Maybe it’s the rats. Or the smell. Or the bad rap from veterinarians, pet lovers and newspapers. Whatever the reason, it seems more and more New York dog owners no longer think the city’s public dog runs are a good place for their pups to play.
“It’s unruly. Dogs knock people over,” said Rachel Sedor of her visits to the Washington Square Dog Run, a public dog park in the West Village. “One urinated on my friend’s leg. The owner didn’t say a thing!”
Ms. Sedor, 52, said that eventually her Australian shepherd mix, Frankie, refused to enter the space, which is used by as many as 100,000 dogs per year. (Eileen Shulock, who is president of the Washington Square Dog Run, said that run use has doubled during the pandemic.)
So instead, Ms. Sedor joined the private Mercer-Houston Dog Run, a few blocks away, for an annual fee of $60.
She is not alone. For yearly fees ranging from free to $2,200, private dog runs offer an alternative to the city’s 84 public runs which, during the pandemic — and the dog boom it incited — have become more crowded and chaotic.
In true New York style, there are a range of options, from no-frills to fancy.
The SoHo Grand Dog Park
Annual fee: $795 for non-guests; free for hotel guests
This tony run, which is attached to the SoHo Grand Hotel, “welcomes all dogs, big and small, so long as they are furry and cute — or not,” said Lauren Richards, the hotel’s manager. She said Leonard Stern is the owner of the hotel as well as the C.E.O. of Hartz Mountain, the large pet supply company, so he “has a special affinity for dogs.”
The park is open to non-guests — that is, if they are lucky enough to get in off a growing wait list (and want to spent almost $800 annually). The high price tag covers a Zen rock garden, small pond and seasonal flowers. There is also a small fire hydrant that “makes the park more interactive, a touch more fun for dogs,” Ms. Richards said.
The park’s surfaces — which come in AstroTurf and gravel — are power washed at least twice a week, and hotel Wi-Fi is available so owners can work while their pets romp.
Eileen Murphy and Crixus, a 4-year-old boxer, make twice-yearly trips to New York City from Boston. Ms. Murphy, 49, said the run attracts “a lovely crowd of dogs.” At public parks, she said, people don’t pay as much attention to their dogs as they should.
The West Village D.O.G. Run
Annual fee: $245
The West Village D.O.G. Run, on Little West 12th Street, is as no-frills as a park could possibly be. It looks like a prison yard.
“It’s functional, period,” said Sabrina Schollmeyer, who frequently visits with Rubin, a Basenji, which is a rare, catlike breed that can climb trees. “It’s a space. It’s enclosed. It has what it needs: running water to hose down the surface, bowls for dogs to drink, a couple of balls.”
Bare bones though it is, the spirit of the D.O.G. run attracts hundreds of dogs and owners, some of whom have been coming back — with second and third dogs — for 30 years.
“We’re a community,” said Tracey Sides, a writer and photographer who founded the park in 1992 with her late husband, Randy. “When you walk through the gate, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. Small dogs needn’t be afraid here.”
Ms. Sides said anyone can join the West Village D.O.G. Run so long as they have proof of vaccination and a friendly dog with good manners.
“Everyone volunteers, shovels snow in the winter, washes down the surface in summer, empties the garbage.” The annual dues cover rent, electricity and cleaning supplies. A big plus: W.V.D.O.G., unlike most parks, is open 24 hours a day. There are security cameras, so people feel safe.
“It helps,” said Ms. Schollmeyer, 42, “that there’s a bar next door.”
School for the Dogs
Annual fee: $2,200
When she became disillusioned with the public dog parks, Annie Grossman founded the School for the Dogs, which offers training programs and, according to its website, “New York City’s only trainer-supervised dog run” where “member dogs can romp with their friends or simply enjoy off-leash time with their favorite person at our indoor/outdoor facility.”
“People sit on the perimeter in public runs and look at their phones. It’s like the Wild West,” Ms. Grossman, 41, said. “No one is in charge. It can be quite dangerous.”
Located in the East Village, the School Yard, as the dog-run service is called, is ideal for dogs who require a lot of attention and maybe a little extra supervision. No more than five dogs — carefully matched by size and temperament — are allowed in each 45-minute play yard. This is a big advantage for owners like Stephanie Higgs, 50, whose 7-year-old Papillon, Mu, gets overwhelmed in public parks.
Adam Davis, who supervises some of the classes, has 10 years of dog experience and keeps close watch on Mu, Bobby, Tacy, Lola and other Yard regulars, awarding treats when appropriate and firmly calling “break” when the dogs get scrappy or aggressive.
With its hefty membership fee, which covers five visits per month, the Yard isn’t for everyone — including dogs who like to run: The small outdoor space, covered with “pet-specific fake grass,” isn’t exactly a leafy meadow. But sessions here train dogs and new owners alike to better understand dog play, and, ideally, better navigate other dog runs.
The Mercer-Houston Dog Run
Annual fee: $60; $30 for seniors, 62 and older
Also in the no-frills category: this downtown dog run. A fenced-in concrete area, with an enclosed tree, concrete ramp, bone-shaped plastic pool, and a hose to spray, you know, “things” down, the Mercer-Houston run is sandwiched between two towers, one of which is now under construction. It’s a membership-only run, open to the public.
It’s not fancy, but “it’s friendly. There aren’t too many people. It’s not stinky,” said Jen Railla, 51, who enjoys the park with her Labrador daily.
Astro’s Dog Run
Annual fee: $40
Astro’s may be one of the last, best bargains in New York.
This Hell’s Kitchen hub is a good example of the way New Yorkers can scratch a little something from nothing, or at least very little. The park sits on a triangle-shaped patch of land between lanes of traffic near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel; it’s an area that would otherwise be unusable. Clean, well lighted and pleasantly outfitted with flower pots and tennis balls, Astro’s is rarely crowded.
“It’s very chill — a nice, caring community,” said Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur who visits at least once a day with his 1-year-old rescue dog, Waffle, a dachshund and pit bull mix.
Astro’s has a locked entry and a double-gated door and Mr. Shankman, 49, said he felt safe inside during the height of the pandemic when neighborhood hotels closed and the streets were relatively deserted. “It’s wonderful,” he said. “Once you get used to the rumbling of trucks every second.”
Jackson Heights Canine Recreational Wonderland
Annual fee: None
Jackson Heights Canine Recreational Wonderland, in Queens, offers what Manhattan parks so often cannot: lots and lots of space. J.H.C.R.E.W., as it’s known, occupies half a city block on land donated by the New York City Department of Transportation.
Membership is open to all. J.H.C.R.E.W.’s lead volunteer, Gerald Gold, said the park’s “accouterments” — tubes that dogs can run through, benches, solar activated lighting and a rain barrel volunteers fill with fresh water for the dogs — are “rudimentary.”
But the park has separate areas for big and small dogs, a luxury for space-strapped Manhattan parks. Volunteers empty the garbage and make rounds to ensure owners clean up after their dogs.
Green space is scarce in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, and Mr. Gold said that he and his neighbors are proud of the park. After all, in a dog-eat-dog world, they joined together and created a place that serves community interests.