By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Around the time the sun first peeks over the eastern horizon, Jim Christian loads his three black dogs into his silver Honda and drives a few miles to the Mockingbird Point Dog Park, a fenced enclosure of dirt and grass at the northwest tip of White Rock Lake. He's alone on this chilly March morning; even most die-hards don't start coming until 7:30 or 8. So Christian unloads his dogs and takes them for a short walk along the lake.
After the walk, he lets them enter the first gate to the big-dog park—there's a separate one for small dogs—and takes off their leashes. Except for its periphery, most of the big-dog park is bare dirt: a dust bowl when it's dry; a mud pit when it rains. Christian opens the second gate, and his dogs bound into the center of the park, chasing each other around wooden picnic tables and sniffing the perimeter. Luke, a mix of black Lab and greyhound, busily marks the fence posts, securing his territory. Luke's harem includes Lucy Jane, a curmudgeonly old Rottweiler mix, and Journey, a mutt who's the smartest and sweetest of the bunch.
It's been three years since Christian, an art dealer, first started coming here. "I ended up with three restless rescue dogs who needed to get some kinks worked out of them," recalls Christian, whose search for something bigger than his own backyard led him to the dog park. The fringe benefit to letting his dogs run and play was the social gathering of humans that Christian now calls his "country club," a group of dog park regulars who meet each morning at the big-dog park. It's Christian's self-appointed position at the big-dog park to keep the peace—and the conversation—going.
Today, he braces himself from the cold by cinching up his khaki-colored ski coat and pulling down his striped knit hat. He wears the same gray fleece pants almost every morning—most of the dog park regulars wear their own uniform, and one woman even keeps hers outside the house because of the smell. Christian knows most of the regular dogs' names and their corresponding characteristics—Huckleberry's "a dog park legend and kleptomaniac"; Wilbur the bulldog loves to attack a stream of water when someone turns on the hose—but it's the morning regulars he watches out for, and by 7:45 two of them—Bill Wilcox, a big-boned software engineer, and Stephen Foster, a former bank employee in red flannel—arrive.
They arrange several plastic chairs in a haphazard circle around Christian, and the growing mass of dogs fight playfully in the center.
"This is Prince," Wilcox says, gesturing toward a chilled-out black dog with white feet. The name, he explains, is fallout from his daughter's princess phase. "Now he's the dog known as Prince," he jokes.
Foster's dog is Smokey, a Schipperke-Lab mix he found in his front yard with a gunshot wound.
"My dogs are pedigreed," Christian says with a mischievous grin. "Luke is a Tibetan temple hound. You can look that up. There are only nine in the U.S."
The other men laugh.
"Journey is an Ibiza humping hound"—and the constant object of Luke's affections—"and Lucy is an American domestic short-legged Rotten-weiler," Christian deadpans as Lucy Jane snarls at a chocolate Lab who's come out of nowhere to join the mix.
"Tom," says Christian, connecting the Lab to her owner. "His name is Thomas William Tinkle: Tom will tinkle." It's a well-worn joke, and when Tinkle hears it, he shakes his head. "And this," Tinkle says, pointing to the Lab, "is Wonky Bitch."
"Everyone beats up on her," Christian observes. "She comes in clean and leaves dirty." Indeed, she's currently being chased by the rest of the pack; before long, she'll be on her back in the dust, the rest of the dogs snapping at her legs and haunches.
The men watch for a moment, then turn their attention to the outrage of the day: a bike race that has taken over Peavy Road, blocking access to part of the lake. There's a constant competition between cyclists and dog park users for Saturday parking spaces at Mockingbird Point. "We have terrible nerve, using the roads for transportation," Christian says.
The conversation begins to take on a frat-like quality—and then Lee Pelton-Shapiro arrives with her three dogs, two of whom are German shepherds. Both bark excitedly, one of them clambering onto the laps of other owners.
"Fritz!" Pelton-Shapiro yells, trying in vain to calm him down. "That's Fritz," she explains as she takes a seat. "His real name is Dumbshit." The other shepherd, Wolfie, is older and better-behaved; Pelton-Shapiro's third is Sugar, a white ball of curled fur with black eyes. His two main interests appear to be getting as muddy as possible and indiscriminately humping all other dogs. Lucy Jane, meanwhile, is holding down the fort at Christian's feet, growling at anything, human or canine, that comes close to her.
"Lucy's keeping watch," Tinkle says, looking as the half-blind dog barks at nothing in particular. "She's like the...the hall monitor."