The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

Seeking comfort and community at the dog park

Bill Smart and his pal Casey were sent to the off-leash park for some re-education. It was an illuminating and therapeutic experience for both dog and human. Bill’s essay is called “Off Leash.”
Bill Smart and his pal Casey were sent to the off-leash park for some re-education. It was an illuminating and therapeutic experience for both dog and human. (Submitted by Bill Smart)

We are led to discovery — about the world and about ourselves — in the funniest ways. 

Sometimes, as it turns out, by a leash, with a dog attached to it. Or not. 

Bill Smart's essay  is called Off Leash Therapies.

Casey was expelled from daycare last week.

When I arrived after work to pick the little guy up, Miss Alexandra, the headmistress, asked me to stay behind and wait in the foyer under the pictures of some famous alumni. All the other parents gave me "that look" and squirmed past me.

Jeez, I thought, what now? At ten months, isn't Casey rather young to be "sent down?" Even for a dog?

Headmistress Alexandra came out and ushered both of us into her office (more portraits of dogs, Pomeranians mostly). 

The charge: that at the start of nap time that afternoon, said Casey, my dog and my friend, did commit S.O.T.T. ("[The] Showing of the Teeth") in the direction of a staff member.

It all started with Casey (pictured here) getting into trouble at dog school. (Submitted by Bill Smart)

Headmistress glared at me.

"Take this. Best to act on it ASAP."

She handed me the business card of a Toronto "dog whisperer."

Her name was Sybille. She didn't like the term dog whisperer. ("That's for horses. For dogs the term is 'murmurer.'")

Casey's "therapy" took place in our living room, the rug rolled back and the coffee table overturned onto the sofa. Day one, she got right to work. ("I don't beat around the Beagle!" she murmured.)

In two short weeks, Sybille announced suddenly that her job was now done, that the next stage was up to me and to Casey and that further therapies could only be administered "in situ" at the dog park.

She told us we both had some learning to do. We followed Sybille's orders.

Bill says that being in the off leash area has changed him as much as it has changed Casey. (Submitted by Bill Smart)

Off to the off-leash area

I love how it works, the OLA — the off-leash area. There are clear community standards, finely honed codes of conduct —  for dogs and humans. 

Here are the rules:

  • Rule 1: Once the dogs are unleashed, their humans automatically form a circle in the middle wherein they talk, equidistant and politely. When the next human approaches, that human is let in. In the circle, it begins with dog talk: name, age, sex, species of your dog, then a little bit about eating and sleep habits, then a few dog peccadilloes just to show that you're a realist.
  • Rule 2: Briefly, compliment the other dog. "I hear your dog's breed — pug is it? — I hear they have extraordinary eyesight, the best in the dog kingdom." 
  • Rule 3: Start to move the discourse forward — a query about one's vet, for example, is a very good place to start.  If you keep your wits about you, it doesn't take long for things to move along and deepen.

One day I found myself elbow-to-elbow with Blanche, owner of "Smoothie" — a four-year-old rescue greyhound in a red bodysuit. Blanche said she was having a "spot of trouble" with her son who calls himself "a card carrying atheist." 

Matt, belonging to Rover — a long, loping chocolate Lab — read us part of the draft of a book he was writing for teens on heroin addiction. Bernie, dedicated friend of Gizmo, a non-stop Jack Russell, mentioned that, yes, he was gay — though he has yet to come out to just about everyone else.

If one keeps to the same approximate circle of dogs and humans, the treatment (for humans) tends to take hold. Complete narratives can develop.

At the OLA, it takes about three visits to become a regular and then a few more to "graduate" to one of the gaps inside one of the smaller circles over to the side. Sometimes, you'll realize that one or two of the speakers inside that particular circle, the quieter ones, are interlopers. They don't even have a dog in attendance. They're just looking for any port in a storm.

He looks up and me and smiles the way dogs smile, a lot of teeth and tongue and drool.- Bill Smart

Thanks to my dog's prescription — group therapy at the off-leash area — I've learned that humans are far more complicated and varied than I realized, and that they seek comfort, community — and some might call it treatment — in surprising ways. Who knew?

For now, Casey lopes, dog-like, back and forth from his pack to mine. Our quick glances mean that we're checking on each other's progress. Sometimes, when things get dicey between the dogs, I look down and find him waiting outside the (human) pack, requesting home.

So far, it's okay, I think. Both Casey and I are almost ready for prime time. No back-sliding S.O.T.T. incidents yet. For either of us.

Walking home from the off-leash, I've begun to use expressions like "What I'm hearing from you is …" and "How did that make you feel?"

You know what, Casey? The way I see it, maybe it's not you, it's me.

He looks up and me and smiles the way dogs smile, a lot of teeth and tongue and drool.

Yeah, I tell him. It's working for me, I think. Is it working for you?

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.