Dogs and their people

Dog Park 3 Siobhan Connallly.jpg

Dog parks -- great for making human friends

By Siobhan Connally

soapbox badgeI knew there had been an effort underway to get a dog park in our town -- on occasion I'd even dropped spare change into a dedicated collection jar at the counter of our beloved coffee joint. But somehow I'd missed the fact that it had actually gotten past the planning stage and into the oh-my-god-you-can-really-bring-your-pooch-there-and-play stage.

I suppose back then I was a little preoccupied. The children were younger. Jobs were hectic. Our dog - a centenarian in dog years - wasn't much interested in play. She was happy just to lay on the hardwood floor wherever the sun was keeping it warm. She had earned her retirement.

Then, one day last summer, she was gone.

It was a while before we were ready to think about dogs.

But recently, with a new puppy chewing on the furniture and the kids climbing the walls, I thought it was time to get a gander at the dog park.

Turns out dog parks -- they're not just parks for dogs.

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Larger than a football field, the park was more expansive than I'd pictured. It was also, thankfully, shady. Mature pine trees dotted the sparse lawn, giving the effect of a forest clearing surrounded by a tall, meandering chain-link fence. Canine playthings were sprinkled here and there. Many were dutifully collected in a plastic bucket near the other park amenities: a community water bowl, waste bags a trashcan and decorative coat hooks to give the leash a rest.

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Off leash, my dog roamed from tree to tree. She sniffed at toys and lapped at water. She kept me in sight, but had no intention of coming if I called. There was no reason to make her.

The kids were quickly heading for the playground, which was within my sight, but a few feet beyond a comfortable shouting distance.

No one else was there.

But soon a steady stream of people and pooches made their way into the park.

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An Australian Shepard. An Irish setter. A labrador. A pit bull. Several mutts not unlike ours.

It was almost like having a small child again.

The dogs ran and leaped and chased and fetched. Their people settled in lawn chairs and praised the gods of play that would inevitably bring the blessing of sleep.

They focused on me, the newcomer, and my dog.

They introduced their dogs, and I reciprocated. They asked her age and breed. They all shared stories of puppyhood, and training failures and successes.

They took pictures of my dog playing with their dogs for the park's Facebook page. They helpfully explained how town hall was open late on Mondays so I could get a park use permit for her collar. Not that they were sticklers or anything.

In print and on signs it's one thing, but in person rules can be bendy.

It wasn't an unpleasant little nudge. It was a guide.

In fact, I'd learned more about my neighbors in an hour at the dog park than I had in eight years at the playground.

They spoke about each other and ordinary events: graduations, weddings, babies. Who was moving in ... moving on ... who had died. They compared cars and bars and tattoos. They spoke anxiously about stressors in the community - "Did you hear the groomer's house caught fire, what a shame." And they talked stoically about their own hardships - raising kids, empty nests and dealing with a new diagnosis or a recurrence of cancer.

It didn't seem so much gossip as news -- and a reminder --this is life, get busy living it.

They talked as easily about life ports and reconstructive surgeries as they spoke about pet foods and training tips.

There I stood, pacing the fence, splitting my attention between two worlds: my children running from pillar to post on a playground just barely in view, and a puppy darting around as if she'd been shot from a gun, ricocheting off the legs of perfect strangers.

It seemed so easy to converse about the antics of animals. How quickly it leads to other connections. How comfortable it feels to swap stories with the people I meet who are carrying poop in a baggie.

I keep comparing the experience with how difficult it is to have the same conversations on the play ground, or at dance class or just passing other moms in line at the grocery stores. I used to think it was a kind of battle weariness, but I wonder now if it isn't more of a competitive wariness.

Or perhaps dog people really are just a different breed.

Siobhan Connally shares her writing and photography at Ittybits & Pieces.

