Born Leashed

Notes from the underhound.

I used to think people like us were crazy. We, the morning crowd at Reid Park's dog park, have quite possibly gone over that fire-hydrant-red line between animal lover and full-blown animal crackpot.

"It begins when you leave the radio on for your dog when you are away," says Grace, owner of a cockapoo by the name of Cupcake.

Ellen, who owns a fetching chocolate Labrador named Snickers, concurs that she leaves the TV on Animal Planet when she is away. This makes me wonder if I should get the deluxe room with cable for my pup if I ever need to kennel him at PetsHotel Plus.

The proud owner of a guinea pig, two cats and a turtle, Ellen is currently hooked on Animal Planet's pet psychic. Though she laughs it off, there is a tone of sincerity in her voice when she says, "Watch a whole show and you'll be a believer."

I've just recently started learning everyone's name. I've been coming to the dog park for maybe a month now, but we primarily know each other by four-legged friend. Amy, aka Lula's owner, is thinking of getting a shirt baring a picture of her husky so that she--the owner of a remarkable squirrel-stalking pooch--can be more easily recognized when her dog is not near.

Though we laugh about it, these pets have saved us with the joy they've brought into our lives.

Grace says the dog park is good for her husband Bill, who suffers from valley fever/meningitis and has gone through two bouts of cancer. "He's had a heck of a time of it for the past two years," she says. "That's why we got Cupcake. He was on death's door at the time and couldn't do anything. Just lay in the bed and just had strength enough to move his hands. I got her as a little puppy and put her on the bed next to [Bill] and slowly he got his mobility back."

As Grace tells her story, I can now see why they are willing to take the 40-minute round-trip drive every morning to Reid Park. When I suggested they ignore Cupcake so as to allow themselves the luxury of sleeping in one Saturday morning, Bill responded: "And ignore your child?"

How much does Bill love Cupcake? Grace says he wants to plan a party to celebrate her second birthday in November.

We all laugh, but then admit we're planning birthday parties for our dogs as well.

Karen picks up her lhasa apso mix, Little John, and strokes his fur. She says she comes to the dog park "whenever I feel bored. I like to dog watch. It's a community."

"You wouldn't get into the car with your dog and come to the dog park if you weren't an animal lover," says Ellen. "24-7 Snickers is following my daughter and me around watching us. When we come to the dog park, Snickers is doing his own thing and I love seeing that. This is his tribe."

"It's a shame people aren't this way," says Bill, in between throwing balls for Cupcake and the other dogs to fetch. "You got a big dog and a little dog wrestling and sometimes the big dog wins and sometimes the little dog wins. But it isn't the idea of winning that's important. It's the idea that they're playing. And they don't care whether the other dog has a red coat or a black coat." Bill originally came to the dog park at Reid Park because the other park he visited didn't have grass while Reid Park did. "And you got nice people here," he says. "Really nice people. Everybody seems to pitch in."

Mark and his wife also find the dog park therapeutic. His wife, who this year suffered her seventh stroke, frequently watches their three mutts play from a bench each morning as Mark stays in the field to do any necessary cleaning up. "She never was able to have kids, so these are her kids," says Mark.

The dog park doesn't just fulfill human needs. There are obvious benefits for the dogs, such as socialization and exercise.

"When Little John sees other dogs now, he doesn't pull as much and he's definitely not as aggressive," says Karen.

Aaron doesn't feel that walking Trystan, his Australian cattle dog, would give the canine enough exercise. "We have a yard, but he doesn't get nearly the exercise by himself that he gets here," says Aaron, who adds that his puppy's workout also helps curb what he refers to as "potential behavioral problems."

Whatever reason people bring their dogs to Reid Park, one thing is certain: the off-leash space is well appreciated. This is apparent to Jim Conroy, superintendent of Reid Park, who sees the dog park's use as an unequivocal success. But the space, which was converted from a former little league field, was never planned to be there. A therapeutic aquatics area is being constructed across the way. Once the construction is completed "we will have to re-evaluate" the dog park to see if traffic to the aquatic center proves hazardous to dog or man, in which case the dog park may need to be moved, says Conroy.

That's why this dog park is referred to as an "interim off-leash area." Other off-leash areas can also be found in Tucson's Christopher Columbus Park, as well as at Pima County's McDonald Park, northeast of Tucson.

As for Günter, my mixed breed boxer that I picked up at the Southern Arizona Humane Society three months ago, his birthday is coming up this month. I've already started on the invitations.

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