Strangers and their dogs

Oct 3, 2012 at 5:00 am

I am a dog owner who moonlights as a bush-league misanthrope.

These combined circumstances, in addition to my habit of sitting as far away from humans as possible with my nose in a book, tend to position me as something of an outlier at the dog park.

My dog, Dwight, enjoys the clubhouse atmosphere of the park where he goes to sniff the asses of his contemporaries, verbally and physically assault them, then engage them in discussions about the mechanics and aesthetics of peeing on everything in sight the way a gang of vandals might debate the relative merits of different spray nozzles for tagging walls with mesmerizing, inscrutable graffiti after jumping-in a new gang member.

I’m happy to give Dwight the opportunity to socialize if he likes but don’t see why I should have to do the same, usually taking the opportunity instead to read quietly on a bench beneath the low hanging limbs of an American beech, far afield the melee.

Today I decided to buck tradition, leave my pleasant little cone of silence in the shade, and read the paper in the sun instead.

When one’s dog is running around yipping and scrapping with others, one is expected, it seems, to address other dog owners by saying things like, “He’s all bluster, I promise,” or “I think they’re just playing,” or “I happen to have a needle and thread and some hemostats in the car if you want to field dress that wound.” These reassurances can sometimes be misread as an invitation to chitchat; an understandable mistake resulting from the popular conventions of politeness and civility, which sometimes trump the convention of noticing that a person is holding a book that they seem to be enjoying.

Dwight started playing with a fat little dog who didn’t seem to “run” so much as she appeared to be locked in a continuous state of precariously falling forward. I was joined on the bench in the sun by the dog’s owner, a rough looking customer who may have been one of several dudes who used to whoop me back in grade school. He looked awfully familiar.

I could tell he wanted to talk because he sat down next to me and started talking.

He told me his opinions of little dogs versus big ones and we both agreed that we were lucky to have small dogs that weren’t annoying and needy and that huge dogs are almost certainly more trouble than they’re worth. Using this accord as a cue, he went on to describe how he was hit by a truck a few years back, had been in a chemically induced coma for a month, during which time he’d had half his skull removed to relieve the pressure on his brain.

When he got out of the hospital, he could tell he wasn’t quite the same person anymore, and he experienced some dark times that led to real and, let’s be frank, understandable depression. “All the nurses told me, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are,’” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t feel lucky; I feel like shit.’”

Since he got his fat, cute, unsturdy little dog, he’s felt remarkably better. He’s realized a much more accommodating sense of peace with the world, sort of a new lease on life. He kicked a few bad habits and has started to be more positive in his acceptance of uncertainty; “Anything could happen. It could all be over in a minute.” The sort of thing that falls into the category “Stuff You Hear So Often That You Should Probably Start Paying Closer Attention.”

There we were, a couple of dudes discussing their smallish dogs, traumatic head injuries, the place of casual marijuana use within a broader culture of harmful addiction, dismay and concern over animal neglect including dog and cock fighting, etc. While we may have never spoken to one another outside the dog park, we had a lot to talk about and were both glad of the company.

If one is to maintain the appearance of being an amiable, polite fellow, one must sometimes be willing to engage in a chat instead of reading the paper. Such is the cost of community and a small price to pay for such a boon, I suppose. It was a really beautiful day, and it was nice to be reminded that there is usually something to be grateful for, even unexpected company.