Dog Park Identities
Don’t blink. Cherish these moments; they will be gone before you know it.
I remember rolling my eyes at this advice. How does one cherish potty-training, sleepless nights, and temper tantrums? Now I’m staring at empty bedrooms, pondering the silence of deserted hallways.
For the past couple of months, my life resembled an emotional roller coaster with the ups and downs and twists and turns jarring my mind. Ryan, my youngest son, graduated from high school and joined his older brother, Cade, on the out-of-state college journey. Twenty years raced by as I crossed the finish line of my stay-at-home-mom marathon. I often joke that I now entered the world of retirement, but underneath the lie hid a daunting fear of my empty nest and lack of purpose. I felt like a ghost wandering the halls, searching for something to do.
I counted my life blessed, married to Jake for twenty-four years (with the usual ups and downs), his successful job allowed me to stay home to raise our two boys. I thought about going back to work when the kids started middle school. Thought about it again once they were in high school and then again when Cade went off to college. But as the years ticked by my resume grew obsolete, making me feel less than, having no value or purpose.
Surely, there was more to me than chauffeur, chef, and maid.
The logical part of me, somewhere in the deep recesses of my soul, knew the value of being a stay-at-home mom. But as my role changed, my new identity remained a mystery.
I contemplated cleaning my dining room window when a bark caught my attention. Three dogs raced across the grassy hill chasing a tennis ball, one scooping it up expertly in its fuzzy white mouth. Looking further down the way, I noticed the dog’s owners huddled together, smiling and laughing. Gunner, my seven-year-old lab, gave a pathetic whine, his wet nose pressed against the dirty window, tail wagging.
We stared, like a couple of peeping Toms, watching the women talk and the dogs play. This cheery little group had been meeting the past couple of weeks, always around four in the afternoon, and like clockwork Gunner took up his sentry post, whining incessantly.
“We could go out there if you weren’t so mean and grumpy,” I said. Gunner lacked a few social skills, and honestly, so did I. Niceties, like trying to make friends or starting up a conversation with a stranger, made my stomach turn and palms sweat.
At least Gunner had an excuse for his social awkwardness, having known only one other dog, Duke, who died a few months ago. Now, he was the lone pup, the alpha male in the house (at least the one who walked on all fours). Whenever another dog interacted with Gunner, he would pin his ears back and growl with yellow eyes bulging, and hair standing rigid. I didn’t understand why he acted that way. The coward skulked at the sight of the vacuum, broom, rake, or garden hose. He would even hide under the bed during a storm.
I guess both of us were in the middle of figuring out who we were with our new normal; me, without my boys, wondering what to do with my life and Gunner without his only friend.
My tail thumped on the hard tile as I watched the other dogs run. Spying on them had paid off, I now knew their habits and patterns, how fast they were and how they moved. My mind concocted a plan to infiltrate the group and become their leader. Ok, that’s not entirely true. I also wanted to frolic and sniff and mark my territory. I hadn’t played with anyone since my older brother fell asleep and never came home.
I remember being outside, watching through the window as Duke lay motionless on his bed, all the humans gathered around crying and some stranger rummaging through a bag, maybe looking for treats. Alpha Jake finally let me in, and I went to investigate. Duke wasn’t moving; he didn’t look up at me as if to say, “Ha! Look at all the attention I’m getting.” He smelt wrong, different. His Dukiness wasn’t in his body anymore. And then the stranger took him; I was all alone.
I looked away from the playing dogs and glanced up at Mommy (that’s what she called herself). She smelled sad, and her mouth pointed in the wrong direction, lines forming between her eyes. Maybe she needed to go outside and play with those other humans instead of always being alone? I mean, she had me, a loyal companion, but she lacked proper conversation. My tail thumped again as I began to come up with a plan; Operation Happy Mommy.
That evening I loitered in the kitchen pondering what to make for dinner when the front door opened and Jake walked in with a smile on his face.
“Hey babe, those ladies and their dogs are out there again.” He pointed over his shoulder while Gunner danced around his feet.
“Yeah, I saw them. Not sure I’m brave enough, yet,” I said, greeting Jake with a kiss. His arms wrapped around me.
“They won’t bite you,” he said and kissed me again as Gunner wiggled through his legs.
The evening ticked by like every other: dinner, tv, read, sleep. Besides reading, which I thoroughly enjoyed, my life was in a rut, resembling a hamster running in its wheel, always in motion but going nowhere. I needed a purpose, a goal. I needed to discover a new self that matched my current stage in life.
