Bark in the Park
Nothing beats a fun game of chase or a roll in a mudhole for these happy dogs
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. ■