Bark in the Park

Noth­ing beats a fun game of chase or a roll in a mud­hole for these happy dogs

More of Our Canada - - Contents - by Michelle Du­val, Elora, Ont.

Michelle Du­val of Elora, Ont., and her dog Bai­ley have be­friended peo­ple and pups alike in a lo­cal dog park that has its four-legged vis­i­tors bark­ing for joy.

In the fall of 2009, I was a bit con­cerned to learn that the town­ship of Cen­tre Welling­ton was go­ing to turn the spot where my dog Bai­ley (a husky mix, cen­tre in photo above) and I fre­quently walked into an of­fi­cial dog park.

The area is an open field en­com­pass­ing four acres, sur­rounded by for­est and bor­dered by a wet­land of sorts. There’s a small pond off to one end on ad­join­ing pri­vate prop­erty—whose owner him­self has a beau­ti­ful yel­low Lab named Mag­gie. Some city dog parks can be bar­ren, postage-stamp-sized patches of fenced-in dirt with nary a tree in sight— I sus­pect their de­sign com­mit­tees prob­a­bly have a cat or two on them. Was this to be the fate of our beau­ti­ful lit­tle oa­sis? Much to my de­light, the pow­ers- that- be left its nat­u­ral set­ting as just that— nat­u­ral. What I was ini­tially ap­pre­hen­sive about turned into an op­por­tu­nity for me to com­bine my love of na­ture, dogs and pho­tog­ra­phy.

Aside from mow­ing the field and some rather zeal­ous weed-whack­ing, im­prove­ments in­cluded the ad­di­tion of benches, garbage cans, a wa­ter pump, do­nated agility equip­ment, more trees and the cov­er­ing of the walk­ing paths with mulch. The lo­ca­tion it­self is per­fect, as it sits on the very edge of town. It is not near homes or roads, and thus has been left un­fenced. Through the years, a true sense of lo­cal pride has de­vel­oped within the com­mu­nity in main­tain­ing the park’s beau­ti­ful, nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment for peo­ple and dogs alike to en­joy.

Not only do lo­cals at­tend but also oth­ers who’ve heard of this amaz­ing dog park. One dog,

Nort, comes from as far away as New York City when­ever her per­son is in town visit­ing rel­a­tives. And from watch­ing her run­ning and play­ing, I just bet she’s think­ing: “This is the best va­cay ever!”

Pho­tograph­ing the dogs is chal­leng­ing and helps me prac­tice the craft. I’ve learned a lot about dog be­hav­iour from ob­serv­ing their in­ter­ac­tions and chat­ting with their peo­ple. Who knew there were so many dif­fer­ent dog breeds? Some I’ve never heard of be­fore—like Voodoo, a black Rus­sian ter­rier, and Hud­son, a Na­tive Amer­i­can In­dian dog—not to men­tion all the en­dear­ing and unique Heinz 57s.

The dogs’ an­tics can be hi­lar­i­ous. One day Oliver, a mas­tiff/ great Dane cross, came out from a brief foray in the woods with, to his per­son’s hor­ror, the head of a rab­bit in his mouth. Thank­fully, it didn’t look like it had been a re­cent de­cap­i­ta­tion, but in­stead was prob­a­bly the re- mains of a coy­ote kill. Oliver thought it was a grand prize and pranced around with it. Then he pro­ceeded to play a rous­ing game of catch- me- if- you- can when we tried to con­fis­cate it. A few other dogs joined in the shenani­gans; ap­par­ently, years of obe­di­ence train­ing go out the win­dow when there’s a rab­bit head in­volved.

First rule of any dog park: Never turn your back on a group of ram­bunc­tious dogs! I’ve for­got­ten this rule my­self a time or two and had my legs taken out from un­der me. At any given time, they can be chas­ing one an­other about, burn­ing off pentup en­ergy and not watch­ing where hu­mans are stand­ing. A child wav­ing a stick in the air while run­ning may be hav­ing great fun, but in a dog park, it’s akin to wav­ing a red flag in front of a friendly bull. A friend’s dog—a lovely, en­er­getic, hap­pygo-lucky choco­late Lab—ab­so­lutely loves kids and wouldn’t in­ten­tion­ally hurt a fly. But if she sees some­one yelling and wav­ing a stick, it’s game on! She’s off and run­ning like the Mad Hat­ter, and in her en­thu­si­asm to get to the “prize,” she can lay some­one out flat!

