For more than 10 years, furry residents of Ocean County such as Allee, Scruffy, Cooper and Wolfie have had their own place to romp. To play. To sniff. To bark at the deer.
And to do it without being tethered to their human beings.
In recent weeks, however, rumors spread faster than the twilight bark in "101 Dalmatians" that the park — the Ocean County Off-Leash Dog Facility at Robert J. Miller Airport — was going to be closed.
The humans were upset. Why would the county take something away that is as much a social hour for the people as it is the dogs?
So they came to the county Board of Freeholders meeting on Wednesday, ready to send the freeholders to the doghouse — or at the very least smack them on the nose with a newspaper for doing something so bad.
"I was told by a county employee that it was going to be closed for a new parking lot for the new airfield," said Sandra Baumann of Berkeley Township, who came to the meeting on behalf of a number of the park's patrons. "This is the last thing anyone who's a senior in Ocean County wants to see."
"People were crying when they heard this," she said.
Freeholder John C. Bartlett thanked the residents who came out to the meeting for barking up the right tree.
"We appreciate you coming to find out," Bartlett said.
"I am going to tell you point blank: There are no plans to close the dog park and there never were," said Bartlett, the freeholder board's liaison to the county's parks department. "We do not need any more parking at the airpark."
"We are not closing the dog park," he said. "You have now heard it from the dog's mouth."
The park, which operates year-round from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., is a favorite of many of the residents of the retirement communities in Berkeley and Manchester, said Pat Vezirian, one of the part-time employees who staffs the park.
"They can't fence their yards and some of them have difficulty walking, so this is a way for their dogs to get exercise," she said.
The Berkeley park — there's a second off-leash park at Ocean County Park in Lakewood — has 800 registered dogs, she said, and on weekends as many as 140 dogs use the park over the course of the day. Residents pay a $25 registration fee and must provide a copy of their dog's town license, as well as proof the dog has all its shots and, for male dogs, proof of neutering.
"It's the best $25 I've ever spent," said Lee Manning of Whiting, who says her dog Allee — a beagle mix — comes to the park every day. As Allee darted along the chain link fence barking at a deer that seemed intent on taunting her, Manning said the park is as much a social event as it is a place for the dogs to run and play.
"We'd be lost without the park," said Bill Easton of Whiting, as Wolfie, a husky mix, made the rounds, greeting the humans and the dogs. "If it wasn't for the park, I'd be in my house all day."
Wolfie knows the routine, Easton said. "When we get on the road he's talking up a storm in the car; he knows where we're going."
Even on a rainy day, the regulars come out, tails wagging and smiles greeting friends old and new.
"It's for us as well," said Frank Pelow of Whiting, who has been coming to the park for 10 years. "There's always someone to meet here and talk to."
Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari said the rumor apparently started about three weeks ago, seemingly when a patron said something to a park employee strictly in an attempt to upset the employee.
"It spiraled and went viral," Vicari said. "People love their animals."
"This board has no intention of shutting it down," he said.
And the residents who came to ask about the park were very happy to hear it.
"I'll go home and tell Molly," one said. Molly, of course, is the dog.