FREDERICK — Katrina Harris, a 6-year-old from Walkersville, plays in the shade at the dog park in downtown Frederick with her dog, Keiron.
“I like coming to the dog park and letting my dog play with the other ones,” she said. “We have a park but people don’t normally bring their dogs to play. It’s not as much fun.”
Her father, Travis Harris, said he doesn’t mind driving from Walkersville to Frederick specifically for the dog park and the dog-friendly atmosphere.
“When we do go downtown, everyone is really friendly about it,” he said.
It’s people like the Harris family that Frederick stores and restaurants hope to court by allowing dogs inside, but the grassroots effort hasn’t been without its challenges or risks.
Allison Levitt, proprietor of Two Paws Up!, led the charge to encourage businesses to be dog-friendly because of her dog, Oliver.
“When we opened the store in 2004, part of the mission was to make downtown Frederick dog-friendly,” Levitt said.
She started by giving out free water bowls, treats and stickers to interested businesses, some of which already allowed dogs.
Classic Cigars and British Goodies was one of the businesses Levitt approached that was already dog-friendly when Levitt opened her store.
Joe Cohen, owner of the store, said his was the first store on Market Street to allow dogs when it opened 12 years ago. He said he was a strong supporter of Levitt’s campaign and couldn’t imagine his store without dogs.
“It’s not that I wanted to get anything out of it, I just like doing it,” he said. “They’re man’s best friend. Why should we bar them?”
The move was good for business.
“The dogs would lead them here because of the treats and the water bowl outside,” he said.
But Cohen said the health department was initially worried about the practice, though there is no law restricting dogs in stores.
“They sort of inferred that I shouldn’t be allowing dogs,” he said. “I got a lot of flak.”
Over the years, he said the health department has become less concerned about dogs in retail businesses.
George Keller is the director of environmental health services at the Frederick County Health Department. He said since he became director five years ago, he wasn’t aware of any efforts to discourage retailers from allowing dogs.
No retailer was ever told to stop allowing dogs, and from a few scattered downtown stores, the dog-friendly movement took off when the Downtown Frederick Partnership became involved by holding the first Dog Days of Summer event in 2004.
“The momentum really increased with the help of the partnership,” Levitt said. “It would have faltered without them.”
The Downtown Frederick Partnership built on the success of the Dog Days of Summer by registering dog-friendly businesses on its website.
More than a quarter of stores downtown are registered today, said Kara Norman, executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership.
“We started that effort, and we realized we’re bringing thousands of people downtown,” Norman said. “We got more positive feedback for that than we received about anything else.”
After the first Dog Days of Summer, many merchants decided to stay dog-friendly, including restaurants, Levitt said.
But following the event, the health department became alerted to dogs on restaurant patios — a practice that was barred by Maryland state law.
Keller said the health department got complaints about urination and defecation in dining areas.
“How is it cleaned up? Who cleaned it up? Are they washing their hands?” he said.
Immediately after being informed of the law, Baker, along with other restaurant owners and the Downtown Frederick Partnership, started lobbying lawmakers to change it.
“We have had so much demand for outside dining that we went to the state of Maryland to change some of their rules,” Norman said.
They had a short-lived victory in 2010 with a law that exempted Frederick County from barring dogs in restaurant patios, if the county government acted to allow them.
Norman said the Downtown Frederick Partnership petitioned to get the item on the county’s agenda but were unsuccessful.
Because of difficulties getting the item on the agenda, the partnership lent support to an effort by Del. Dan Morhaim of Baltimore County that would overturn the restriction statewide.
That law passed, and the restriction was lifted beginning July 1, 2011.
“He was our dog-friendly hero,” Baker said.