I remember Ryan telling me I should write a book. “You love reading so much, why don’t you write one?” He had said after I finished my sixty-fourth book that year. At first, I scoffed at the notion, but was it so far fetched? Maybe I could write a book and perhaps find my purpose in the process?
I thought attending a writing class would be a wise first step since I hadn’t written anything creative since college. I found a class called “Writing for Fun” at the local community center. I mean, how bad could it be? It wasn’t like a college class where I’d be graded for my grammar or marked off for the improper use of a parenthetic expression (whatever the heck that was).
On my first day, I arrived ten minutes early, feeling the need to vomit as nerves chased around my morning coffee. I realized I liked my comfortable, safe bubble with its comfortable schedule, comfortable people, and comfortable expectations. That day, as I sat in the back row of the classroom, my cozy bubble developed a tiny hole, air hissing out with each word I wrote.
“So, how did it go?” Jake asked two hours later over lunch. I had brought in my writing journal, nervous and excited for him to read my short blurbs. I felt exhilarated, something I hadn’t experienced in a while.
“I really had a good time. Even though when asked to read my stuff out loud, I wanted to vomit.”
Jake chuckled. “Let me see what you wrote.”
“One of the men in the class said I had nice adjectives.” I wiggled my eyebrows, handing over the notebook.
“Did he now?” Jake asked, looking up. “Do I need to have words with this man who’s admiring my wife’s adjectives?” He said with a smile on his face.
“Another lady said I was a good writer. But…I don’t know.”
After a few minutes, Jake handed back my notebook. “Well, I thought these were really good. And I must say, I find your adjectives quite titillating.”
I snorted. “Yeah, you would say that.”
Jake reached across the table, grabbing my hand. “I know the experience was outside of your comfort zone and I’m proud of you for going, for being vulnerable, even if you felt like throwing up.”
I smiled at him, squeezing his hand back. I liked having him in my corner, someone to encourage me to keep fighting until the final bell.
Later that night, my mind spun with ideas for a story. It had been a long time since I felt genuinely excited about something revolving around me; not my kids, not my husband.
I pressed my nose to the glass, glaring at the annoyingly cute dog who lived down the street, remembering when he tried to steal my ball on the golf course. My growling and snapping jaws put him in his place, but Alpha Jake had yelled at me. I’m still not sure why? I protected my space, my Alpha, and my ball. I’m pretty sure that’s one of my primary roles; the Mighty Protector of Alpha’s balls. No, that doesn’t sound right. Mighty Protector will do.
Well, this Mighty Protector grew weary of watching other dogs play while Mommy read on the couch. Time to commence Operation Happy Mommy.
I barked, a cute, friendly bark, as I looked back at Mommy. She glanced over her shoulder at me and frowned, then went back to reading. I snorted, then trotted over to her, laying my head on her lap, looking up with sad puppy eyes. I had seen Duke do this from time to time and it always worked for him. She scratched my ears in that perfect scratching spot.
“What is it, boy?”
I loped to the front door and whined, wagging my tail, adding an extra butt wiggle. Surely my cuteness and persistence would work. How could Mommy resist the butt wiggle?
Gunner’s bark tore me from my current novel as he peered out the window, ears up, and tail wagging. “It must be four o’clock,” I sighed. The chime of the clock confirmed the Country Club Dog Park now in session. It wasn’t an actual dog park, but that’s what I called it. The space consisted of a grassy hill dotted with rocks, bushes, and trees with a walking path carved down the middle. Backyards surrounded one side of the park while my dead-end street lined the other.
I frowned as Gunner wiggled by the door, looking at me expectantly. The dog needed to learn how to play well with others, how to win friends and influence puppies. His loneliness outweighed my angst regarding strangers, so I grabbed his leash, and together, we walked outside.
I only had two concerns. One, Gunner would bite another dog, and two, the ladies wouldn’t appreciate me encroaching on their little group. Middle school insecurities I should’ve outgrown gurgled in my stomach, but I remembered the feeling of accomplishment after attending the writing classes, successfully stepping outside of my comfort zone and thought, why not try it again?
“Do you mind if we join you?” I asked from my driveway, my voice sounding more confident than I felt. The mom of the golden retriever waved me up while the other three ladies glanced at Gunner and then at their precious babies, worry lining their faces.
Gunner yanked on the leash, his eyes bulging, as we crossed the street and trudged up the hill. My palms were sweating at the thought of interacting with complete strangers. Get ahold of yourself, I thought and mentally listed off all my positive qualities. I’m funny. I’m nice. I got stuck after nice.
