Pampered D.C. pooches run free at Battery Kemble—when police aren’t looking.

Pundit, my amiable but opinionated young golden retriever, can always smell Battery Kemble Park in Northwest D.C. long before he sees it.

Once we take the left off Nebraska Avenue onto Chain Bridge Road, what was a curled lump of fur is now up on his feet, head out the window, ears flapping in the breeze, wet nose quivering in anticipation. Passing the immaculate residential fortifications of Foxhall and heading down the steep, curving dirt road into the park, my grateful refugee from Manhattan’s concrete, fenced-in, off-leash dog areas can barely contain his excitement. He knows that, within a few moments, he will be able to run free, as God intended.

The two 100-pounder Parrott rifles that once perched atop the park’s steep slopes helped deter Confederate forces from raiding the capital some 140 years ago. But these days, some of Washington’s most coddled canines patrol the Civil War-era battery named after the originator of the West Point Foundry, Gouveneur Kemble. And the well-heeled, dog-loving denizens of Northwest who have unleashed them there are battling a new invasion force: the National Park Service, which wants the dogs to be restrained.

So far, things have remained civil—a polite standoff that has yet to turn into a snarling scrap. But the dog people’s hackles have been up since the Park Service stepped up patrols in Battery Kemble two months ago. The authorities’ tactics have varied: They warn, cajole, threaten, and occasionally ticket (some even say “harass”) those who pamper their pooches with off-leash play in the park.

“I think it’s outrageous,” says Treasury Department lawyer Danny Glaser, who often drives his fun-loving young Rottweiler, Woodson, to Battery Kemble. “I understand the police have little choice but to try to enforce the policy, but the policy is outrageous. The park would be unused if it weren’t for the dogs, but when the police come and clear out the dog owners, a perfectly nice park sits there empty except for a random jogger or two. What’s wrong with 30 people and their dogs enjoying the park? No one’s bothering anyone. I don’t take Woodson there to bother anyone; I take him there to avoid bothering anyone.”

At present, there are no legal alternatives for owners like Glaser. No officially sanctioned off-leash dog parks exist in the District. But owners like Glaser are adamant that their dogs need the type of exercise and socialization with other dogs and people that off-leash areas can provide.

Glaser is only one of many high-powered regulars at what has become known as the District’s premier de facto “dog park.” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) can often be seen, tennis racket in hand, top-spin-volleying balls for his energetic (and unleashed) Portuguese water dog, Splash, to retrieve. Never do you see a leash hooked to the collar of former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman’s beagle or NBC correspondent Lisa Myers’ tiny but feisty Cairn terrier, McDuff.

It’s not unusual to see as many as 30 to 40 dogs running free on the 57 acres of grassy hills and forested creek trails on weekend afternoons or after work. They run, jump, retrieve balls and sticks, chase, splash in the creek, and wrestle each other to the ground, punctuated by their owners’ shouts of encouragement—and the occasional “No!” or “Come!”

Battery Kemble even looks like a massive dog bowl, the steep hills around the parking lot providing an effective dog-containment system. They can sniff and be sniffed, get as mud-splattered and waterlogged as they like, and remain in sight, worlds away from roads, cars, and neighbors’ yards.

It’s an idyllic scene. Unless, that is, you don’t like dogs. Regulars insist, however, that rarely does anyone show up without a dog, or two, or three—barring the police, of course. The online Digital City Guide to the Capital’s Parks observes that “[t]he dogs are largely well-behaved, but they are also largely large, so Battery Kemble is to be avoided by the dog-phobic or those deeply averse to being jumped or slobbered on.”

It is precisely Battery Kemble’s reputation as a dog park that most irritates the National Park Service, which sees its mission as ensuring that public park space is open to all, be they joggers, bicyclists, picnickers, children, the elderly, or, in the case of Battery Kemble, Civil War enthusiasts.

“It’s not like we want to come down as the big bad Park Service, spoiling everyone’s fun,” says Park Service ranger and dog-owner Laura Illige, who is chief of resource management and visitor services for Rock Creek Park, which includes Battery Kemble. “But what one visitor values, another hates. It’s not a one-sided issue, and dog owners are breaking park rules. The police are not out to get anyone, but it’s awkward for law enforcement not to enforce the laws on the books.”

On one recent Saturday, Battery Kemble’s parking lot is filled up with Ford Explorers, Range Rovers, Volvos, and Lexuses by noon. Many of their drivers share the same illegal intent.

Pundit blasts off like a rocket when my car door opens. Soon, he’s frolicking with Diva and Filene, his two 9-month-old golden girlfriends, both of them in training to be service dogs for the wheelchair-bound.

“Police!” someone suddenly shouts.

Sure enough, a patrol car is heading slowly down the hill toward us. Everyone whose pet is running free suddenly has the look of a canine caught chewing a Manolo Blahnik or pissing on a priceless Persian carpet. But the dogs know the drill. They come when they’re called, and their owners scramble to leash them up in time to avoid a ticket.

“Well, doesn’t that just bust the whole mood,” says Anthony Digiavanni, bending down to leash up his Boston terrier, Rocko. A George Washington University medical student, Digiavanni has been bringing Rocko to the park since he “stumbled upon it by accident” six months ago.

“It’s wonderful here—most of the time,” continues Digiavanni, gazing at the patrol car, “but I just can’t believe the park police can’t find something better to do with their time. Catching criminals, maybe?”

