Everyone needs a hobby. Mike Licht explains one of his.
What’s more fun than watching dogs romp in the park? Not much. Racing, chasing, jumping, wrestling. Tug-’o-War with a hunk of tree branch. The quick little bow that says “Let’s play.” Granted, the tail-sniffing is inelegant, but it obviates the need for small talk. Without the chatter of “How-ya-been-Where-ya-at-What’d-ya-eat,” dogs can get down to play right now.
Dogs were strictly forbidden in our family’s Manhattan apartment building, and I didn’t own pooches when I lived in Buffalo or Austin. My DC place is small, so I don’t personally own a pup now, but I still have about 40 dogs. I live near Lincoln Park.
A dozen years ago, life was pretty bleak. Work was dull, a lover dead. I started bringing coffee and the crossword puzzle out to a park bench on sunny days. Dogs trotted over to offer puzzle clues, sniff what I was sipping, or just say hello. They always seemed to be smiling. I was hooked.
Lincoln Park once had a reputation for crime but was tamed by a steady stream of dog walkers. It is now safe for peaceable bipeds, and pooch playgroups romp morning and evening.
Technically, letting dogs off-leash in the park is illegal. Lincoln Park is run by the National Park Service. If NPS lets dogs off leash in our urban park, they would have to do so at the Grand Canyon (logic that permits burro rides in Lincoln Park). On rare occasions, 45-toting Park Police give offending dog owners warnings or tickets, protecting us from terrorist terriers. In one case, they took a neighbor to jail because his dog is too well-behaved to require a leash.
Some dogs are solitary and sleep in the sun, hunt squirrels, roll in mud, or explore outdoor odors and download “pee-mail” alone. Most pups prefer to race each other, chase each other, retrieve soggy tennis balls, and wrestle. If they wander off alone, owners follow with plastic bags or scoops. Pedestrians who don’t watch for running pups can get knocked over, but they can trip over a kid’s trike or a bench just as easily.
A few months after I started Dog Watching, I noticed an attractive woman a few benches away doing the same thing. She carried no newspaper or book, and spoke to furry swarms of dogs in an appropriately high, loud “doggie voice.” She distributed pats, scratches, and belly-rubs, receiving tail wags and puppy smooches.
One of the dogs trotted away from her bench to its owner, a friend of mine. She waved and followed the dog over to him. I joined them and was introduced to Miss Anita, now my fiancée (we pause here while you dab your eyes with your hankie).
Today, when we are dispirited, bored, or just plain tired, Anita and I go Dog Watching. Anita brings a half-gallon jug of water, a dish, and a pocket full of Charlee Bear dog treats; she is the famous Water Lady of Lincoln Park. The dogs tolerate me as her consort. Enthroned on our bench, we watch dogs at play, exchanging color commentary on exciting or cute maneuvers. I have considered bringing a white board to diagram the more intricate plays.
Dogs trot over, greet us, and slurp at the water dish. Some smell the hidden doggie treats and start jumping; old pals remember their manners, sit politely, and wait for a Charlee Bear. If dogs are new to us, we ask owners if their dogs may have treats. We know the names of most dogs and recognize the owners, but usually do not know the owners’ names. Why should we?
Dogs of some famed officials and personalities play in Lincoln Park, people so busy they rarely exercise their own pets, sending surrogates or professional dog walkers. When political or media figures do show up, we may nod and exchange a word or two after exchanging greetings with their pups. We now cast a dog’s-eye view at national affairs, cheering the Senate election which means Sugarbelle will still come play with us, welcoming the Presidential transition but worried that Henry the Hungarian Pointer may leave town.
But dogs are important, not owners. The dogs are infallibly happy. Even three-legged pups frolic with the pack. All dogs love puppies, and Great Danes often lie down while greeting the youngsters to avoid frightening them. Dogs are smelly, sloppy, loud, demanding, and just plain fun.
If you like dogs but can’t keep one due to space or schedule, try Dog Watching. You don’t need to bring water or treats; dogs like people who like them. Do owners mind that others appreciate their dogs? Not emotionally healthy ones.
Dog Watching has some advantages over dog ownership: no freezing 6 AM walks; no poop-scooping; no chewed furniture, stained rugs, or pet dander; no rush home from the office to let dogs out; no desperate search for holiday pet sitters or kennels; no food or veterinarian bills. Some pet owners shrug off these things; for others, they are reasons to abandon poor pooches at shelters.
Give Dog Watching a try. You don’t have to buy expensive Nike shoes or Danskins, there are no dues, no classes, no esoteric rules to learn. You may enjoy it. Dogs shed happiness as readily as fur.
Image by Mike Licht, in tribute to Roger Tory Petersen (1908 – 1996). Download a copy here.Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com.
“Petersen Field Guides” and cover design are registered trademarks of Houghton Mifflin Company. This classic nature guide series does not really include canines. Don’t whine; that’s a good boy.