Siobhan on the Soapbox:
+Walking on eggshells
+ The Winter of our Discontent
+ Unoccupied


Sometimes I think I go to the dog park as much for myself as for my pup. Beyond getting to see my guy have a great time, I get to play with other pups I've come to know and chat with their people. You're absolutely right, it's a great little micro-community and I think there IS just something about dog people!

Hey, that's my town! (You didn't identify it.. but I know it when I see it.) It's a great dog park. I need to get out there more often. And this is a good reminder that I need to get my dog park tag...

My roommate and I moved into the same apartment at the same time. And somehow, even though I'm much more shy, I've gotten to know a lot more of our neighbors because of my owners and non-dog owners alike.

She runs up to greet people I probably would have just passed by without making eye contact. She even befriended an elderly neighbor who has been afraid of dogs since he was a child.

The dog park is an amazing way to make crazy, energetic, mischievous pups tired (and thus, well behaved), but I love that at the same time I get to just be outside. Also, nothing is cuter than dogs playing together. Enjoy!

This is a great story! I love dog parks (probably as much as my dog) and can't wait to visit this one! I'm all the way up in Saratoga, but will definitely make the drive! I'm going to share on my blog just in case people don't know about it!
PS. The photography is amazing!

What I've noticed about my neighborhood dog park (and true also of the adjacent community garden) is that these are realms in which young people and old fogeys can talk together about a shared interest (their dogs, their vegetables) in a natural way that is much harder in the world "outside the fencing."

I got a dog relatively late in my life and it's made a world of difference in imbedding myself into the neighborhood I moved into 6 years ago. Without the dog I doubt I'd have walked every single street for 2 miles around my house, waved at practically every car, chatted with anybody who wanted to ask about my dog, and met all the kids. Somehow having this big brown creature at the end of a leash is an instant introduction to most people I encounter. Without the hound, I'd just be me, slightly introverted, and it would take me forever to meet so many neighbors.

I totally agree.
When I used to be a regular at the dog park area in Washington Park, the funniest part to me was how I'd associate people almost solely with their dog. If I ran into them elsewhere, I'd often realize that I didn't know their name- I only knew them as, say, Toby's person.

pssst ... Washington Park doesn't have a dog park. People let their dogs off-leash on the "dog lawn" because the police don't bother to enforce the leash law, but it's not a dog park. (No fencing, surrounded by reasonably busy roads is your first clue.) Sorry, not trying to troll. But I walk my dog (on-leash) through the park several times a day and have seen more than several times a loose dog run away, through traffic, because their owner didn't train the dog for voice control. Please be responsible, dog owners!

As other people have mentioned, one of the best ways to get to know your neighborhood is to get -- and walk -- a dog. My wife and I know so many more people in our neighborhood because of Otto. And we met one of our good friends that way -- she was "Daisy's person" (we don't call her that any longer... well, not usually).

It always a little amazing to me how a dog draws people in and gets them talking. People will just come over and start talking to us now because they've seen us with Otto or had some interaction with him.

I was standing outside Emack & Bolio's this past weekend with Otto and a woman I don't think I've ever talked with before stopped and said, "Is that Otto from the golf course?"

Great article. We take out dogs to the Hartman road park all the time.

@stasia Just to be clear, according to city code, leashes are NOT required in city parks, albeit dogs must in in control of their owners. I feel for you on bad "parents," people need to be more careful.

@Daleyplanit - interesting, that explains why the leash law isn't enforced in Washington Park - there isn't one! I still think it's generally dangerous to allow your dog off-leash in an unfenced urban area, but that's me.

However, there's a sign next to the Washington Park pond with rules of the park. Isn't one of the rules is keeping your dog on-leash? I'm almost positive that's posted. I will look again next time I walk my dog down that way.

The sign by the Washington Park lake says something to the effect of "dog owners must abide by the city leash law." Which suggests that dogs should be on-leash, if you don't know the leash law says they can be off-leash in city parks. A little confusing.

What a nice story, well written. Fantastic photography! I too love dog parks, so does my dog!

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