In a matter of minutes, the cop car has retreated back up the hill and out of sight. The air is punctuated by the unmistakable clicking sound of 20 dogs being let off their leashes simultaneously.

According to my fellow dog owners, today’s police visit wasn’t so bad. Often, the cop on the dog-busting beat will sit in his car for more than an hour, as dogs stand around chained to their impatient owners. Some pets and humans head off to the nearby creek trail for surreptitious unleashed fun.

In the words of Gen. de Gaulle, the park police seem caught between the dog and the lamppost.

“Occasionally you get a complaint, and because there is a leash law, if we’re called, we have no choice but to take action,” says Lt. Joseph Cox, station commander at the Rock Creek Park Station. “Unfortunately, we’re stuck between two sides in this, and we don’t really want to be pushed into a corner. Feelings on both sides run pretty strong. So we try to appease people, seek compliance. But we don’t want to be heavy-handed about it.” Cox says that his officers hand out the occasional ticket, “not too many, and only if the owner blatantly defies us.”

For Theron Peters, a florist, an occasional $20 ticket is a price he’s grudgingly willing to pay for the benefits of off-leash time for his pet, Bean, an 11-year-old big black dog of indeterminate breed.

“To me, letting Bean run free, letting him get real exercise, letting him play with his friends, is worth a $20 ticket,” says Peters. “If it costs me $20 to $40 a week so he can socialize and run around like any normal dog should, then it’s worth it to me.”

Illige says there are about three complaints a month about unleashed dogs in the whole of Rock Creek Park. Most come from park neighbors worried about torn turf and feces, joggers objecting to being chased along the trails, or dog-owners complaining about other owners’ aggressive dogs. No one apparently compiles statistics specifically on complaints from Battery Kemble, but Illige says she’s talked to three or four complainants in the eight months she’s been on the job, and none of the complaints were related to dogs biting or mauling people.

“Today I got a call from an irate man complaining about dogs off-leash fighting in Battery Kemble,” says Illige. “He wouldn’t leave his name or number, but he did say it happens frequently.” Neither she nor the National Park Service Police could provide contact information for any of the complainants.

Illige says she never lets her dog, Coyote, a German shepherd she rescued as a stray, off his leash because he doesn’t like other dogs, and, well, because it’s against the law: “I understand the need to exercise dogs, but I don’t see why that can’t be done on a leash. The laws are there to protect dogs as well as humans.”

The humans who bring their pets to Battery Kemble argue that it’s not just the dogs’ play they are defending. It’s a social circle, a close-knit community of friends, a way of life. Many know each other only by their dogs’ names, but a lot of them have known each other for years. Many fast friendships—and at least one marriage—have resulted.

The dog owners at Battery Kemble also insist that they police themselves.

Suzanne Meznick and her 12-year-old poodle-terrier mix, Ranger, have been coming to Battery Kemble for almost nine years, and she swears by a community spirit for self-policing. “Anyone with an aggressive dog they can’t or will not control or pick up after soon gets ostracized. They’re just not welcome, and they don’t come back.” Plus, there are bags pinned to a tree, in case someone forgets.

Jim Monsma, director of animal outreach at the Humane Society, which works closely with D.C. Animal Control, agrees. “They know the police can come down on them any minute,” Monsma says. “So it’s in their interest to keep control of their dogs, clean up after them, and be the responsible owners of well-trained, friendly dogs. Peer pressure—and self-interest—is a powerful thing.”

There are some legitimate concerns about owners’ letting their dogs loose, according to Dr. Michael Fox, a veterinarian well known to Washington Post readers for his syndicated Saturday advice column, Animal Doctor. He says dog owners shouldn’t unleash their dogs unless they are well-trained and respond to voice commands.

“If they’re not good around kids and other dogs, they shouldn’t come,” says Fox, who lets his three dogs—Batman, Lizzy, and Xylo—run free four times a day in Battery Kemble.

Fox labels a blanket ban on unleashed dogs playing in Battery Kemble as “speciesist.”

“When you think of all the proven health benefits dogs bring to their owners and society at large in terms of reducing the burden on long-term health costs,” argues Fox, “not to mention all that city tax raised from pet-food sales, it’s unthinkable that they shouldn’t be afforded the right to be dogs—as long as they are good dogs, and that requires good owners.”

Meznick, a technical director at National Public Radio, says Battery Kemble provided a crucial training ground for weaning Ranger off his formerly aggressive tendencies.

“I got him when he was 4, and he was far more aggressive when he was on a leash,” explains Meznick. “Leashes often change a dog’s behavior. They become more protective of their owners and more aggressive. It really helped Ranger to run free in a common area away from his neighborhood, where he was prone to be territorial. The socialization with other dogs off-leash has helped him immeasurably when he is on a leash.

“I met my best friend, Wendy, here nine years ago,” she adds. “All the people are so nice. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

“I would never have met my wife, Kirsten, had it not been for the park,” says Bryan Reisz, who’s been taking his dogs, Blue and Pony, to the park for more than a year now. They were married on March 7, and the Battery Kemble dog people threw a party for them in the park four days later. “Everyone here knows our story,” he says.

Dogs have been free to run for most of human history, but now they must tread carefully through a labyrinth of city ordinances banning them from more and more public places, private regulations even banishing them from most apartment buildings, and new laws banning whole breeds. Two years ago, the Post even pondered whether dogs and dog owners had become the new smokers.

“It’s not quite that bad yet, but close,” says Fox. “Dog phobia is a real problem.” CP