Dirty South Road Trip, 2012: Revelation #2

As I mentioned in my first Dirty South post, when I was planning our road trip to New Orleans, I made sure that all (or most) of our rest stops occurred in places where Coco, our 1 year-old standard poodle, could run around off-leash. This is the only real way for dogs to get rid of their excess energy, and means that once you get back onto the road again, they will snuggle quite happily into their little car beds and sleep until the next rest stop. At least this has been our good fortune. And if there are other dogs in this off-leash area to chase around and wrestle with, so much the better. I scoured manifold dog-related and city-specific websites before setting out, and came up with a list of possible stops, but nothing prepared me for just how varied our experiences would be.

Revelation #2: Not all dog parks are created equal.

There is no clear definition of what constitutes a dog park: there are the fenced-in green spaces that we have in Montreal with picnic tables, water pumps, and–if you are lucky, and your fellow denizens are amenable to dirty dogs–kiddie pools, and in Ontario, municipal parks that are open to off-leash dogs during certain hours of the day and spots where dog owners throw caution to the wind and let their dogs run free despite the plethora of signs and warnings. In many American cities, there are urban parks that have been reclaimed by dogs and their owners because there are no longer children to play in them, and empty lots that are tended by volunteers, such as the kind-hearted old-timer in Louisville who hauls in plastic containers of water each morning and rounds up the bedraggled toys and balls. And then there are the Bark Parks, officially designated and designed spaces where dogs are free to safely run, play and explore; parks that take the natural environment into account; parks to make Frederick Law Olmsted proud.

We visited a dog park in Kitchener-Waterloo that, on the surface, had the appearance of a bark park, but in reality, was merely a multi-use recreational area (and former landfill, something we would see time and time again) with an off-leash space. Here, perhaps in the hopes of making the area cleaner, there were wood chips scattered over the ground, which made walking (and presumably, running) quite awkward. No, what makes a park a bark park is the effort that goes into ensuring the well-being of the dogs, and as a result, the health and happiness of the owners. As the Montgomery County website makes clear, it is a place where dogs are not only permitted, they are invited.

The Bark Park in the otherwise underwhelming city of Dayton, Ohio–home to the great Robert Pollard and GBV, but from what we could see, not much else (though I should say that the folks at Olive were extremely friendly, ordering us to eat our dinner on the patio instead of the street and providing Coco with her own little doggy bowl)–is a haven for canines with many things to offer: a multitude of bowls and troughs, and an easy source of fresh, clean water; special areas designated for dogs of differing ages and energy levels; gated check points, which may sound oppressive, but allow dogs to move freely without out-running the physical limitations of their owners–a necessity in a state where 30% of the population is obese; and an obstacle course for energetic breeds to put their stamina and agility to the test. Unlike some bark parks, Dayton’s is public, requiring only that dogs be licensed and accompanied. In other cities, such as Louisville and New Orleans, bark parks can be more exclusive, requiring annual fees and full vaccinations, though temporary passes can be given to visitors with the proper paperwork.

One must never assume, however, that what goes on in their bark park will be accepted elsewhere. In Kitchener, we were scolded for bringing a ball into the play area, and in Dayton, were warned that while dogs are allowed to roam free, humans must keep to the paved paths or suffer the consequences. In the French Quarter, we were warmly welcomed and embraced by the early morning community of artists and eccentrics and their fabulous pooches (my favorite, a giant lug of a mutt with the endearing name of Square Bear). In the Faubourg Marigny–a rougher and less-touristed, but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood post-Katrina–the assembled crusty punks barely acknowledged our existence, partaking in a rousing game of soccer baseball, despite the insanely soupy late evening heat, while their mean-looking but seemingly benign dogs rolled in the mud. Coco and Mal worked together to extract some drinkable water from a badly damaged hose–the dogs seemed satisfied to slurp the muck–but to no avail. This was a problem.

In fact, it was so hot during our stay that all outdoor activity had to wrap-up before 7:30 in the morning when it was still under 32 degrees and you could fool yourself into thinking that the day might actually be a manageable temperature. As one of our dog park friends, he himself a transport from the north, explained: by noon, you give up and go inside, and by 3:00, you want to hang yourself. If you can make it through that, you are good to go again by about 8:30 at night. By midnight, it is actually pleasant to be outside.

On our return trip we were fortunate enough to have friends to stay with, many of them who had both dogs and yards. This was ideal because it meant that when we arrived at our location, we could simply sit with a drink while Coco romped and played. No more driving into the middle of nowhere–as we did in Montgomery, Alabama–only to find an extremely unfriendly family, their ornery shepherd, a swarm of mosquitoes, and the sun setting fast. In other neighborhoods, such as the weird, suburban community that we stayed in outside of Memphis, people do not walk their dogs. And because it is so warm out, the dogs simply live outside in their giant fenced-in yards. Because of this, when you try to take your dog for a walk at 10:30 at night, you wake each dog as you pass, and in the cacophony that follows, feel scornful eyes peering at your from behind parted curtains. This was also the case at day break, and so we once more beat a hasty retreat, hoping that Coco would settle into travel mode without having had any exercise.

Luckily Coco is the Tehching Hsieh of dogs. It was Hsieh who spent an entire year living in an 8×8 square foot room. As he described in his artist talk in Montreal a few years ago, he had a very clear method for coping with the restrictions of such a space. He would awaken in one corner, walk to another to have breakfast, and do the same at lunch and supper, returning home to his bed in the evening. I thought of Hsieh as I watched Coco methodically stand, stretch and resettle every hour or so, and though I am often guilty of anthropomorphizing her, it was interesting to see her put his approach into practice.

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