Once our feet hit the path, the other dogs charged in, noses armed and ready. Immediately, Gunner’s hackles were up, mouth pulled back in a snarl, his deep growl warning the others to back off.
“Easy boy.” My knuckles turned white as I gripped the leash.
“Easy boy?” She’s one to talk. I can smell the nervousness oozing out of her. And how does she expect me to be easy as these strange dogs crowd around and sniff every part of me? I haven’t been sniffed in ages, and I don’t like it. I thought I was the only one allowed to stick my curious nose in those private places. I hold still; my ears pulled back advertising my lack of composure, which I knew the other dogs could smell. I’m starting to rethink this brilliant plan of mine. Maybe Mommy and I would be better lounging on the couch all day.
But, alas, my plan to get us outside worked, and I needed to see it through. What kind of leader would I be if I backed out now? Plus, that ball stealing, prancing clown mocked me as he hopped around the circle of sniffing dogs. No dignified dog would hop, it’s embarrassing for our species. I growled again as I felt another nose near my backside, my hair standing on end.
One of the ladies suggested I take Gunner off the leash. Saying a quick prayer, I unhooked him. “Please don’t attack or embarrass me,” I pleaded. Tense minutes ticked by, but soon the other dogs raced after a ball giving Gunner some space.
“We’re working on his social skills since we had to put our other dog down,” I announced, not afraid to use the sympathy card of losing Duke. The card worked like a charm on the compassionate dog owners, their sympathy toward Gunner’s plight outweighing their nervousness.
That day I met the founding mothers of the County Club Dog Park. Jill, a young kindergarten teacher, belonged to Murphy, the playful golden retriever who lived down the street.
Janet and her “baby,” Brady, an English cream retriever, donned a beautiful white coat and had a broad head wearing a constant grin.
Barbara owned Gorgeous, the black pointy-eared dog who seemed very interested in Gunner. A white triangle of fur on her chest broke up her black as night coat, and her ears pointed straight up like a Dobermans. Her keen eyes were filled with distrust as she watched every move Gunner made.
Lori was the proud owner of Mia, a ninety-five-pound yellow lab with black beady eyes and a pink tongue flopping out the side of her mouth.
Everyone acted polite and welcoming, as proper country club ladies should. Even their dogs were well behaved. Gunner, on the other hand, couldn’t figure out what role to play; the mean, growling bully, or the playful pup wagging its tail. So, he did both. I kept a wary eye on the dogs, keeping Gunner close, ready to grab him if necessary. I desperately hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.
I growled as Gorgeous, who wasn’t all that gorgeous with her pointy ears, sniffed me again. She must really like me. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to bite her or wrestle with her as my hackles raised while my tail wiggled. What can I say? I’m indecisive.
Brady, the energetic puppy, ignored me completely as he chased a ball. A strong desire to race him almost took over, but Mommy’s nervous scent forced me to stay close.
Murphy, still prancing around like an idiot, kept his distance. Good, he knew who the boss was. I’ll chase him later to make sure he doesn’t forget.
A large female called Mia towered over me; the smell of gnawed bone drifting off of her made my mouth drool. I figured, since she was the biggest, she could be my alpha female. We made an impressive pair; King Gunner and Queen Mia of the grassy hill.
Mommy chattered with the ladies, sounding like a bunch of noisy birds, while the other dogs moseyed off. Finally, the time to explore my surroundings arrived. My nose couldn’t sniff fast enough to gather in all the fresh scents: the dogs and their owners, the sweet, earthy smell of wet grass and fallen leaves. Feeling wild and free, I darted to every spot where another dog had been, marking the territory as mine.
An hour later, I walked into the house with a relieved smile on my face. Jake asked me how it went, and I gave him the thumbs up as Gunner ran through my legs, his considerable pink tongue flopping jovially.
“I told you they wouldn’t bite?” Jake said, giving me a wink.
I rolled my eyes. Day one at the dog park had been a success; the women welcomed me with half-way open arms and Gunner, for the most part, behaved himself. There were no snapping jaws or bloody wounds, and no trips to the emergency veterinary hospital.
My insecurity of meeting new people lessened and I gave myself an internal pat on the back for being vulnerable, again, another hiss of air escaping my comfort zone bubble. I looked forward to tomorrow; a day of writing awaited me followed by human/dog socialization.
The next few weeks at the C.C. Dog Park went reasonably smooth as Gunner learned to play nice. He mostly busied himself with harassing Murphy, intent on chasing the dog all over the park. When he grew tired of his pursuit, he’d pee on every bush and tree, marking his territory.
