Freedom Barks thrives in a dog-eat-dog world

Medford canine park sees higher visitor numbers during pandemic

One group of dog owners meets every morning to walk the trails at Freedom Barks Dog Park in Medford. Pictured at center, Jim Wert walks with his labrador, Harley (Gwen Allen/Special to The Sun).

While many organizations struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic, one Medford nonprofit has (literally) gone to the dogs.

Freedom Barks, a 26 acre dog park featuring trails, water and obstacle courses for local pups, has seen a sharp increase in attendance since COVID first entered the U.S. For regular visitors, the park is a meeting spot for owners and their furry friends to catch up in a socially distanced setting.

“It’s just a little sanctuary to get away from all the stuff that’s going on,” said Jim Wert, a dog park volunteer for more than 12 years.

He brings his chocolate labrador Harley to Freedom Barks each morning, when  he meets up with a dozen friends.

“They know each other,” Wert said of the dogs. “They do crazy things playing and going in and out of the water. He loves it out there. If it’s a bad day and I don’t go out there, Harley’s bummed out the whole day.”

Many parkgoers are elderly, according to Freedom Barks President Gwen Allen. She sees one daughter bring her wheelchair bound mother to the park regularly to watch the dogs play. One couple visits the park to remember their son, a patron who passed away.

“It’s become a community of people that not only love their own dogs, but love  the environment of being outside,” Allen explained.

The park is raising funds to introduce new benches and more accessible trails for visitors with limited mobility. Freedom Barks started its first GoFundMe page and  has outraised its goal by more than $500.

It’s no secret that dog adoptions have soared during the pandemic, and the  resulting increase in pet owners has drawn more and more people to Freedom Barks. The park’s social media quickly gained followers, and Allen said more people from Philadelphia and towns outside of Burlington County have visited.

Freedom Barks was named the number one dog park in New Jersey by Rover,  and was recognized by USA Today in 2015 as one of the top 10 in the country.

On April 17, visitors came together for the park’s spring cleanup, when they removed litter and debris to prepare for warmer weather. 

“What better way to go ahead and give back to a community than to do something that everyone enjoys and keep it vibrant for everyone?” Allen asked.

The park is run entirely by volunteers, with financial help from Medford Township. People like Wert and his wife, Judith, manage its finances, make infrastructure decisions and do the dirty work of removing dog waste. For a core of seven volunteers, the work is well worth it.

“During this pandemic, the park was open the whole time. I think it saved a lot of people,” Wert noted. “It saved them anxiety and their sanity, because they were able to get out during the whole thing with their dogs and be safe.”

Freedom Barks Dog Park is at 98 Old Marlton Pike. For more information, including a link to donate, visit freedombarks.com.