Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park will make you swear author Matthew Gilbert hangs out at your dog park.
TV critic for the Boston Globe, Gilbert liked his relationships at arm’s length and behind a screen. But marriage to husband Tom, a dog lover, and the acquisition of Toby, a yellow lab puppy, nudged him into the off-leash area of Amory Park with its subculture of eccentrics, rebels, babblers and big-hearted people and their engaging dogs.
Just like jury duty or Kaiser health education classes, dog parks throw us among people we never would have come close to in our regular lives.
Gilbert, fresh from sessions with a rigorous trainer, arrived at the dog park with Toby filled with visions of owning the perfect dog. He fought a losing battle to get Toby to sit while he took off the leash. He self-consciously doused his hands with Purell after picking up poop. He threw the balls that Toby loved to fetch so awkwardly the other dog owners called him “Big Bird.”
One of his first encounters in the park was with a man wearing a cowboy hat with “a hint of patchouli in the air around him, mixed with eau de fall mud and the smoke from his Camel Light.” His dog is a stiff, 14-year-old, Lab-ridgeback mix named Maya. Without introducing himself, the man told Gilbert about his messy divorce, his move to a studio apartment and the saving grace of his 14-year-old Lab-ridgeback mix named Maya.
Talking to another park regular, Margo, with her flaming red hair and dangling ball chucker, Gilbert mentions the singer Madonna. Margo,as oblivious to pop culture as Gilbert is steeped in it, thinks he’s talking about Jesus’ mother.
“Walking the Amory periphery, I began to feel like an early-twentieth-century psychiatrist touring a grassy sanatorium in the midst of making a variety of diagnoses. Strange behavior seemed to pill out whenever I ran into someone at the park,” Gilbert wrote.
Whatever comfort zone Gilbert might have wanted to maintain was shattered by Toby’s enthusiasm for the other dogs — Stewie, a Burnese mountain dog; Chester, a ridgeback mix; and Bertha, a golden retriever. While the older dogs tutor Toby in dog graces and manners, the owners connect and build relationships.
As the seasons change, Gilbert’s early judgments of his fellow dog owners shift as well. He learns that Drew, a buff player who is always getting into or backing out of relationships with women, can feel heart-break when Chester suddenly dies. A woman Gilbert nicknamed Cell Phone Lady regularly came to the park with her two Westies. Always on her cell phone, Gilbert thinks she ignores her dogs — until he learns that she manages a halfway home for intellectually challenged youths nearby and comes to the park during her lunch for a few minutes of respite. Her calls are from the counselors at the house about issues that come up in her absence.
He meets Lucinda, owner of a Great Dane named Nellie, who lost her young daughter to cancer a few years earlier. Her dog park acquaintances rallied around her, walking her dog, bringing food and being available if she needed them.
“This book isn’t about an instant life transformation thanks to a dog so much as it’s about those great daily tugs of the leash, how visits to a place can accumulate into an adventure . . .” Gilbert wrote. “It’s a portrait of savoring ordinary life. Ultimately, I would let go of Toby’s leash at the park, and I’d let go.”
Over the course of the year, inevitable losses occurred. Hayley and Stewie, the Bernese mountain dog, leave Boston. Drew’s Chester dies suddenly at age eight. Bertha is diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Reminders of what all dog lovers know, the final good-bye is inescapable.
But, Gilbert writes, “You have to force yourself to trade feelings of dread for the energy of the present tense, the panting dog who you can so easily make so intensely happy.”
For Gilbert, whose father had died when he was three and who had resisted attachments because the threat of loss loomed so large, that was a life-changing lesson.