Dog park visits become part of the rhythm of life. Some people come early in the morning, before they go to work; some people work from home and take their lunch break at the park. Others come after work, some only on weekends, and some (the unemployed like me) show up all over the map. If you keep a regular schedule, you’ll end up seeing the same people over and over.
It’s not the morning rush on the subway, where people avoid eye contact and everyone focuses on his or her iPod, newspaper, or nap. The dogs make the difference. Of course some dogs are shy, some stick to their owners, but there are plenty of friendly ones who rush up to strangers demanding affection or recognition. Have a ball in your hand or some treats in your pocket, and you’re guaranteed to attract attention.
So you say to the other owner, “Cute dog! Is it a male or a female? What’s her name?” And the next thing you know, you’re chatting about dogs and you know the dog’s name, but not the owner’s. When you make friends with someone new a few weeks later, you point to a dog friend hanging about and say, “That’s Rover. He’s great. His owner is the blond woman in the red t-shirt.” Your new friend’s dog is a lab/shepherd mix named Fido. Again, you don’t get the owner’s name. You can’t introduce your human friends to each other by name, only by dog association.
I’m trying to get better at that. I’ve started introducing myself if I talk to someone for more than five minutes. It’s still easier to remember the dog’s name. And if you don’t ask for a name right off the bat, you kind of miss the moment. There are people I’ve known for over a year now whose names I don’t know, but after a year, how can I ask??? And then there are the people you always see in groups. It’s just awkward to say, “Can we get some names here?”, especially if they’ve been coming longer than you have, and actually know each other’s names. “Fido’s owner” becomes your alias at the park.
Of course, it is the dog park. These people would probably just laugh if I said, “You know, after all these months, I still don’t know your name.” They would tell me, and in my head they’d still be Rover’s owner and Fido’s owner.
Sometimes, it really is the dog who’s your friend. There’s a little terrier cross who likes to play tug of war with a rubber bowling pin. He’ll come racing up to me, shaking his head and play-growling like mad. I pull on the bowling pin, and I can even lift him off the ground with it. His owner keeps her distance. She’s friendly enough, but we’ve never really chatted. She knows I love her dog, but shows no interest in mine. Sometime she comes with a friend, so she brings her social network from outside with her. That’s okay. It’s the dog park. Human friendship is optional; canine companionship is the point of the exercise.