Hamilton resident Dominick Azzaro gets a lick to the face from a friendly dog last December. Each year, Azzaro visits the Veterans Park dog park as Santa Claus.

Dominick Azzaro doesn’t quite remember what led him into that Trenton costume store 20 years ago, but he does remember the feeling when he walked out.

In his hand, he held a Santa suit of his very own. It was a nice one, deep red and of quality material. He couldn’t deny there was something special about it.

He still owns it, looks good as new. With it, he has picked up a few gigs here or there—at Rho, Papa’s Tomato Pies, family parties. He loves the smile children have when he puts on the suit, how every time he wears it he becomes a small part of the legend of Santa Claus.

But that suit has made him a legend in his own right. He’s Dog Park Santa.

For the past two years, Azzaro has put on his special suit one day in December, and driven to the dog area in Veterans Park. There, he’ll play with the dogs, pose for pictures and, sometimes, even hand out gifts to some of “Santa’s favorites.” This year, Santa will be out at the dog park the morning of Dec. 13.

Dominick Azzaro hugs Ramona the Husky last year at the Veterans Park dog park. Azzaro plans this year’s dog park event to be on Thursday, Dec. 13.

Azzaro and his black Labrador Retriever, Harley, were “founding members” of the Veterans Park dog park when it opened in 2004, and he still goes nearly every day. Azzaro now brings his black Lab Alvin, who he called “Santa’s helper” before correcting himself with a more apt description.

“He’s a big moose, that’s what he is,” Azzaro said.

Azzaro is part of a group of five or so regulars who spend an hour each day at the dog park. They didn’t know each other before meeting at the park, but after sitting and talking every day as their dogs played, they became friends. One day, Azzaro mentioned he owned a Santa suit, and the group encouraged him to come to the park with it on, figuring it’d be a good photo opportunity.

“It started as a whim,” he said.

Hamilton resident Jayne Ulmer was there the day Dog Park Santa was born, and she marvels at how what started as a fun thing between friends has grown into much more. While only the regular dog park crew attended the first year, the event ballooned last year, attracting more than 20 people.

Some of those people had heard about the event ahead of time by word of mouth, but others merely stumbled upon it. The sight of Santa Claus amid a pack of dogs inside the fenced play area is enough to stop people in their tracks.

“It’s funny because people are walking in the park, and see Santa in with all the dogs,” Ulmer said. “They crack up. It’s Santa in the dog park. You don’t expect to see it.”

Azzaro said people come up to him year round to ask about the Santa in the dog park event. He loves how the community has connected with the idea, and welcomes any dog who wants some time with Santa. But he tries to give a little extra attention to his favorite dogs, the regulars who he sees frequently, including a Husky mix named Hemi, a chocolate Lab named Cooper, a Siberian Husky named Ramona and Angus, a rescue mutt who Azzaro calls “a Heinz 57” because of his varied lineage. Azzaro doesn’t really fool any of them when he dresses as Santa, but they patiently go along with the ruse and occasionally lick his beard.

Dressed as Santa Claus, Dominick Azzaro poses with Presto at the Veterans Park dog park last December. Azzaro had a canvas print of this photo made for Presto’s owner.

Azzaro gives the dogs he knows gifts, and last year, his wife Debbie made magnets from photos of “Santa’s favorites” with Azzaro. Little touches like this have made the day an anticipated Christmas tradition for the humans at the dog park, particularly the ones who have become close enough to Azzaro to know him by his nickname, “Chip.”

“We all look forward to Chip coming as Santa,” Ulmer said. “It’s the beginning of the Christmas season for us. I think we’d all be sad if he didn’t come as Santa. Chip’s now a dog park tradition.”

If Azzaro had any doubts about how meaningful the tradition has become to some, they were erased last year when a man came to the park specifically to get a final photo of his dog with Santa. The 14-year-old Presto had become frail, and the owner knew this was perhaps the last time Presto would go to the park. The man wanted a photo to remember the day.

Azzaro posed for the photo, and later had a 16-by-12 print made of it on canvas. He intended to give the canvas print to the man as a way to honor Presto, but Azzaro said he hasn’t crossed paths with Presto’s owner since last December.

“I’ve never been able to locate the guy to give him the painting,” he said.

The Hamilton Post—with the help of people who frequent the dog park—found Presto’s owner, Michael Yoon. He said Presto died just days after the photo was taken, on Christmas Eve 2017.

Yoon said Presto loved the park, and, as Presto aged, he would still go with Yoon to Veterans Park to watch the other dogs play. Yoon hasn’t been back to the dog park since his last trip with Presto, but said he runs on the trails in Veterans Park frequently, and always thinks of Presto when he goes by the dog park. He said it didn’t feel right to stop without Presto.

Yoon, when informed that Azzaro had a gift for him, said he would make a trip to the park to see Azzaro and thank him for his gesture.

“The spirit of Saint Nick is really in him,” Yoon said.

Azzaro, 61, is a lifelong Hamilton resident and a 1975 graduate of Hamilton High School West. His father owned Azzaro Brothers Tomato Pies on South Broad Street in Hamilton, and he worked there, as well as at Gervasio’s Pizza. He later worked as a Mercer County park ranger before landing a job with Hamilton Township as a waste water plant operator. He spent 27 years with the township before retiring in 2014.

Azzaro said he doesn’t know quite what inspired him to start dressing as Santa. He recalls his father wearing a Santa costume when Azzaro was kid, going around the neighborhood and bringing cases of beer to his friends. Azzaro got his start walking around his mother’s neighborhood on Franklin Street in Trenton, knocking on doors to visit children. Their reactions hooked him.

He then started going to events at Papa’s Tomato Pies as Santa; his cousin Nick owns the restaurant. From there, he started getting invitations to do friends’ holiday parties. He does them all for free. Azzaro said he has only taken one paying job as Santa, an appearance at Rho nightclub in Trenton.

He’s unsure if he’ll have another gig like that, but there’s no shortage of requests on his time when December rolls around.

“Friends are having grandchildren, so now I’m kinda in big demand,” he said.

But nothing will ever replace the joy that comes that one day each December when Azzaro pulls up to the dog park in Veterans Park and sees the anticipation on the faces of the dogs and their owners.

“Hey, I’m a Santa Claus guy, you know?” Azzaro said. “When I put on the suit, it’s a special thing. Kids love Santa. Dogs love Santa, as far as I know. And everybody’s happy.”