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The local dog park has a big secret

Sofia Shultz

The pandemic got me to explore new places on Cape Cod.

Trails. Roadways. The dog park.

Yes, I’m one of the crazy people who decided that the answer to being trapped in the house by COVID-19 was to get a high-energy puppy. We can talk about that decision later, but trust me: There’s only so much you can take with a puppy before you need a place to just sit and watch him zoom around.

Hence, the dog park.

There are about a half dozen dog parks on the Cape and they have similar layouts: two or three fenced-in areas ranging from the size of a small backyard to half an acre. Enclosures are designated for small or large dogs and for those that don’t play well with others. Some parks are grass or turf, but mine has gravel, which turns into small missiles if there’s a good chase screaming by. There are a few benches but seemingly never enough shade. There’s also a picnic table, although you would have to be insane to bring food to a dog park. That said, I once watched a woman eat a hamburger and fries there without losing one fry. Perhaps all things are possible.

The parks are managed mostly by volunteers (god bless them) and self-policed. I have yet to see a serious dog fight, and usually, if a dog or its owner acts up, someone will suggest a solution or send them elsewhere.

One dog owner told me that she thought supervising the dogs at the park was like watching paint dry. But I like not being able to do anything else. Sure I glance at my phone occasionally, but mostly for 45 minutes, I’m just in the moment. You know, like a dog.

And here’s the dog park’s big secret: It’s for people.

When I go at my usual time, I’m likely to see the usual people in the big-dog section — the teacher with the beagle mix; the dental hygienist with the two Pyrenees; the retiree with the big goofy golden. Sometimes we sit silently and watch the dog action, poised to scoop poop or retrieve a ball. But soon a discussion opens with a story about some outrageous dog behavior or where to buy dog bones, and then it wanders off into topics like broken cell phones or grandchildren or once, edibles. On the small dog side, a group of owners gather at the same time every day, even in light rain or the cold. One older gentleman brings his own folding chair. The dog park was the perfect place during COVID restrictions — social and outdoors. There were days last winter I went just to hear the sound of my own voice say something besides “heel” or “down.”

The park attracts a Cape microcosm: workers, retirees, tourists, washashores, boomerang 20-somethings, seasonal visitors, and pandemic refugees who bought houses in the last year and are trying to decide whether to stay or move back to the city. They come to exercise their dogs but seem to hang around because of the human connection. There are even people who come to the dog park and don’t bring a dog — they just come to watch the others. Given the smells of the dog park on a hot July day, this tells me we are really desperate for socialization.

Other countries have parks, markets, or pubs where people gather to seek companionship. In South America, there’s always a plaza where people of all ages hang out in the evening, chatting or sipping something or people watching. Kids kick a ball around; old men play cards while their wives knit; teens canoodle and giggle in the corners. If you’re alone, you can wander down and find some company, not sit at home and binge yet another TV show.

The Cape has few places like that encourage us to reach out to each other but I wish we did. Perhaps it would encourage us to bark less and wag more.