I got to know the dog’s owners better too, finding that besides having the dog park in common, we also loved reading. Janet hosted a monthly book club and invited me to join. I said yes, but secretly wondered if dogs were invited to the dog park book club. Gunner had become a reliable buffer.
Just a little bit further, I thought, as I chased Murphy, who I’ve now nicknamed, Prancy. This time I will bite that enticingly fluffy tail. Prancy darted around a tree, flying past me in the other direction. Damn, he’s fast. I remember when I could do that, did it to Duke all the time, sprinting past him with the ball in my mouth ⎯ Getting older sucks.
My moment of conquest lay before me as I watched Prancy slip on the wet grass, stumbling over his oversized paws.
Pounce! I landed on his chest with teeth bared, growling my mean growl. Prancy’s brown eyes were as wide as a doggy bowl, sheer terror on his face. I reveled in the satisfaction, my dominance displayed for all to see. Unfortunately, my victory screeched to a halt when I heard the shout of the Mommy Mean Voice. I cower at the Mommy Mean Voice.
“Gunner! NO!” I stared in horror as Gunner tackled Murphy to the ground, jumping onto his chest, making the most vicious growl I’ve ever heard. “Bad dog!” I yanked Gunner off Murphy, who scampered over to Jill, his tail between his legs. Gunner’s ears lay flat as he recoiled into himself, trying to disappear. After confirming there were no puncture wounds on Murphy, I huffed a goodbye to the group and hauled Gunner away.
“Jackass!” I yelled once we got into the back yard, away from listening ears. “You’re in timeout!” I slammed the screen door in Gunner’s face.
I glared at Jake, his eyebrows raised as he watched me storm into the kitchen. “You wouldn’t believe what your dog did?”
“My dog?” He protested.
“He attacked Murphy! He pinned him to the ground like a crazed beast. Now we won’t be welcomed back to the dog park; the stupid dog. And I was just starting to enjoy it.” I surprised myself with the admission. I did enjoy being part of the dog park group and getting to know my neighbors, who were slowly becoming friends.
I didn’t know what a jackass was, but it sure didn’t sound like a compliment. I could smell Mommy’s anger as it boiled out of her. Anger smells different from nervousness, more sour. I didn’t fully understand her rage. Tackling the hopping canine shouldn’t be a crime; I wasn’t going to bite him or anything. He’s just fun to chase and knock down every now and then. Although I must say, the wide-eyed terror on his “adorable” little face had been deliciously satisfying.
I sat at the back door with my ears up, head tilted to the side, looking as cute as possible. I could see Mommy waving her hands and talking really loud to Alpha Jake. He gave me a stern look too, both now glaring at me with their arms crossed; always a bad sign. I circled three times before plopping down on the mat by the door; no amount of cuteness was getting me out of this one.
“Why am I doing this?” I said to Jake, pressing my hands against my stomach. The familiar queasiness was bubbling up inside of me as I rummaged through my purse looking for my keys.
“Going to this conference I signed up for,” I could hear the nervousness in my voice, laced with irritation. Where are my stupid keys?
“It’s an all-day Writers Conference. My writing instructor said I should go, get some pointers, but…”
“But what?” Jake said, dangling my keys in front of me.
I glared at him, his two-word answers grating on my nerves, and snatched the keys, dropping them into my purse. “I just don’t think I’m ready. It’ll probably be a waste of time anyway,” I said, walking out the door, mumbling a goodbye.
Uncertainty slithered through my belly as I waited in the crowded auditorium for the keynote speaker. This notion of becoming an author was barely in the beginning phases, and now I’m attending a writers conference, plunging myself into the deep end of the pool, arms flailing trying to stay afloat. I found myself, once again, outside my comfort zone, more air escaping from my cozy bubble.
Seven long hours later, after listening to every speaker talk about persevering through rejection, I pulled into my garage. I had persevered through the workshops, my lack of experience evident with every interaction. I also endured my first taste of rejection after pitching my story idea to an editor at the conference, who tried to hide the smirk and boredom on his face. I couldn’t get to my car fast enough.
“Persevering through rejection, my ass,” I mumbled, with my head against the steering wheel, feeling defeated and exhausted. Who did I think I was trying to be an author? I didn’t know how to decipher plot and theme or mood and tone. And navigating the daunting world of editors and publishers seemed like a nightmare.
Doubts and negativity flooded through me as tears streamed down my face, the desire to write being washed away. “Who needs a purpose anyway?”
