Last weekend Laurel and I took the family pet, Serena, to the dog park at Minto-Brown Island. A “dog park,” for those not educated in canine arcana, is a place where dogs are allowed to run free, leashless, though still theoretically under the owner’s voice or psychic control. This was the third time, I think, that one of us had taken Serena to the dog park for some socializing. But this was the first time that I fully realized that the dog park has much social appeal for humans also.
When we let Serena out of the car, she ran happily into the large grassy dog park field, which, this being a sunny (if cold) day, already was filled with other dog parkers—both of the canine and homo sapiens variety. The dogs have no problem making new friends. Male or female, young or old, purebred or mixed breed, large or small, all it takes is a few sniffs (mostly of private parts) and some sort of mysterious social order is established. Serena knew who she wanted to play/wrestle/chase with, and who she didn’t want to play/wrestle/chase with. Even with all the dogs running around madly every which way, with some being excluded from a play group and some included, there was no fighting, no apparent hurt feelings. One big happy dog family. Which included the owners also.
Normally, if you encounter a few dozen strangers in a large field, you will exchange just a few pleasant words (“Hi,” “How are you?”, “Nice day, isn’t it?”), and that will be the extent of the socializing. But if you put a few dozen dog owners into a field, along with their dogs, even though they have never met each other, extended conversations start up almost instantly—the human equivalent of sniffing private parts, I guess. We learned the names, breeds, favorite activities (such as chasing cats, not a big surprise), and other characteristics of quite a few dogs. Knowing that there was about the same chance of Serena bringing back the tennis ball that I wanted so desperately to throw, as of me winning the lottery, I temporarily adopted retriever-appearing dogs, with the full consent of their owners (who, when the dog refused to bring the ball back to me, would say, “Don’t feel bad, that’s just what she does with me also.”)
Dog parks are one of the few places, other than sporting events, parades, or concerts, where strangers can instantly bond through the glue of a strongly shared interest. I wish there were more places like this in Oregon, and our country. When I spent a college semester in Zadar, Yugoslavia, way back in 1968, I was struck by how Zadarians (or whatever they were called) would “promenade” in the evening along this historic city’s sea wall. Women would walk in one direction, men in the other, providing lots of opportunities for subtle (and not so subtle) flirting. By contrast, where in Salem can you find more than a few people on the street after 6 pm? We have no public meeting places, bars and nightclubs being a pitifully inadequate substitute.
So, thank heavens for dog parks, where canine connoisseurs can commingle comfortably. Even when their dogs are attempting, um, to commingle in a much more intimate sense. It is a great ice-breaker to be exchanging some small talk with another dog owner, and then look down to see that one of your dogs is mounting the other one. This seems to have as much to do with dominance as it does with sex, something that I’m just learning, having moved fairly recently from the cat side of the best pet tracks. Though Serena is female, there was a lot of swinging both ways. A male would try to mount her, then she’d try to mount another female, and so it would go in various and sundry sexual combinations.
At some point I couldn’t help but think of Arnold Swartzenegger. He reportedly engaged in very much the same sorts of animalistic groping of strangers as what goes on in a dog park all the time. But the dogs don’t file sexual harassment suits, nor do their owners. Everyone just smiles and says, “No, Rover, don’t do that to her.” Understand, I’m not excusing Arnold, but maybe we people would be happier and more relaxed if we remembered that we are animals also, and accept that animals instinctively will act like animals—even if they have a Ph.D., or a Rhodes scholarship. The dog park has some lessons for us, perhaps.