ITHACA, N.Y. – It’s right around lunchtime on the Ithaca Commons on a hot July afternoon. The Halal food cart is just setting up for the lunch rush, Lou Cassaniti is flipping burgers and hot dogs, and passersby are stopping to enjoy the Ithaca sun during their breaks.

With the aroma of lunch in the air, one regular is missing from the mix – Riley, the beloved golden retriever mainstay of the Outdoor Store. When not greeting customers at the outdoor gear shop, she’s likely snacking on some chicken prepared by Cassaniti, whose hot dog stand is located directly across the store.

Thursday, however, Riley is perched inside The Outdoor Store, looking longingly out the door at her Cassaniti and his hot dogs, chicken and burgers across the street. In the past two weeks, Ithaca police have cracked down on Riley on the Commons and ticketed her owner, Dan Philipson, twice for violating city code.

Ithaca Police Public Information Officer Jamie Williamson said Philipson was issued the most recent ticket July 3, after an officer saw Riley was not restrained.

“We’ve had numerous complaints about this particular dog walking around the Commons without a leash,” Williamson said. “I can’t even count the number of complaints we’ve had about this one particular dog historically, but we’ve had even more recently.”

Philipson said Riley has only ever received three tickets, two of which were issued in the past two weeks.

Riley is well known on Instagram, with nearly 1,300 followers. She is often featured promoting gear at the store or hanging out on the Commons. The most recent post shows Riley handcuffed to the front of the store with hashtags saying, #freeriley and #twotickets.

“To be fair, I have been warned, but this is the first time in five years it’s really been enforced – why are they changing it up now?” Philipson asked.

Rebecca Veninsky, who works at The Outdoor Store, said each of the tickets cost $25 dollars. Veninsky said the first ticket was issued to Riley when the officer saw her without a leash. However, the second time, it became slightly more complicated.

“A couple days ago, we had a leash on Riley and she received another ticket,” Veninsky said. “Depending on how you read the law, there just needs to be a leash on the dog and the dog needs to be watched.”

For the last two weeks, Veninsky said there have been two officers monitoring the vicinity, a busy area at the end of the street with several lunch spots and food carts, making it a good place to keep an eye out.

“It’s not good for my business,” Philipson said. “This is the only two blocks in the city you’re not allowed to have a dog.”

According to city code 164-7 Section A-1, a dog is in violation of the law if the animal “is not restrained by an adequate collar and leash when not on the property of the owner or any other person harboring or having custody or control of the dog.”

According to city code 157-12, it is also illegal to have a dog or animal on the Commons without a special permit from the city. Section C of the city code states:

A permit shall allow tenants and owners of premises on the Primary Commons, or the customers of businesses that require the presence of animals to perform the function of the business, to transport their animals to and from their premises in the shortest and most direct route possible. Animals shall be leashed or transported in carriers.

However, Riley does have a license to be on the Commons, she is registered, and both Veninsky and Philipson said this has never been an issue before.
“She’s been here her entire life, and she really only goes from here across the Commons, she never goes near the road,” Veninsky said. “People love her, I’ve heard several times that people only come in the store because they wanted to say hi – lots of people know her, and have known her for years.”

Across the way, Cassaniti is standing behind his grill. Earlier this year, he said he filed a petition inspired by Riley.

“We feel that Riley is being picked on,” Cassaniti said. “The petition asked that all the rules (pertaining to) smoking, dogs, biking be taken off the books and we start over. The issue here is that Riley doesn’t have a leash – according to the city, all dogs are illegal.”

Related: Is the city picking on Lou the hot dog guy?

Williamson said it’s not likely that dogs will be allowed on the Commons without a leash.

“Dogs are unpredictable in nature, can’t always predict how dogs are going to behave,” he said.

Last summer, the city also came down on Cassaniti for feeding Riley. The city threatened to move his cart if he continued to call Riley over for food.

Cassaniti said plenty of people with dogs, riding bikes or smoking on the Commons get by without a ticket.

“It’s not very enforced until it is enforced – it’s selective enforcement.” Veninsky said. “We’re not trying to break any rules, we’re just trying to let our dog be.”

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.