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Running With The Big Dogs

 

My miniature poodle, Jack, is humping Bowser, a German Shepard the size of a Harley-Davidson Sportster. I’m mortified and yet oddly proud of his moxie. All 13 pounds of his fluffy white body are wrapped around Bowser’s hind leg and he’s bouncing like a feverish remora.

Bowser is not amused, nor is his owner, Bob, who waves an empty poop bag in Jack’s face and shouts “shoo.” Jack doesn’t even break stride. Bowser gives Bob a mournful look and shakes his leg, swinging Jack in the air like a hairy banner. When the leg goes down Jack is still attached, intent on his mission to show Bowser who’s boss.

By the time I get close enough to intervene, Jack is through. He swings away to play with a frisky Sheltie and Bowser leans dejectedly against Bob. I mumble an apology.

“It happens,” Bob says, shrugging. He clips on Bowser’s leash and they walk slowly out the front gate.

Our first day at the dog park and already we’re making friends.

I did copious research before we arrived. I have a wad of plastic bags for scooping poop, a bottle of water, a folding water dish and a leash to put on Jack if he gets rowdy. Rowdier. There’s a doggy first-aid kit tucked away in the car in case Jack gets bitten and, forewarned of the mud, I’m wearing work-boots and old jeans.

Folded up in my pocket is a list of dog-park do’s and don’ts compiled from various Websites. It’s almost a page long, single-spaced, and, to a neurotic first-time owner, more than a little intimidating. I’m particularly concerned by rule number three - don’t bring children into the enclosure, occasionally dogs mistake them for prey – and by rule number seven – don’t run, it can trigger a dog’s hunting instinct. I’ve only been here ten minutes and already I’ve broken rule number two - keep your dog under voice control at all times. My stomach is growling and I’m regretting number eleven – don’t bring food.

This off-leash park is divided into two sections, one for small dogs and one for large. Not long ago, a Golden Retriever broke a small dog’s neck in a play session that went awry, creating a clamor for segregation. Jack belongs in the small-dog area but it was empty when we arrived. He could see the big dogs playing on the other side of the fence and whimpered so pitifully that I let him join in. I was worried that he’d be someone’s breakfast, but he’s managing fine. He and the Sheltie have teamed up and are chasing an affable black Lab.

The owners saunter over smiling and introduce themselves. The Sheltie is Kate’s; they have the same perky demeanor. Rhonda, shorter and wider, owns the Lab.

“He’s fast. Look at him,” Kate says of Jack. “He’s having the time of his life.”

“They’re being kind to him, I think. Yours looks like she could run all day,” I say.

“Not Max,” Rhonda says. The Lab plops at her feet, tongue lolling. “Look at you,” she says. “You’re a disgrace.”

Kate is an emergency-room nurse and Rhonda a bookkeeper. They’ve been meeting at the park twice a week for more than a year to let their dogs socialize and burn off energy.

“We get home and he’s quiet for the rest of the day,” Rhonda says, prodding Max with the toe of her shoe. “Hey, you. Get up and run.”

“This place is great,” Kate says. “My dog gets to play. I get to talk. All that’s missing is the Starbucks.”

Both she and Rhonda are cheerfully sipping from travel mugs and I make a mental note that hot beverages do not constitute food under rule eleven. It’s cold and I would kill for a cup of coffee.

I ask if it was alright that I’d let Jack into the big-dog enclosure and they nod.

“He’s doing fine,” Kate says. “You just have to keep an eye out.”

“The mood can shift pretty fast in here,” Rhonda adds.

As she finishes, two Huskies burst through the front gate. They’re big. I mean, they’re really big. Max looks like a puppy next to them and Jack looks like a jelly bean. The Huskies sniff the other dogs then take prodigious leaks on a spindly tree that doesn’t seem to have much of a future. They nose the smaller dogs again and mill around at our feet.

The bigger of the two looks up at me and our eyes lock. Too late I remember that rule number ten is clear about this being a bad idea. Before I can blink his paws are on my shoulders and we’re standing face to face. He has shiny wet eyes and ridiculously showy teeth.

His owner sweeps him off. I’m left with a faint whiff of doggie breath and the distinct impression of having been spared.

“Sorry. He knows better than that,” the owner says.

I say “no problem,” or intend to, but my voice doesn’t seem to be working. It comes out more like “gaah.”

A muscular Boxer streaks by and he and the Huskies start wrestling. It’s friendly enough play but distinctly rougher than we’ve been seeing. The Sheltie and Max go off in a corner and Jack feigns interest in a tuft of grass.

I sense this is my cue to take us home. I whistle and Jack comes running. Rhonda and Kate wave as we walk away. Jack is looking embarrassed about being afraid of the Huskies but as soon as we pass through the gate he perks up. By the time we get to the car he’s high-stepping like his old self.

He climbs onto the passenger’s seat and sits there grinning like a muddy gargoyle. He smells, well, like a dog, and he looks eminently satisfied with himself. After a bath and a brushing he’ll be a clean white lap dog again, but, tonight, he’ll twitch in his sleep and dream about running with the big dogs.

Jane Peach and Jack live in San Jose, CA.  

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