Canine Club

The real action happens at ground level at Miko's Corner Playground

Football-sized pugs trot along in cadence before veering off toward a suddenly alarmed Pekingese. Other dogs race around like loose atoms, lapping at outstretched hands, watering trees and merrily sniffing one another's rollicking behinds.

Welcome to Miko's Corner Playground, a pooch Xanadu in Reid Park with its own blooming social set. These two acres of four-legged fun were opened in 2007, named in memory of Miko, a police dog who leapt from a bridge while chasing a crook.

Today's scene includes a weekly meeting of the Pug Society. Begun as an effort to find homes for stray pugs, the group's gatherings have become a regular Saturday ritual. This explains the passel of squat-nosed fellows now snorting their way around the park's east end.

Jason Abbott and his wife, Elizabeth, are both society members. "Pugs have fantastic personalities," says Jason, who works for the Army National Guard. "We love them for their quirks. They are great lap dogs. They will stay by your side. Then there are the sounds they make—the wheezing. I can be at one end of my house, and I can tell where my dog is, because I can hear him breathing."

Barbara Lasquete is another member, although she lacks a pug. Instead, her hands are full with Leo the shih tzu, and her 9-month-old human child, Michael. Lasquete was a Raytheon engineer before becoming a mom, and explains that she and her hubby "are just on the edge" of the Pug Society, as opposed to being knee-deep in the frolicking wheezers. This could be due to Leo. "But while we're not pug," she says, "they let anybody join. They have 30 or 40 members, and they meet here every Saturday, religiously."

On most weekends, more than 50 canines might be cruising this small-dog park, with another 50 across the fence in the big-dog park. The entire enclosure is leash-free, which allows most dogs a rare whiff of freedom. With that freedom comes a few rules of etiquette, unspoken or otherwise. They include keeping close tabs on children, to avoid bites. And food is generally verboten, given the abundance of sensitive snouts. You're also expected to clean up after Fido; long-handled poop scoops are clustered near the entrance, expressly for this purpose.

There are, of course, the other problems incumbent to human-canine endeavors, such as snarky dogs, obstinate owners and endlessly trampled grass. Just ask Sharon Boose and Helen Buglewicz. They're with the Reid Park K-9 Volunteers, a group that rides herd on Miko's Corner.

You don't want to mess with these monitors; Boose was Pennsylvania's first female police chief, before arriving in Tucson and starting K-9. (See TQ&A, Nov. 29, 2007.) "I've told people they can't bring their dogs in here because they're aggressive," she says. "It depends on the dog. If we know the dog and the people, you're all right. But if your dog shows signs of aggression—and mostly, it's pit bulls—then we don't want them in here."

Buglewicz claims that the park staff can also be a pain. This became obvious, she says, when K-9 volunteers planted grass. "But then (the groundskeepers) put in their own seed and their own fertilizer. They killed our grass, and the birds ate all their seed."

Visitors also learn about the rather delicate dynamics between the big-dog park and its adjoining small-dog counterpart. Here, the precise delineation between "big" and "small" can be rather tenuous, and smoldering tiffs often erupt when big dogs appear in the small-dog habitat. Rarely, however, does the reverse occur—although some small dogs take particular pleasure in barking ferociously through the fence at their larger brethren, knowing they won't be eaten in return.

Among small-dog aficionados, it's also widely contended, albeit somewhat diffidently, that the big-dog park is a touch macho. But that idea is dismissed by big-dog regulars such as George Chamberlain, a city bus driver who sits quietly with his German shepherd, Kaiser. Chamberlain says there's no ill will between little dog and big. "I've been coming here off and on for years. But my wife has a little dog, and she goes over there all the time."

Each side also boasts its core habitués. At the small-dog park, you'll generally find folks clustered around the picnic table under a huge shade tree. They include Sallie Blake, a judge pro tem with the Pima County Justice Court, and her English bull terrier, Willie. Blake sits next to school teacher George Acuña and his curly mix, Barnushka. "The reason I come is that dogs need to be dogs," Blake says. "And you have to let them act like dogs. They live inside, in such an unnatural environment for them."

Acuña won't argue with that. A big dog he rescued is quickly turning his home to shreds, and his life upside down. "First, he hid my damn keys," Acuña says. "I had to buy one for my mailbox. That cost $40. Then he got at my clothes that were drying and tore up all my socks. And when we go for a walk, he's the one who takes me."

Then there's the other extreme, embodied in Perrita, a sweet-but-shy Chihuahua mix owned by Phil Smith. "I'm working on my dog," Smith says, "trying to socialize her." But that's an uphill battle. Perrita cowers against the crowd circled around. "This is not her at her best," he says. "There are too many dogs here for her."

Meanwhile, Sam Blackburn is keeping tabs on her Lhasa apso, her shih tzu with a punk cut named Sid Vicious, and Sadie, whom Blackburn describes as "half-miniature schnauzer and half pinscher. So she's a 'schninscher.'"

That gets as hearty laugh at the table, as the summer sun begins to dominate this bi-species refuge in the middle of town. The growing heat prompts Lasquete to cover Michael's head, as she reins in her shih tzu. Then she laughs, too.

According to Lasquete, this place is as much about shooting the breeze as scooping the poop. "Oh, everyone will tell you it's all about the dogs," she says. "But ..."