If it was left up to them, Jake, Zeke, Woody and the rest of their gang probably would have spent all morning running around the park, chasing each other through the grass and diving into Swan Pond when the mood struck them.
But the heat in Riverside a couple of Sundays ago was too much for their human keepers, and the dogs were reined in early, their freedom cut short for that morning.
When the weather cooperates, however, the open field next to Swan Pond is the site of Riverside’s unofficial “dog park.” Started about five years ago with two puppies, the Sunday morning gathering has grown to include more than two dozen dogs and their owners.
Sue Sherman, Jake’s owner, said the dog park was started by her husband, Bill, and one of his friends. They began meeting at Swan Pond to exercise their then-puppies for a few hours every Sunday, and soon Bill started inviting friends and neighbors to join them.
“He’d see people walking their dog in town and just mention it to them,” she said.
Over time, Sherman said, the group started growing and gained an increasing number of regulars. She said it appealed to people as a fun way to get their dogs out of the house once a week.
“It’s a chance for the dogs to run around, socialize, get some exercise,” she said.
Brian Perfect, of Berwyn, said he happened across the dog park when he was fishing at Swan Pond four years ago and immediately started bringing his dogs, Max and Snowy, and now Woody. He said it was a good way to get his dogs socialized, and also an opportunity to spend time with one of his favorite animals.
“I love dogs,” he said. “But I can’t have 20 of my own, so I come here.”
Sherman said the group has become its own community, although one in which people are mostly known through their pets. Two weeks ago, “Zeke’s owner,” Chris Anderson of Riverside, passed around an art book created by “Buddy’s owner,” Kate Collins, a student at Central School in Riverside. The book told the story of “A Day at the Dog Park,” and other owners eagerly searched its pages for their dogs’ pictures and stories.
That sort of opportunity to get to know their neighbors is another benefit of the park, Sherman said.
“For the people, we get to socialize, too,” she said.
Technically, however, all the owners who participate in the dog park are skirting the village’s leash law, which requires that all dogs be kept on a chain or a leash at all times when away from the owner’s private property.
Laure Kosey, the director of Riverside’s Recreation Department, said that if dogs are running free at the park “absolutely it’s a concern.”
“We’d need to enforce that,” she said.
Since the gathering happens on Sunday and Recreation Department staff are off, however, no one has ever filed a complaint with police. Kosey added that no one has complained to her department about the dogs, either.
“We’ve gotten no calls for complaints,” Kosey said.
The issue of a dog park is something that has been discussed by the Riverside Playgrounds and Recreation Commission, the advisory group that sets recreation policies for the department. Earlier this year the board kicked around the ideas briefly, but never got to the stage of identifying a site for such a park or setting guidelines for the operation of a dog park.
“As long as the dogs are on a leash, they can be walked in any park,” Kosey said.
Anderson said no one at the dog park had ever gotten in trouble with the village during the two-and-a-half years she’s been bringing Zeke, but that they assume the police knew about their gathering because the police station is just down the road from the park.
She credited the village’s assumed acceptance to the fact that owners have always been responsible and aware of what their dogs were doing when they’re off the leash.
“We know they know about us, because they’re right there,” she said. “It’s always been a peaceful gathering, and I think that’s why the village turns a blind eye.”
Assistant Police Chief Thomas Weitzel said that police have noted the presence of dogs at the park on Sundays, but said that officers told him that dogs appeared to be on leashes and were not at the park for long periods of time. He said that officers would continue to monitor the park, but added that the department has received no complaints about the dogs.
I’m unaware of it being a problem,” Weitzel said. If dogs were running free or people weren’t cleaning up after them, then it would be a problem.”
Sherman also noted that the dog park has won the approval of some of its neighbors. She said members of the Riverside Presbyterian Church across Barrypoint Road from the park have told her they sit outside and watch the dogs playing with each other after their morning services.
“I’ve heard some kids complain that they want to come to the dog park, but they have to go to church,” she added, letting an eager Jake run off for one last dash into the water.
“This is church,” Perfect joked. A panting, worn-out Woody, finally resting in the shade at his owner’s feet, probably would’ve agreed.
Bob Uphues contributed to this report.