Over the next few days, the emotional, identity-crisis, rollercoaster turned into a wrestling match of conflicting feelings. Insecurity and fear battled with longing and creativity.
I held my head in my hands after a recent bout of wrestling, having stared at a blank, white screen for what seemed like hours. Gunner laid by my feet, his gentle snores filling the silence. The couch shifted next to me, and I glanced at Jake out of the corner of my eye.
“Babe,” he started, staring straight ahead. “Do you enjoy writing?” I raised my head, thinking about my answer. “Does it make you happy?”
“Yes,” I said without any hesitation.
He nodded his head, “Then don’t worry about what other’s think or the challenges ahead. Do what you love.” He stood and kissed my head, giving Gunner a scratch behind the ears.
I stared after him and pondered those two simple questions. I realized that writing filled a void inside of me, and with every word, sentence, and paragraph, I discovered more about myself, my new purpose slowly being unveiled. I smiled at Gunner, his yellow eyes meeting mine. “Well, alright, then.”
Mommy is smiling again, and I think my timeout is over as she walks toward me with my leash, telling me to stay and sit. I wasn’t sure which to do first, stay or sit, so I did neither. Instead, I spun in circles as she tried to clip the leash to my collar.
“Knock it off, Gunner,” Mommy said. Again, I could smell her nerves, a slightly sweet smell that burned my nose. Why would she be nervous? “You better be nice,” she mumbled as I heard the closing click of the leash. My body quivered with anticipation and I let out a high-pitched bark, ready to take my place as alpha, excited to run and play and get a delicious whiff of my beautiful Queen Mia.
The door opened and I lunged forward, immediately choking myself, panting with my tongue flopping out the side of my mouth. The freshly mowed grass beckoned me forward, and I strained against the leash as Gorgeous, the Not Gorgeous, glared at me. Prancy hopped after Brady, both attempting to fetch a ball. Mia wagged her tail; of course, she was obviously happy to see me. I finally felt the release of the leash, air rushing back into my lungs, as I bolted up the hill.
Prancy’s fluffy tail mocked me, and by god, this time it would be mine. I sprinted after him, barking, as he dodged around bushes and jumped over small boulders. I loved chasing him! My mouth snapped shut, and I heard a yip. A small tuft of fur stuck in my teeth as I trotted back to Mommy. Mission accomplished.
“Ugh, there he goes again.” I sighed, watching Gunner chase Murphy. “I’m sorry, Jill, my dog is such a bully.”
Jill laughed. “No worries. Murphy needs a good run anyway. Plus, I think he likes Gunner chasing him.”
“I certainly hope so.” I winced when I heard Murphy yelp.
The adage that dog owners act like their hairy companions is true, at least with this group. Jill and Murphy are both easy-going, carefree, and friendly. Brady and his mom, Janet, are high energy with one continually chasing the yellow ball while the other talks a mile a minute, both in perpetual motion. By the looks of Gorgeous and her owner Barb, they’ve seen their fair share of struggles with wariness in their eyes, not wanting anyone to get too close. Both Lori and Mia are tall, blond, and neither put up with guff from dog or human, which left Gunner and me. Unfamiliar surroundings and people (or dogs) fill us with unease, causing our hackles to rise, but deep down, we want to be accepted and have a little fun. Until the dog park, I never realized just how similar we were.
The Country Club Dog Park has grown from four dogs to seven; another golden retriever, a large black poodle, and a Basset hound have joined the mix. With every addition, Gunner lets the new dogs know who’s boss, but he’s no longer the black sheep or the lone trouble maker. I’ve experienced some guilty pleasure when the other dogs act naughty. Gorgeous despises the black poodle, sprinting after him as he chases a ball, snapping and growling the whole way. Mia and the other retriever, Bailey, have scuffled a few times too.
Gunner’s social skills have improved drastically, and even though this dog dictates my afternoons, I’ve enjoyed getting to know my neighbors and watch the dogs play. I write every day, learning as I go, and embrace the title of “retired stay-at-home mom/wannabe author.” I will always cherish raising my boys, but I am excited for the next phase of my journey, even if it is scary, brimming with vulnerability (and at times the need to vomit). I’ve come to realize a comfortable, non-scary life is a life not well explored. Doubts and rejection, laced with salty tears, are all part of a growing process to become more, and I no longer fear the empty nest or the quiet halls. I found my new identity and purpose, with the help of a loyal four-legged friend, in the Country Club Dog Park of life.