The pandemic saw a seismic jump in dog ownership, especially among those who took the lockdown to pathological levels and hid themselves away from family and friends.

Dogs became the solution for self-imposed isolation. Suddenly dogs of all sizes and shapes began popping up all over the city, even dogs the size of small cattle were observed being led back to 400 square foot efficiency apartments. (Most canine authorities, of course, would categorize this as animal cruelty.)

“Americans adopted millions of dogs during the pandemic, now what do we do with them?” The Washington Post asked last year. 

The Atlantic chimed in with a similar question, asking in 2021 why so many millennials seem to be obsessed with dogs. The answer had to do with replacing children with pet ownership.

Millennials, of course, took to the new dog culture like centipedes take to dark, damp spaces. The endless production line of young couples walking dogs in every part of the city was and continues to be a common enough image, one that cultural critics attribute to something called “trial parental runs,” or using the dog as a pretend human baby to prepare the couple for the real thing later on. But then something happened. That “later on” became a permanent institution. The pet dog actually became a baby, a fur baby, as the owners became, by default, Mom and Dad.

So much for the sperm-meets-egg-equals-human embryo goalpost of trial parenthood!

Post-pandemic, dogs quickly became a thriving industry. Pet stores as large as super markets began springing up all over. In my own Riverwards neighborhood there are three or four mega Petco Pet Supplies stores within a five-mile radius. The price of pet food in these places is practically on a par with Whole Foods. But who’s counting dollars, or complaining? Raising a dog is still cheaper than raising a child.

Today, city sidewalks have become the dog version of bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95. Dog walkers rule. For the dog-less pedestrian, passing a dog on the sidewalk raises the question: will the dog lunge, bark or growl? Dog walkers have their own predicaments: will another dog attack my dog? Will there be a dog pile up à la I-95? Should I carry canine tear gas? 

The dog explosion has created campaigns to have every park become a partial dog park. In my neighborhood dog owners worked to convert a small stretch of land by the local Rite Aid into a mini dog-only space. Here, Frisbee-throwing millennials chase after Fido as if they were making “Sound of Music” videos. Walk around my neighborhood, however, and you’ll see multiple “Clean up after your dog” signs. Most dog walkers are respectful but there’s a careless minority that allow their dogs to poop and urinate anywhere, even in outdoor flower planters.

The occasional tensions in Rittenhouse Square, where some dog walkers want to create a mini dog park section, will only increase as the dog population continues to expand. 

Schuylkill River Park has its own dog park situated near tennis courts that have been there for decades. Some dog walkers there have turned militant. One online post about the park reads: “Tennis balls need to be banned from here.” Another person issued a warning about the eating of tennis balls: “If your dog tears a tennis ball please make sure to pick up the pieces left on the ground.” Another person commented: “This place is like a big shit slick sometimes.” Meaning dog poop, of course…. 

In 2018, the website Greater Greater Washington asked: “Are dogs urbanist? Do they belong in cities?” The same year a millennial writer, going against her peers, wrote in Axios: “There are way too many dogs in public places.”

Last year, the Washington Post reported that “Americans spent $21.4 billion on nonmedical pet products through November [2021], plus another $28.4 billion on dog food.” 

The dog boom has also allowed dogs in places from which they were once excluded.

A 2022 Wall Street Journal article, “Malls Welcome Dogs, The Results have been Ruff,” went on to explain how malls have adopted pet-friendly ‘pawlcies’ when it comes to dealing with puppy accidents (more poop) and “greyhounds running up and down the escalators.” 

The dog madness has even extended to beer gardens and ice cream parlors.

In Rittenhouse Square, an ice cream parlor for dogs, Salty Paws, offers fresh fruits and vegetables blended with coconut water. An online ad for Salty Paws proclaims: “The staff pays extra attention to remove all seeds and rinds for an ultimately dog-safe and friendly drink. The flavors include blueberry, pineapple, watermelon, and a veggie smoothie made with carrots, green beans, spinach, and cucumber.” 

The idea of vegans forcing food orthodoxy on dogs is right up there with housing a Great Dane in a small Center City efficiency apartment. 

When we put pitbulls into the city dog-explosion equation, that’s when things can really get ugly. 

In an incident that made international news, when a local Philadelphia FBI agent walked her dog near 16th and Spruce Streets and encountered someone walking a pitbull, she had to make a split-second decision when she witnessed the pitbull attack her pet and then begin to attack her. Fortunately, the agent had the good sense to defend her pet. She shot the pit bull and killed it. 

The classic pitbull jaw is powerful and lethal. Once a pit digs its teeth into the neck of its victim — a smaller dog, a child, or even an adult — you can count on immeasurable physical damage or even death.

The most extensive coverage of the incident didn’t come from the Philadelphia media but from the UK newspaper The Daily Mirror. For the most part, details about the shooting were sketchy in the local press. Certain details about the attack did not surface in the local press until later. 

The Mirror got it all in one story. Revolution Philadelphia, a local animal rights organization, released a statement condemning the incident and demanding that the agent be held accountable for her actions — despite the fact that according to, pit bulls account for 65.6 percent of all the fatal dog attacks in the nation. Between 2005 and 2019, pit bulls killed 346 Americans.

The animal rights group, of course, doesn’t dare say what the poor agent should have done to protect her dog, but it’s my guess that their philosophy is that she should have behaved like Gandhi, and accepted the fact that since all life must eventually come to an end, she should just stoically permitted nature to take its course, bloody mauling death screams (and whimpering) from her beloved pet notwithstanding. 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest will be released in May 2023.

