It’s BYOT — Bring your own toy
There’s an unofficial dog park on our block
It’s really just a large lawn, mostly flat but sloping gently toward the middle, originally put there by the developers as an aesthetic way to handle drainage. It’s bounded by streets on two sides, by an alley on one, and by an expanse of cattail-studded brush on the other, the haven of red-tailed blackbirds and white-tailed deer that stretches between the outskirts of our neighborhood and the river.
In practice, though, it’s a community recreation center. It’s where kids build tepees out of dry cattail stems in the summer and snowmen in the winter, where dads play catch with their offspring, where high school freshmen spend the dog days perfecting the spin on their football passes.
Mostly, though, it’s a de facto dog park. For us and our dog Molly, it’s a treasured amenity as well as a free entertainment venue. Molly is there twice a day, with one or both of us in attendance. In the mornings there are usually a few other dogs taking their constitutionals, but the atmosphere is fairly sedate.
Late afternoons are a different story
When the shadows lengthen — or as my dad used to say while mixing his Old Fashioned, when the sun’s over the yardarm — the daily dog party gets rolling. Also chasing, catching, sniffing, and romping. We can usually count on seeing the same dogs and their people there, although the party population varies somewhat day to day. Unless it’s pouring rain or sleet or snowing heavily, all the cool dogs do their best to make the scene.
There’s the pair of Dalmations, Jake and Blake (I’ve changed the names, not that dogs care about privacy, but their owners might), who are discernible from one another only because they wear different-colored collars. They spend hours at the park daily, vying for the same ball or the same stick, which they sometimes manage to catch at the same time.
A host of harlequinesque, black-and-white doodles is there too, all of them galumphing around like cheerful, curly dominoes with long legs attached. One of our neighbors owns a breeding pair that produced a litter of 13 puppies last spring, so the doodles are nearly all siblings or cousins, sharing youthful energy and a family inclination toward revelry.
One man has a pair of wolf-dog hybrids. I don’t officially sanction the ownership of wolf dogs, but these happen to be sweet animals, and he has them nicely trained. They are very large and very wolfish-looking however, so when I one day came down the back trail heading into the dog park and one of them trotted eagerly towards me through the tall reeds, I felt I was channeling Little Red Riding Hood. My, what big everything he has. Luckily, he was only coming to usher me toward the fun.
There are hunting hounds and pointers who sprint down the length of the lawn with astonishing speed, eyes trained on the tennis balls flung by their Chuck-It-wielding people. One immense fellow, a silvery-gray Lab and mastiff mix named Duke, ambles after them at a more sedate pace, his tail waving good-naturedly as if he’s happy to go along with the game even though he doesn’t quite see the point of it.
And then there are the little guys
Dogs live by the adage that size doesn’t matter. There are always a few partyers who refuse to let their vertical challenges get in the way of a good time. One irrepressible Corgi chases after the same ball as his two beefy Labrador buddies with unflagging enthusiasm. As the tennis ball arcs out over their heads, the Labs lope toward it while the Corgi accelerates like a miniature Lamborghini, his wee legs becoming a blur as he races toward his target. He hasn’t a prayer of reaching it before his leggy comrades do, but that in no way dampens his determination.
There is another small tri-color mix, a female of perhaps 15 pounds with a hearty herding instinct who sees it as her mission to keep everyone else from straying too far from the group. Again, given her stature, her objective is futile, but that doesn’t stop her, and the big guys show her respect.
And then there’s the little Pug, who loves nothing more than to be chased. What looks like imminent mayhem — five or six huge dogs racing after a small, squashed-face, furry lozenge — is the Pug’s idea of good times. To date, all pursuits are carried out in good fun and concluded without mishap.
Molly is a senior onlooker
At age 14, Molly’s role in the festivities is that of the elderly, cheerful auntie who sits in a comfy chair close to the punchbowl. She enjoys her excursions, first making sure to take care of essential business (we commend the homeowner’s association for providing a doggy sanitation station complete with Mutt-mitt poop bags) before she approaches the fray.
A few of her dog buddies who are taking a break from their games always come by to sniff orifices as dog protocol demands. If the younger ones get a bit obstreperous, Molly politely but firmly reminds them of their manners. Then she observes from a safe distance. She enjoys the revelry but is no longer at the center of it.
The dog party has things to teach us
The humans who accompany their dogs are like parents at the neighborhood playground, except less competitive. We don’t talk about what teams our charges are trying out for or their grade-point averages or college plans, because dogs are complete packages with no aspirations for the future beyond the next treat or ball toss. Nor do we talk about allegedly serious matters like politics and work.
We talk about our dogs. The ridiculous things they do, the scrapes they get us into, the ways in which they’ve trained us to maximize their well-being. We talk about other dogs we’ve had and loved, and sometimes how devastated we know we’ll be when it’s time to say goodbye to the dog here with us today. To love a dog is to witness the joy and wisdom of living in the moment while still burdened with a human’s concept of time.
Not that I’ve discussed this with the other human denizens of the dog park, but I venture to guess they’d agree that the daily play ritual offers these lessons:
- Assume others are there to make friends. If they’re not, they’ll let you know. Meanwhile, why miss out on a chance at finding a new buddy?
- Whenever the opportunity presents itself, approach life with delirious abandon
- The rest of the world will wait whle you chase one more ball
- Never give up; it doesn’t matter if you catch the Frisbee, as long as you keep trying
- If you want a treat, you must ask politely
- If somebody else takes your toy, don’t make a big deal out of it. There are plenty to go around
- Make sure your people clean up after you
- Know when it’s time to sit back and watch; learn to enjoy others’ fun
- When the party’s over, go home, have a nice supper and a good rest
Life is better with dogs. Maybe one day we’ll learn to be more like them.