The Dog Park

A nature essay for ENG 227

As we cross the threshold from pavement to grass, I feel a tug on the leash. Chloe can see the other dogs now. Focused, head down, her front legs strain to pull us toward the gate. Her muscular back legs, however, wag along with the tail above in earnest excitement and threaten to derail us from our tracks. I pull back. Chain taut, the gentle leader tightens around her muzzle, and she stops. I command her to sit and then unclip the leader from her collar. Unleashed, Chloe bounds to the gate, her brindled, pit bull frame more rabbit than canine. Dutifully, I follow and conduct her through the double gate to our final destination-the dog park.

From a distance, there is little to distinguish this area of Buchanan Park from any other. In fact, the park’s planners decided to enisle this sloping, one-acre plot with a black chain link fence that would meld into the park-a trick of the eye that brings to mind my family’s German shepherd running into the screen door from our back deck. This five-foot mesh barrier encircles a stand of tall trees-poplar, maple and pine. These dominate the space, providing shade to three, solid wood picnic tables.

Inside the fence is another world. Green grass yields to cocoa-colored clay. Thanks to innumerable circles run in pursuit of sticks and tails, or nothing in particular, the park’s surface, two-thirds of which is now bare ground ringed by grass, resembles a balding man’s crown. The grass that remains is nearly trampled flat. Here and there a blade struggles to right itself. Caught by the wind, these single strands wave to and fro, crying for help or signaling surrender. Perhaps both.

A parcel of wet noses greet Chloe and me. It is more crowded than I expected, but for this, I am grateful. The dog park is the remedy for the tedium of the black-wired space that defines the rest of my dog’s day-her crate, where she spends our working hours mostly asleep, curled against an old, striped towel, frayed from bored, incessant chewing. On days I do not feel like walking two blocks up James and across campus, Chloe rests her pink nose on the couch cushion, and eager brown eyes goad me into slipping on my oldest pair of sneakers.

At the park, Chloe comes alive, as an electron excited by the presence of other electrons. She grabs a discarded plastic bottle, crunching it between her powerful jaws, and invites a chase. Yoda, a slightly overweight chocolate Lab about the same age, obliges, as she always does. When they slow down at the base of the largest maple tree, a black pit bull mix rests its head on Yoda’s back, tail wagging. Curious. Suddenly, a little pug shoots out from under a picnic table, his curly tail stick-straight, a speckled spaniel in pursuit. Minutes later, this same dog is chasing Chloe in a wide, circular path.

“No humping! Down!” Hearing words reminds me there is another species to ponder here. We are easily distinguished from our surroundings. Whatever combination of brown, black, gray or white, our companions blend into the palette of the park. Humans are the color of their clothing; our bright colors set us apart. As the dogs freely mix, sailing circles around us, the owners are stationary, buoys anchored to idle chitchat. Sitting on tabletops or leaning against the fence, we huddle in small groups to discuss the weather or dogs. Every conversation begins the same way. “What’s your dog’s name?” We seldom manage to introduce ourselves. Often I stand off by myself, preferring to watch the dogs at play rather than socialize myself.

The dogs whip up a cloud of dust that filters through the obtuse light of the setting sun, whose rays paint blue shadows and yellow patches across the grassy landscape of the park beyond the fence. Although it is early September, the chorus of cicadas remains strong. As their rhythm fades in and out of my consciousness, other sounds come to the fore. Behind me, children scream and laugh, and I can barely make out the tune from a radio at the picnic pavilion. Trucks rumble across nearby streets. A ratcheting, razzing sound descends from the trees above. Is it a bird? Not knowing frustrates me. Our shadows grow longer, and crickets begin their familiar melody to signal the arrival of dusk.

There are fewer of us here now. Chloe and Yoda are still together, taking turns. While one chews the stick, the other stands watch. Chloe leans forward on her front legs, holding the stick upright between her paws. A white, wolf-like dog enters the fold, and all the others rush to the gate. A new chase scene unfolds. Like bumper cars, the animals come together, then bounce off in opposite directions. Maggie, an older black Lab and familiar figure here, surveys the action from atop a table. Thin, metal registration and vaccine tags, one for each of her years, hang from her collar. Like her, they are rough around the edges, but still convey a sense of authority and wisdom.

The silhouette of a bat flits across the darkening western sky. The six remaining dogs are huddled around the water bucket, seemingly confined to the patch of light shed from the streetlamp above. Chloe breaks from the pack and circles the tree to the stump where I am sitting. She looks at me, almost smiling, ears flopping in time to her panting tongue. It is time to go home.