Unleash the Hounds!

Some people love dogs, some not so much. Some people fear dogs, some simply don’t understand dog behavior well enough to enjoy interacting with them. And some people–good people, mind you–get just plain icky over their canine life companions. But many Iowa Citians own and enjoy their dogs, and Iowa City, with its strict enforcement of leash laws, is sometimes not so hospitable. The Thornberry Dog Park, which has been open since 2006, has been a real boon to dogs and their owners, because it gives dogs something they’re otherwise discouraged from doing–interacting with other dogs and strange humans, and most of all, running loose.

I myself came to dog ownership late, and not as a conscious decision. My wife has brought home two dogs and presented them to me as a fait accompli. Later my son adopted a basset/beagle, and due to overseas internships, he’s become my dog as well. Always a know-it-all, I have avoided reading books on dog care or watching dog shows on cable television. So whatever information I present here is stuff I’ve observed, untainted by actual science.

Last year I began making regular outings to the dog park, mostly to give the eldest of our pack, an Australian Shephard named Marge, a chance for some sustained exercise. Going on 14 years old, Marge had settled into a sort of throw-rug lifestyle, and it seemed like her joints were seizing up. A mile or two every few days, I thought, might help keep her limber as much as those famous doggie goofballs, Rimadyl. Our other dogs, Emma The Psycho American Eskimo Dog, and the aforementioned basset/beagle, Bear, were prime candidates for the ‘wear them out’ kind of constitutional excursion.

The 14 acres of the park comprise mostly three fenced-in fields of trimmed grass, with a few benches and shelters for bipeds. The site is attractive and peaceful, hemmed in by woods and a golf course, and bordered by the riverside bicycle and pedestrian paths. The Iowa River is visible through a few gaps in the trees, and beyond it, the Highway 6/First Avenue intersection. At dusk you can just see the big red mortar-and-pestle of Walgreens.

It’s a pretty blank spot on its own, like the back nine of a golf park. What makes it an interesting place to visit is the dogs. Big dogs — there’s a mastiff who visits regularly, who looks like it could take on a small car and win the battle. There are also small puppies and teacup lap dogs, though they tend to stay in the field reserved for small dogs. There’s also an area called “Emma’s Run,” which is meant for exercising and training of dogs without the distraction of the roiling scrum of the main field. Owners of dogs that don’t play well with others are also encouraged to use that area.

But the largest, central area is the main attraction. That’s the place where the most dogs and people hang out. There’s a fair amount of ball throwing and retrieving, and staid walks around the roughly oval path, but the real fun is the unstructured interaction between the dogs.

I say “unstructured” in the sense that the humans aren’t in charge. Canine social interaction is actually highly structured. Dogs are pack animals who will establish a dominance hierarchy if kept in groups. They’re also fiercely territorial, as any mail carrier will tell you. Since the dog park is neutral territory, and dogs are not together long enough to form dominance relationships, a fascinating group dynamic takes over. There’s a formal greeting, with the famous ritual butt and genital sniffing. Just as important, according to my observation, is the direct nose to nose sniffing and contact. A dog’s nose is its most sophisticated and sensitive sense organ, and I can only speculate what information dogs gather with it in these initial meetings: mood, state of health, fertility, recent meals, and most important, identity. Emma The Psycho American Eskimo instantly picked out a neighbor’s white Samoyed named Joey out of a group of similar dogs, and challenged Joey most vociferously, growling, barking and snapping at his feet. Emma, who weighs about 16 pounds, is convinced she runs things on our block, and the Samoyed is scared to death of her after a few encounters. I have to think that Emma ID’ed Joey by smell, and in much less time than it would take me to recognize the dog by sight.

There’s remarkably little conflict, though, in the normal course of events. Dogs that don’t want to play make their feelings known with growls and bared teeth, but things rarely escalate to a fight. Dogs that do wish to play soon find like-minded pals. Dog play is a lighter version of the dominance battles that go on in a feral pack. There’s the challenge, where a dog will rush up to the edge of another’s personal space, front legs planted straight, with head-on eye contact. If a dog doesn’t want to play, it will break gaze and walk away. If they do, though, it’s on! The main objective seems to be to get up over the other dog’s neck, and either mount the other for a quick hump, or knock the other down on it’s back. Since both dogs are trying to accomplish the same thing simultaneously, whilst avoiding being themselves subdued, it turns into a doggy form of Capoeira, with lunges, feints, and occasional mad zigzag chases. One or the other dog will eventually flop on it’s back baring it’s neck in submission, but it’s a momentary thing–they’ll jump up and be at it again in a flash. Sometimes I’ve witnessed mutual simultaneous surrender, with both dogs on their backs, head to head, still snapping and mouthing each others’ snouts.

Just as interesting is to observe the humans who brought the dogs. Dogs will tolerate being leashed but can’t be said to enjoy it; the human at the other end of the leash have a similar grudging acceptance of the relationship. Some dogs need leashing, but in Iowa City you can be fined for having a dog off leash, no matter how well behaved. Freeing the dog of the leash at the park frees the owner as well, and it seems universal that everyone’s blood pressure goes down at the park. The dogs finally have what they need to stay happy and sane–interaction with other dogs, exercise, and the chance to sniff a few hundred different spots on the ground for animal traces. And a happy dog a happy dog owner makes. Just as the dogs have their greeting rituals, the humans have theirs. What I’ve experienced is a curiously chatty anonymity–no one has volunteered their name or made any sort of formal greeting, but everyone seems to like to talk–almost exclusively about dogs. I love my dogs, but I’ve spoken to people who seem to have deeper emotional relationships with their pets than they do with other people. And that’s not a criticism, either. Whatever gets you throughout the night is okay by me, and people have been getting through the night with the help of dogs pretty much since they first got frontal lobes and stopped living in trees.

It seems to me that dogs domesticated humans as much as humans domesticated dogs–it is perhaps the most profound interspecific symbiosis we have, with cats and horses a distant second. One hundred thousand years ago when having dogs gave early humans a survival edge (and vice versa), I have to think that almost from the start, the mutual emotional bond was formed as well. You can talk about the subtleties of human-on-human love, but the fact remains–when you come home, no one will ever greet you with as much whole-hearted love and joy as a dog.

If you have a dog and want to visit the Thornberry Dog Park, you’re supposed to pay $25 a year for a tag (either at the Robert Lee Recreat
n Center on Gilbert & Burlington, or the Animal Care and Adoption Center, temporarily housed at the Johnson County Fairgrounds). Though if you just want to visit, there don’t seem to be any steely-eyed Dog Park police there to check your tags. But it is a unique corner of Iowa City, a great place for an easy walk and observation of behavior, both human and canine. So for the price of a sack of IAMS dog food, you can become part of the Dog/Human festival that happens every day at the park.