I hate scheduling doctor’s appointments, I put off oil changes as long as my maintenance-agnosticism will allow, and I haven’t gone grocery shopping since before Thanksgiving. However, without fail, I will visit the dog park two to three times a week. With my old dog—emphasis on “old”—there was no sense in bringing her because she was convinced she was human: she hated other dogs and just wanted to sleep on a warm Casper mattress. But Juno is a puppy, and if she goes without a trip to the dog park for more than a couple of days, she becomes absolutely insufferable. Thus, getting her there becomes more important even than my seasonal-affective-disorder-induced nap.
If you’ve never been to one, let me set the scene for you:
You walk up to a large fenced-in area with well-worn grass that is scattered with ageless tennis balls whose origin is lost to time. Standing at intervals across the flat, boring expanse, or sitting on the few available human-centric structures, you see grown adults staring, not at their phones, but more off-into-the-distance. These humans rarely move; they’ll shift their weight back and forth, they’ll kick one of the eldritch tennis balls a few feet in front of them, they’ll turn on the spot, staring after a blur of motion and excitement. That blur is a dog, and it is probably chasing another similarly stimulated dog, or perhaps one of the undying tennis balls. This and other dogs are the only visibly living creatures within this fenced area. The rest of us might as well be a henge carefully placed there by the ancients.
Because I am [definitely only] twenty-nine years old and have no children, the dog park is the closest thing I have to the Girl Scouts or a T-ball team: my dog provides about ninety percent of my social cache. As I stand sentinel somewhere upstage right, where the sun is warm but not directly in my eyes, I see dogs I recognize.
There is Thunder, my dog’s secret boyfriend who wears a blue bowtie and only has eyes for my little lady, who cooly plays hard-to-get. I’ve talked with his owner before; he’s a pretty cool guy. I’m always happy to cross paths with Thunder.
There is Lola, the excitable chihuahua with a gregarious owner to match: I know more about that woman’s daughter than I bet her daughter is comfortable with. Lola likes to flip over on her back and let all the dogs sniff her nipples. Lola’s okay, I guess.
There are the two Australian shepherd mixes whose names I don’t know, but whose barks I can hear from my car before I can see the dog park. Whenever their owner throws their ball—he has one of those lazy-thrower things that sends it far without much effort—they run like they’ve been shot out of a cannon and they yelp as if it hurt. They’ll be there for hours doing nothing but running after that ball like it assaulted their mother. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with them.
Most of the dogs at these parks are rescues, or are at least mutts. Every once in a while there will be a retired racing greyhound, but for the most part, we’re all on the same level insofar as we got our dog on the cheap and have a good time guessing what the breed is. When a purebred dog comes to the park, you can feel the air shift. The dogs probably don’t care, but the humans all try to get a good look without staring. As the dog trots around sniffing butts and rolling in dirt, ripples of surprise course out through the park: we thought they’d be above that kind of plebian behavior.
There was once a purebred golden retriever who visibly loved everyone and snuggled up to strangers: she was so beautiful I was scared to touch her for fear I’d leave an unsightly smudge. I’ve seen a few genuine german shepherds—evidently people call them GSDs now—who acted like puppies but looked like small bears. A woman with a border collie once tried to convince me to train Juno with agility equipment, with the demeaning caveat that she couldn’t be “registered”—meaning with the American Kennel Club, which it turns out is a real thing with a governing body and everything—so competitions would be limited.
I have over a thousand business cards in my desk at work, and I know I can never hope to give them all out, but when I am at the dog park, I find myself wishing I had some on hand. I’d give one to Thunder’s owner, tell him we need to get these two crazy kids together some time. I’d give one to the woman with the alleged coyote-huskie mix because her tattoos are nearly as sweet as her super-weird-looking dog. I’d wish that I could give one to a dog and not its owner, like the gangly great dane whose curmudgeonly human is always trying to spray him to keep him from playing “too rough.” Or to that fox-looking dog who loves to run in circles, but whose owner often stands awkwardly close to me, breathing loudly through his mouth.
Going to the dog park on any given day feels like dealing out a Tarot spread. Some cards will surprise me, some cards will delight me, and some cards I will wish had just stayed home and run around in the backyard. If I could control who was at the park with me, I don’t know if it would feel as fun as when Juno and I stumbled across Thunder twice in one weekend. But if I could stack the deck and draw my preferred perfect pentagram, that would be the greatest social accomplishment I’ve made, and I would be talking about it for months.
It would be like my child’s soccer team getting into the playoffs. I’d be all geared up to stand, hands in pockets, staring off into an open field at the balls of energy that brought me here: little more than a chauffeur, much less than a prime participant, but excitedly engaged in a weird subculture I didn’t even know existed a year ago.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.