As at any park, oc­ca­sional ac­ci­dents do hap­pen, be it be­tween dis­agree­able dogs or peo­ple. For­tu­nately, I haven’t wit­nessed many my­self. I find it best to keep mov­ing and not loi­ter around in any one spot for too long. No mat­ter how well trained your dog is, it’s good to avoid bunch­ing them up and to al­ways keep an eye on your fur-buddy.

More than one dog has come back from a brief foray into the wet­lands area coated in thick, black muck. More of­ten than not, it’s one of the Labs. They seem to have a pen­chant for find­ing the mud­holes, much to the con­ster­na­tion of their own­ers. Then it’s a manda­tory trip to the wa­ter pump for a rinse be­fore the car ride home and a

good scrub­bing— much to the cha­grin of the dog.

Given the park’s coun­try set­ting, it’s in­evitable that at some point a dog will find and roll in some­thing that smells go­daw­ful pu­trid— which to a dog is like manna from heaven! And, of course, don’t they pick that mo­ment to come over and lean up against you, pleased as punch. Bai­ley rolled around once on what was left of a de­cay­ing muskrat. I al­most lost my lunch—and it was yet an­other trip to the wa­ter pump for at least a par­tial “rinse” be­fore head­ing home. I’ve learned to store wet wipes, hand san­i­tizer and some old tow­els in the car.

Apart from the dogs, I’ve also been for­tu­nate to pho­to­graph some of the abun­dant wildlife in the park, in­clud­ing deer, rac­coons, chip­munks, rab­bits, snakes, tur­tles and a va­ri­ety of birds. I even saw a ju­ve­nile bald ea­gle there once.

Early one beau­ti­ful spring morn­ing, Bai­ley and I were alone at the park and had an un­ex­pected en­counter. Me­an­der­ing along the path, I chanced a look up and spot­ted a coy­ote sit­ting in the tree­line not 50 feet away from me! For a split-sec­ond, I re­mem­bered think­ing, “Oh, it’s just Bai­ley.” He can look slightly wolfish, if you don’t take into ac­count his baby blue eyes. Once it dawned on me that it wasn’t Bai­ley but a coy­ote, I im­me­di­ately re­called him—he’d been off in­ves­ti­gat­ing—and put him on leash. We slowly walked back­wards the way we came, not once tak­ing our eyes off the coy­ote—who just sat there, never tak­ing its eyes off of us. And, of course that day, didn’t I leave my cam­era at home! I haven’t seen an­other one since, but other park vis­i­tors have told me they’ve heard them yip­ping in the woods at dawn or dusk.

I’m so grate­ful to all the won­der­ful peo­ple I’ve met and be­friended at the park over the years, who don’t mind me pho­tograph­ing their dogs. Af­ter spend­ing a few hours there, I usu­ally end up as a hot, sweaty mess, cov­ered in muddy paw prints and slob­ber—but a smil­ing, happy mess with a happy, tuck­ered-out Bai­ley.

Life is fi­nite, and it’s in­evitable that at some point we have to say a fi­nal good­bye to a few of our furry friends. Those times are espe­cially hard for those of us who fre­quent the park and have got­ten to know one an­other’s dogs well. They’re fam­ily, and they leave an in­deli­ble mark in our lives and hearts.

I like to think in the end there’s a big, won­der­ful dog park just wait­ing for us. To all the dogs we’ve loved and lost, we’ll meet up there again one day in the not-so-dis­tant fu­ture. I’ll be sure to bring the Fris­bee and treats! In the mean­time, Bai­ley and I will keep truckin’ along here, find­ing ad­ven­tures and mak­ing new friends along the way. ■

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