Politics and Poetics of Pooch Parks
Will and I were introduced fairly recently to the joys of dog-ownership after we got our dog Katie from a shelter in Chicago last October. Since we live in a fourth floor condo unit, our dog does not get as much exercise as we’d like for her (though, yes, she gets three 30-minute walks a day). So when we discovered that there is a dog park not far from us, we quickly signed up for membership—getting along with it a cute little member card for our dog with a paw-print logo on it.
Since we first started frequenting our Pooch Park a year ago, I have arrived at a few conclusions—entirely unscientific and based solely on my personal observations—about the pooch park population.
The Know-It All:
There is at least one Cliff Clavin-type in each visit, someone harmless but slightly pedantic and pretentious about knowledge of dogs that anyone with access to PBS, Discovery, or the Nature Channel might already have. This person will latch onto you, Ancient Mariner style, and talk to you about how you could pay $69.99 for DNA testing of your shelter dog to get her exact genealogy. He might also launch into a distressing tale about the way a British canine society suggests routinely “culling” (read: killing) Rhodesian Ridgebacks who were born without the ridge. (I’d seen the same special.) But the Know-It-All, usually male, is not a bother really, and somewhat sweet in his own way.
I’m more annoyed by the holier(-and-more-experienced)-than-thou dog owner who tells you that you are not doing the right thing, whatever it is you are doing. The first time we brought our dog to the Pooch Park, we couldn’t really orient ourselves to know whether we were in the general play area or the separate fenced-in area for puppies and small dogs. Since Katie was 45 pounds, we didn’t want to release her in the wrong area. The woman took high canine offense at the fact that our dog was still on her leash. “That’s the worst thing you can do to a dog in a pooch park! It is very cruel and it's upsetting for the dog,” she huffed and puffed.
The Overly Permissive Owner:
Let’s admit it. As with parents overseeing kids on a playground, dog owners at the pooch park have varied understandings of what is or is not acceptable level of play. My personal feeling is that if Katie is mouthing or pawing or barking too much at another dog, I should try to restrain her unless the owner of the other dog says that she’s fine with such play. Once, when another dog was nipping at our dog and was continually pushing her down to the ground and snarling at our cowering and whimpering dog, I told the aggressive dog to stop (that is, “No!”) and just tried to get Katie away. The other owner scoffed at my concern and said that his dog was just playing and intimated that I was coddling my dog. Does this sound familiar to those who have had to confront parents of pint-sized bullies during Little League baseball?
I am fond of this category of dog owners though I don’t belong in it myself. We hear “God bless you” a lot when we announce that we got our dog from a rescue shelter. Of course, we know that we only “rescued” her from going to another household with possibly more to offer a dog—a back yard, kids who would grow up with her, a stay-at-home spouse, etc.—but we still get the undeserved thanks all the same. Unlike us, there are those dog owners who did not go online and select from the newest and cutest dogs to consider adopting. (It's somewhat like an online dating service, except completely one-sided.) There are others who adopt dogs from shelters really to rescue them—dogs with sad histories of physical or behavioral problems. Owners who care for and love three-legged and two-legged dogs. I respect these people quite a bit.
On the whole, people who visit dog parks are liberal-minded, generous, and almost always owners of rescue dogs. They share extra water and toys they bring to the park, praise other dogs and keep watchful eyes on all to make sure that no mischief occurs. It might not take a village to raise a dog, but the pooch park population comes through with an impressive level of care and attention. I’ve come to enjoy my outings at the pooch park almost as much as Katie does. I get to see her walk the plank and jump through hoops (she’ll do anything for a treat) and run around with other dogs and compete after flying tennis balls. Then, completely pooped from the day’s fun and exercise and the inevitable bath, she’ll lie down with a treat. Dare she hope for an empty peanut butter container?