community members and really know them—and for them to know me, too. I think that is where my role is different from those enforcing the rules." While NYC Parks creates and enforces the Park’s rules and regulations, the Conservancy is invested in how community behavior impacts Central Park’s condition and longevity. Serina's sentiment encapsulates the heart of the team’s approach to managing Central Park's dog regulations—a genuine desire to foster a sense of community and collaboration rather than wielding authority. "I want to level with people, let them know the expectations, and have a conversation about what’s best for the Park and the community."
Serina understands this mission extends beyond simple rule following; it's about building bridges with Park-goers and protecting those that labor diligently to keep this Park the remarkable place that it is. Central Park Conservancy staff members in a variety of roles often find themselves repeatedly repairing damage to landscapes and the fences erected to protect them, only to see them broken into again by dog owners seeking a space for their pets to play.
The consequences of digging, landscape damage, and other dog-related issues can result in deterioration, closures, and safety concerns. The cumulative toll can influence the experiences of an entire community of visitors and staff—and it goes beyond isolated incidents.
“It can be easy to think that it doesn’t matter, but then you really see [the impact],” Serina says. “You realize it’s bigger than that, it’s bigger than just one lawn. It’s about the whole Park and the comfort and safety of other people.”
In Central Park, the path to a harmonious coexistence between all Park-goers is paved with mutual understanding, collaboration, and a shared desire to create a space where everyone can enjoy the beauty and tranquility that this greenspace has to offer.
Amileah Sutliff is the Senior Marketing Writer & Editor at the Central Park Conservancy.
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