By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"There were hookups; there were friendships formed," Tinning recalls. "It was just a great sense of community."
Unleashed has already seen couples on first dates at the dog park, and the Acrees say they plan to host monthly singles and couples mixers for dog owners. Encouraging human socialization as well as pet interaction is part of the logic behind the café and restaurant too.
At a dog park, says Kelly Acree, "There's a big social element—a chance to talk and meet new people because you have common ground. It's easy to talk—'What kind of dog do you have? Oh, he's so cute!'—and suddenly you've struck up a conversation with someone you would never have talked to otherwise."
That's pretty much how dog park regulars form their circle. What's routine for dogs—playing with a ball, sniffing rear ends—can be, for owners, an ice breaker to talk about breeds, ages, behavior or the dog park itself. When a dog repeatedly mounts another dog—behavior Arrington says is more about dominance than sex—the right thing to do would be to walk over to the other dog's owner and apologize.
On Saturday mornings around 8:30 a.m., there is a gathering parallel to the big-dog park—the circling-up of green plastic chairs, the dog-side chats, the excessive energy of enthusiastic dogs—which happens at Mockingbird Point's small-dog park. The regulars file in, dragging their chairs over to a designated area at one end of the park. The first ones there—Kelly Christensen, an outgoing, auburn-haired woman with an apricot-colored mutt named Sweetie Pie; Paige Mims, the owner of two rambunctious 18-month-old pups named Jack and Jill; Ron Comte, an unassuming, blue-eyed man in baggy jeans, with his two rescued mutts—form the core of the circle, while others come and go over the next couple of hours.
The conversation is lively. Most of these people have been seeing each other once or twice a week for years, and they're comfortable enough to tease and be teased. Other than a surreptitious "war" over the green plastic chairs—people in the small-dog park blame those in the big-dog park for taking too many green plastic chairs, and vice versa—there's little animosity. Christensen takes Sweetie Pie over to the big-dog park some mornings, and she says Jim Christian always welcomes her. But it's not the same as being here, in what Christensen calls her "therapy circle."
"I'm unemployed, and they support me and believe in me. They make jokes about my being unemployed." She pauses. "There's one woman, though, who comes, and she'll just sit there and complain for two hours! When we see her coming, we tighten the circle. [But] we're not mean. There are no mean cliques here." That social groups do exist, though, she won't deny.
"We're a very diverse group," Christensen continues. "If you had to say who was the patriarch of this park, it would be Ron," she says, pausing. "And Jerry," she adds—that's Jerry Posten, owner of the hyper, wire-haired Twiggy—"but Ron's more responsible, because if a pretty woman comes in here, Jerry will jump the fence to talk to her."
Today, though, there's not much action. Comte seems relaxed; Posten comments about how having an indoor dog park defeats the purpose of dog parks—"The whole idea behind a dog park is to get out and get a little dirty."
"Oh, now it's going to get interesting," Christensen says, eyeing the parking lot. A white pickup truck, painted with black spots to look like a dairy cow, has just driven in. The driver, a petite woman with a thick blond ponytail, is leaning out the window and working the horn, which issues a loud "Moo."
"That's Andie," Christensen says, as if the name explains everything. Andie Comini, she means—one of the dog park founders and a true dog park personality—who makes a dramatic entrance with her three well-groomed, black-and-white Japanese chins, PooChiNi, RooBella and BooKoozzo. When Comini walks up to join the circle, Comte sticks out a hand and introduces himself.
"Screw you," Comini mutters, grinning. She looks around at the group, teasing people for looking hung-over and weighing in on the plastic chair war. (She used to buy white plastic chairs for the dog park, she says, but claims that when she left them here, the city took them away because it thought they looked trashy. Now she buys the harder-to-find green ones—and marks them with three brown spots so the big-dog park people won't steal them.)
Meanwhile, Christensen's describing an "alpha rag," a training toy that she covers with her "scent" by rubbing her hands on it and then throws gently at her dog to show Sweetie Pie who's dominant.
"She's been using this with men at bars too," Comini interjects. "It works!" Christensen dismisses her with a laugh.
It's getting later, and the crowd is changing from a few quiet park-goers to families with children and puppies. Two very young, still-clumsy yellow Lab puppies, one named Marley, elicit a series of eye rolls from the circle because it's such a blatant reference to the recent movie, Marley and Me. Chihuahuas and Pomeranians are starting to outnumber the mutts, and as the sun climbs higher, the morning regulars start to filter out of the park.