When Lisa Karpenko surprised her daughter with a puppy last Christmas, the 44-year-old imagined reliving her fondest memories of growing up in East Boston, playing fetch and traipsing through the snow with her two German shepherds.
She soon learned this would be nearly impossible: Boston is no longer the dog-friendly city she grew up in.
The lone spot in East Boston where the family’s black Labrador, Dakota, can legally run off-leash is the Bremen Street Dog Park, a half-acre crushed stone lot beneath the boom of cars speeding along the 1A Expressway as they approach the Sumner Tunnel. While it’s the largest dog park of its kind in the city, on rainy days, oil slicks pool in puddles, and on dry days, the dogs leave caked in rock dust.
And getting there is a challenge in its own right. Karpenko’s path takes her through traffic-clogged streets because the most direct route — through a Massport greenway of lush park space — has a strict “no dogs” policy. Karpenko said a security officer booted her and her daughter Bella three times from the trail as they trotted with Dakota.
“It’s been a struggle, it really has,” Karpenko said. “We’re treated like criminals.”
Such is life for many of the city’s roughly 55,500 dog-owning households.
Five decades ago, Boston, led by a mayor who played toss on the Common with his golden retrievers, was one of the last cities in the area to still allow dogs to roam the streets freely. But the landscape has changed and tensions have ratcheted up since, pitting dog people against pedestrians, and sparking battles from City Hall to parks and ballfields across the city that have been co-opted into unlawful dog parks.
Boston has 14 public spaces where dogs are allowed off leash. Besides a section of the Common, all are small fenced-in dog parks, most too small for a satisfying game of fetch. Combined, these spaces total roughly 4.7 acres of the roughly 4,740 acres of open space in Boston held by the city and state.
The off-leash spaces are disproportionately clustered in neighborhoods that tend to be more affluent, white, and Asian than the rest of the city, according to a Globe analysis. Only about 18 percent of the city’s dog-owning population live within a third of a mile of one.
The situation has turned some Bostonians into scofflaws, co-opting parks, fields, and lots across the city for canine playgrounds, leading to occasional fights and fiery words. In Roslindale and the North End, dog owners reported that someone left out food laced with poison, according to city 311 records.
And there are other sorts of clashes. At Smith Playground in Allston last February, several dog owners told the Globe an “angry baseball dad” had been seen flinging open the gates to the three new ballfields when people were playing fetch with their dogs inside.
Dan Moore, who coaches Little League and softball teams on the fields, said his players have found feces and holes in the ballfields, which are adjacent to a new $200,000 city dog park.
“I love dogs; I’m insane for dogs,” said Moore, who owns a giant schnauzer. “I don’t think that they should be on the Little League fields.”
Off-leash areas have become the fastest-growing amenity in parks across the country, according to the Trust for Public Land. But not so much here: Boston ranked 36th in the trust’s survey of the nation’s 100 largest cities this year.
At any given time in West Roxbury’s Millennium Park, dog after dog can be seen trotting freely past “Dogs on leashes only” signs. On a blustery Saturday afternoon in April, 18 of 25 groups there had dogs off a leash, including this reporter with her black mouth cur mix, Archer.
Meanwhile, in Dorchester Center’s Harambee Park, an overgrown Little League field has become a prime place to play fetch. “I’m not doing anything wrong,” said lifelong resident Paulette Parham, with her dogs Prince and Blue. “I always pick up after them.”
The number of dogs licensed in Boston has climbed in recent years, topping out at 11,200 last year, according to city data. But most people don’t register their dogs. A Globe estimate using recent U.S. Census Bureau survey data on housing tenure and pet ownership puts the city’s total closer to 68,220.
Boston’s enforcement of the leash law — which carries fines up to $100 — is spotty at best. The Department of Parks and Recreation, which also oversees Animal Care and Control officers citywide, issued 1,222 leash law tickets and warnings last year, according to city data, but the agency doesn’t track where the violation occurred. The agency also took nearly 600 reports of dog bites last year, which includes both human and animal victims.
Some local politicians have called the lack of off-leash space in large swaths of Boston an equity issue. The debate prompted a City Council hearing on the subject in 2021 as the mayoral race heated up; then-councilor Michelle Wu cosponsored the hearing.
Since her election as mayor, Wu has vowed to make Boston a more dog-friendly place. Her administration took the first step in May with a measure to allow restaurants and beer gardens to let customers with dogs use outdoor patios.
Wu, whose family has one cat, declined an interview request, but she said in a statement: “Off-leash dog parks are more than just spaces for our residents and their pets to play and exercise. They are vital community assets that bring people together, build social connections, and foster a sense of belonging.”