10 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: Philadelphia is going to the dogs”

  1. This article is PAWful.

    1 – big dogs, like Great Danes, are perfectly happy in smaller apartments. They are far less active than smaller breeds. To claim its animal cruelty is irresponsible and ridiculous.
    2- I’m all for noting the failure to launch trend of young adults and even millennial- since you are so old, you can’t seem to figure out that the millennial gen is not even young anymore. But stop complaining about pet stores and market responses to demand. If someone is making ice cream for dogs and people want to buy it, it’s called a free market. You know what it is.
    3- you missed a place to tie it all together about the greater shift of irresponsible humans, avoiding maturity and logic in yet another way, that have taken over phila. And other liberal cities. It is obvious on the daily through these dog children substitutes, but it’s a symptom of a larger trend.

    Missed the BARK with this piece.

  2. God, this is so stupid and I don’t even own dogs. If you haven’t noticed wages are stagnate and prices for everything are higher. Not everyone can afford having a baby and if they want to substitute with a dog, who cares? Also, your information about the Rite Aid lot is just an outright lie. No one has converted it into a dog park. It is a remediated lot from Dutch Boy Paint that is fenced in. The fence is not locked. It is not for dogs, anyone can go in there. I’d rather see the disgusting, vacant lot used for something joyful then watching the homeless wander in there, sleep, and leave their trash.

  3. The best part about this article was the use of the term “shit slick” and I can’t wait to incorporate it into my daily vocabulary.

  4. Thank you! I cannot often walk in my neighborhood anymore nor take my son to the park without at least 2-3 issues with loose aggressive dogs or even leashed dogs breaking free and getting aggressive. The playground by my house is littered with dog crap and the kids often get chased away by neighborhood dogs not listening to their owners. My one neighbor has 3 large breed dogs in an 700sqft 2 bedroom house that has 3 adults in it. There is no room. My walk was cut short today by a loose pitbull that I thankfully scared off after it charged me. Only then to turn onto a street and be aggressively met by a reactive cane corso just left in his yard all day while neighbors at work. If you are getting a dog that you intend to leave home all day while you work, just don’t.
    The barking is non stop all hours of the day in all directions. I am not anti dog. But I am noticing the upward trend of people getting dogs. More than they used to. And not training said dogs. As well as bad breeding, irresponsibleness, and forcing others to love and make way for their hell hounds (talking about the badly behaved and aggressive ones)
    I was driving away from the post office last week and an old man moved to the grass to make way off the sidewalk for someone walking their dog. Despite moving far over, that dog bit him in the thigh and continued to bite. The owner did not react. Just finally got the dog off and kept walking, leaving the man bleeding. This is obnoxious and too common. NOT EVERYONE SHOULD OWN DOGS

  5. My dog is the only reason I can sleep soundly in this city. My home and car have been broken into enough times to know that an alarm system isn’t enough – a watchdog is the only way to go. Incidentally, here in the Riverwards, wacked out humans leave the biggest shit streaks.

  6. I’m not sure I understand the point of this article. It jumped all over the place and never really defined a particular problem. Although I am an avid dog lover, if the story is as reported about the FBI agent and her dog, I fully understand and support her defending herself and her dog. (However, I must say that I have a journalistic credibility issue with any article that includes such a statement that includes “it’s my guess that their philosophy is . . . . “) As is with most things these days, the issue comes down to the personal accountability of individuals. Just as gun issues are not about guns, dog issues are not about dogs. Everything is about the personal responsibility of people!!

    1. The infatuation with dogs goes deeper than personal responsibility as does the issue of guns. The analogy between the two is appropriate. Some guns are more dangerous than others as some breeds are more dangerous than others. Both guns and dogs carry a primal meaning that goes beyond their function. A dog is a replacement friend, child, or maybe even a replacement lover in extreme cases; a gun is a means of empowerment, an extension of self, added agency, a phallus in extreme cases. Dogs are our postmodern children. The dog owner is responsible for their bodily functions. An owner like a mother or father must feed them and walk them. Walking the dog is like changing a diaper. You must clean up after the dog as you clean up after an infant. You sacrifice a bit of self by being so close to the excrement. It’s an indictor of selflessness. The advantage of a dog over a child is that they never grow up.

      Pit Bulls are part of Identity Culture. Pit Bulls are symbolic of Black masculinity. Whites who have pit bulls seek to appropriate that prowess and potency or out of fear wish to control it. I’ve seen more White women with pit bulls than White men. They know the danger of the breed. Sixty-five percent of all dog attacks are by pit bulls. Pit Bulls may be as attractive to women as bad boys are. Interesting how fear heightens the senses and excites.

      The types that must have dogs are similar to the types that must have guns, fast cars, loud motorcycles, and fireworks. There is a vacancy in their in their souls or personalities that prevents them from being in full contact with earth like a child on the autism spectrum who must spin when he walks to be sure he is grounded to earth. Just the touch of the gun or of the dog anesthetizes them and fills them with the tingle of alpha waves as if they had recited a mantra and were filled with the Holy Spirit or Buddha. Happiness is a warm gun…or dog.

  7. I am a neighbor of yours… I’d rather see dogs and owners utilizing the grassy area next to the RiteAid then 100s of the homeless camping in that small area. Guess the opioid situation in our neighborhood doesn’t concern you… but thank god you brought the issue of Fido playing in a grassy area…. Get a grip man…..

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