If happiness is a warm puppy, then the cure for depression must be a dog park.
The small park just behind the Trader Joes and myriad of Russian shops along Santa Monica isn’t “technically” a dog park. In fact, there’s an official green sign that insists dogs should be on leashes, and cops from the Department of Parks and Recreation drive past every so often with nothing better to do than hand out tickets, but every evening, usually after rush hour traffic has subsided, dogs and their owners flood the grassy area in front of the rec center and run free. The dogs, that is. Not the owners.
A dog park, especially an unofficial one that has evolved in a neighborhood setting, is almost like its own living entity. It has its peculiarities and quirks, its rules and routines. The five o’clock crowd, the early shift, close ranks when Pilot and I approach. Their schedule is strict, their members heavily vetted. They don’t welcome fresh meat to what they think of as their space. They argue American Idol, are unresponsive to innocuous comments about the cuteness of their maltie-poos or min-pins, and are aggressive in their opinions about canine maintenance. Debate with them at your own risk.
The dogs at this hour are no different than the crew who will come later, and anyone who believes that dogs are simply reflections of their owners have never seen a pack at work. There is a familiarity, an openness to this set that is absent in their human counterparts. Piper, the doxie mix in her quilted jacket, will happily approach for a kind hand. Sweet Pea, the golden retriever with the dyed pink tail, invites Pilot to play. Though I sit on the periphery, eavesdropping on the discussion about where to get the best cupcakes in town, Pilot romps with whomever he can interest in the chase.
Eventually, the dusk dogs and their owners melt away, with little in the way of acknowledgement for myself. It’s the dinner crowd that I like best. Their owners mix and chat, engage and laugh. They find the joy in doggie antics, rather than the resignation the early birds seem to have with the process. For them it’s a chore, a duty, a habit, but for those who come later, watch and smile at the shenanigans, it’s nothing more than the best part of the day.
Pilot has a girlfriend named Leia, a jindo-golden retriever mix. He used to be afraid of her rough-housing, but now he can’t get enough. Leia’s owner eventually warmed to me after she discovered that we had adopted our puppies from the same rescue, though her attitude regarding the care and tending of canines still tends toward the condescending. Leia is the park princess, who refuses to get her paws dirty when she can help it. As a dog park monarch, her loyalty can be fickle, and Pilot loses her attention when Sasha the puggle and her piercing bay come around.
Among my favorites is little no-neck George, a neurotic black lab mix whose head goes straight to his broad shoulders. George has a hoarse bark and beloved red rubber ball. I think of his owner as Mr. Rogers – not only for a physical similarity, but for the “Won’t you be my neighbor?” attitude he radiates. Mr. Rogers throws ball after ball for whatever dog will chase it, and is always happy to give Pilot a reason to run.
Paku the Rhodesian Ridgeback and Lola the Great Dane don’t quite fit in – mostly because they’re obsessed with each other. They used to be part of the early group, though now that the day stays light longer they wander through around six. Paku is the park’s bad boy, the one with a dangerous attitude everyone wants to befriend. He’s more than willing to mix it up, reined in by Lola’s motherly instinct. She’s the size of a pony, utterly calm, and the self-appointed park referee.
Then there’s Pilot. At the park, as in life, he is the clown. He’s fascinated by French bulldogs and smaller dogs in general, who he frightens with his over-abundance of enthusiasm. With large dogs he approaches at his most submissive, peeing everywhere, flinging himself at their feet. Benny the miniature pinscher frightens him, despite being one eighth his size. He manages to locate every abandoned tennis ball in the park, and like most of the others has a special fascination for the mud patch that has been fertilized with something including fish powder.
Huskies, pit bulls, boxers, chihuahuas, bulldogs, labradors and mutts come to the park. Some are only babies who want to play but aren’t ready to face the the charge, some are arthritic and always tired. There are fights and there are love fests, endless butt-sniffing, but they’re always in the moment, and watching a pack of dogs of all breeds and sizes race around some rocks, filthy tongues lolling out the sides of their mouths, it seems to me not a bad way to live.
cross-posted @ Adventures of Hollywood Jane