Her spokesperson added that she “is committed to finding space in every neighborhood for dog parks, whether it be on city, state, or private land.”
If they build the parks, will dog owners come? Maybe not. The city is only considering fenced dog parks in the 10,000-square-foot range, or less than a quarter-acre. The American Kennel Club and other dog groups generally recommend that dog parks be at least 1 to 3 acres.
Building smaller dog parks is costly because they require special ground and irrigation materials, since grass would get too much wear and tear. Parks Department records show that dog parks built recently cost roughly $200,000 apiece, meaning it would cost $2.6 million to build dog parks in all 13 neighborhoods that don’t have one.
Boston wasn’t always a tough city for dogs. Fifty years ago, Mayor Kevin White often walked through the Common with his golden retrievers trotting by his side. And City Councilman Fred Langone fought off attempts to enact a leash law, declaring, “Dogs have as much right to live as human beings.”
But by the mid-1960s, the legions of loose pups were becoming a problem throughout Boston and its neighboring suburbs. There were reports of frightened children, gardens dug up, feces left uncollected. Scores of municipalities across the state started considering ordinances to require dogs to be under voice or leash control while outside.
Boston’s City Council first considered a leash law in 1967. That year, about 4,060 dog bites were reported, nearly seven times the number reported last year. The leash law measure failed five years in a row, before the council finally forced it through in 1972 over White’s veto.
Dog owners were not amused. Several Beacon Hill residents, some of whom were board members of the Friends of the Public Garden, were able to secure off-leash privileges in part of the Common. In return, the group agreed to pay the entire cost of grass restoration.
In 2003, dog-owner groups across the city organized as one to propose an ordinance to establish 22 places — one in each neighborhood.
Michael Ross, a city councilor at the time, led the negotiations. It was an uphill fight, he recalls.
“People didn’t like dogs; they didn’t like yuppies, they didn’t like change,” Ross told the Globe recently.
Ultimately, only two new dog parks were created under the ordinance. Since it expired in 2014, five new dog parks have been built on city parkland.
Other cities have taken different approaches to dogs, designating off-leash areas within parks, often during specific times when the parks are least used. Boise, Idaho, the top city for dogs on the Trust for Public Land’s list, lets dogs hike unleashed through most of its 190-mile trail system. San Francisco, which ranked fifth, allows dogs to romp through the sand year-round at several beaches.
In New York City, officials have insisted that giving dog owners the run of certain parks before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m. played a key role in driving down crime in parks, and has also made the city’s dogs less aggressive. The city has 69 parks with off-leash hours, including the famed Central Park, and 81 smaller fenced dog parks.
Many of Boston’s suburbs have taken the same approach, or are considering doing so. Newton, Brookline, Cambridge and Arlington started their programs between 2003 and 2010. Medford and Needham are considering the idea.
Boston parks officials briefly considered off-leash hours in 2016, and again last year. But they decided against the approach because of concerns over the damage dogs could cause to the grass, the lack of staff to enforce the hours, and opposition from parents, sports teams, and others.
Off-leash areas for dogs have topped park-goers’ wish lists in numerous Parks Department surveys over the years. For the city’s most recent seven-year Open Space and Recreation Plan, nearly one-third of respondents said they wanted more dog parks, making it the third-most requested type of amenity behind restrooms and natural areas.
A Parks Department spokesperson said eight locations are being considered for fenced dog runs — including inside the Common, which would replace the current unfenced off-leash area, Franklin Park, and Harambee Park, where Parham takes her dogs. But only one site has a plan that is currently funded and has been put out to bid — at the William F. Flaherty Playground in Jamaica Plain.
JP residents overwhelmingly supported a dog park in a parks survey. But some of the neighbors closest to Flaherty Playground bitterly opposed the plan. At a meeting last March, they told their city councilor that the dogs would cause constant noise and take away the space they use for birthday parties, practicing BMX tricks, Latin dancing, and kickball games after school.
City Councilor Kendra Lara explained to the residents that the city was under intense pressure from dog owners to put a dog park in the neighborhood and chose Flaherty because it was next in line for renovation, even though it doesn’t meet the city’s guidelines for a dog park.
Melissa Hamel, who leads Friends of JP Dog Parks, said many of the group’s members would prefer off-leash hours at a larger space over a small but exclusive dog run.
But after decades of scuttled plans and pitched community meetings, Hamel said dog owners are looking for any solution. “We don’t want to let perfect be the enemy of the good.”