Monday, July 25, 2011

Your Dog's So Cute! What's His Name?

Lindley at Pt. Isabel Shoreline Dog Park in El Cerrito, CA, July 2011
Anybody with a dog is welcome at a dog park, assuming the dog meets the requirements of the park. In any case, very few people will tell a dog owner to leave a dog park, even if they think the dog is too small, too young, too aggressive or too shy, at least not until they have given the dog a chance to run around and see if he fits in. The thing about dog parks, however, is that there is nothing to do there, nor is there really supposed to be. A good dog park is conceived with the dog in mind, and the humans are supposed to simply monitor the situation, dispensing the occasional treat or water and generally letting the dogs amuse themselves. All the humans can do is stand around and talk, so that's mostly what we do. Right there, that's something odd about a dog park: it's a 21st century place where we go planning to talk with random strangers for an undetermined amount of time.

The trickiest hurdle to navigate at any dog park is starting human conversation. It's also the area where I have seen the greatest regional differences. In California, when someone comes into a dog park, and they come within talking distance of you--say they sit down on a bench a few feet away--it's important to acknowledge them, but generally you don't say anything. In New Jersey, everybody was typically very talkative in their introductions, but ultimately said nothing of any real importance. In Chapel Hill, despite being a college town full of Northerners, the Southern tendency to introduce yourself by name and ask the other person's name is still pretty common.

Now, even in California, it's usually easy enough to start a conversation. The traditional method is to praise the other person's dog for being cute (or handsome, or a fast runner, or something) and ask its name. From the person's answer you could gauge the other person's willingness to talk. Northern California is a kind of wary place, and not everyone always wants to explain themselves. Most people at a dog park are usually willing to give their dog's name, however--not that it couldn't be figured out eventually--and you can usually ask a few other standard questions about the dog--what breed is it, was it a rescue, where the name came from, how old, and so on.

Most people at a dog park are willing to share the basic facts of their dog, but in California that is often where the conversation ended. It's perfectly acceptable to give a few polite answers and not follow up on the questions. Then the dogs do something to distract you, so it exempts you from carrying on the conversation. Having established that you are civil, you aren't actually required to talk any further. I grew up in Northern California, so this polite distance seemed normal to me, but when I went to dog parks in other parts of the country I found out how distinct this actually was.

In New Jersey, people were generally talkative and responsive, but if you thought carefully about their answers they gave away surprisingly little answer. There was an attractive young woman at my New Jersey park who had a spunky little pit bull named after a hockey player. If you inquired about the name, she would tell you about the hockey player and how he was her favorite and how the dog reminded her of him. I heard her repeat the story more than once. She spoke in a normal tone of voice--for New Jersey--so everyone around her could hear. You came away from being near her feeling that you knew her and her dog, but what you knew was her opinions about hockey. Her response was very East Coast--taking control of the conversation in a very outgoing manner without revealing any actual personal information. 

Chapel Hill, North Carolina is a college town, so to some extent the responses were predicated on where the people were from, and people were from everywhere. Nonetheless, for obvious reasons there was still a plurality of Southerners, even though many of them were not necessarily from Chapel Hill or even North Carolina. Once you got beyond the names of your dog, the typical Southerner is going to say "hi, I'm Anna, what's your name?" and you need to respond in kind. Of course, that isn't to say that Southerners don't frame themselves how they choose, just that it's done in a more personal and less overtly wary way. Whether you see the Southern style of introduction as more friendly or more intrusive depends ultimately on who you are whose doing the inquiry, but it's a distinct stylistic difference.

Of course, even in California, most people can't wait to yak on and on about their dog, and I'm no exception. When someone says "your dog is so cute" I thoroughly believe them, and if anyone asks anything about him I will launch into a series of delightful (in my opinion) stories appropriate to the question. Some part of me knows I am simply being pinged to begin the conversation, just as I do to others, but I'm a happy participant regardless.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Who Are Max And Maggie?

Barnabas (1994-2009) RIP
I have been a regular attendee at dog parks in Northern California, North Carolina and New Jersey over the last two decades and the most popular names for dogs are "Max" and "Maggie." Now, you can say that this limits the sample to "medium and larger size dogs mostly from 1-4 years of age in three Metropolitan areas," and that would be true. It's still not a coincidence, though. Why Max and Maggie?

In the 1960s and 70s dog names were either clearly "dog names" or else were some sort of adjective or noun, which often made up the universe of dog names in any case: Shadow, Salty or Fluffy were typical names. Of course, dogs were supposedly named Fido or Rover, but that may have only been in fiction. By the 1980s, dog names were mostly human names, but they were human names that weren't actually assigned to humans anymore: Chester, Cleopatra, that sort of thing. I assume the trend had actually started earlier (as a child, we had had a dog named Zander), but it had become dominant by the1980s.

In parallel with the rise of human names for dogs was the naming of them after fictive characters, mostly from TV--there must have been a lot of pointy-eared dogs named "Spock." Of course, many of the fictive names for dogs were often human names in their own right. The dog of our heart (1994-2009) was named Barnabas, after Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire hero of a long ago ABC Soap Opera called Dark Shadows. We chose that name for personal reasons (we used to watch the show in reruns in the 1980s), but it turned on we were right in line with contemporary naming trends. Barnabas was a recognizable human name, but no one knew anyone named Barnabas. People of our age or a bit older would sometimes look quizzical upon hearing his name and say "like Barnabas Collins?" and we would happily assent, a fun little shared secret. When we moved to the Southeast, people would sometimes ask if he was named after the biblical St. Barnabas, and we would just say "we liked the name." Vampires, after all, can't just let everyone in on their inner life.

However, a dramatic change in the social life of dogs and humans came in 1979, when the first dog park had opened in Berkeley, CA. In the past, people would sometimes bring their dogs to a local park or tennis court and let them run around off-leash, sometimes with other dogs. However, such locations were informal and often technically against the law, since many towns had "leash laws" that required dogs to be leashed in public.

A plaque in Ohlone Dog Park, Berkeley, CA
As time marched on, fewer public fields were open, there were fewer public places available, and towns became more sensitive to legal obligations and enforced leash laws more seriously. Berkeley, always ahead of all trends whether for good or for ill, invented the first known dog park at Ohlone Park in Berkeley, on the corner of Sacramento and Hearst in North Berkeley. In 1979, part of Ohlone Park was fenced and dogs were allowed to play off-leash. Plastic bags were provided to account for dog poop. Off-leash dog parks were off and running, just like their 4-legged patrons.

Soon after we got Barnabas, my wife had a fateful meeting with a stranger walking a Doberman Pinscher. When she lamented how it was impossible to tire out our then one-year-old dog, the stranger suggested taking Barnabas to a dog park nearby, where everyone gathered in the afternoon. We made a field trip to Linda Street in Piedmont, and entered the Brave New World of dog parks. For all the days we went to the Linda Park (as we called it), and for all the times we walked around the neighborhood, we never saw the stranger again. Whoever he is, and whatever dog he may be walking, I hope some stranger does something so nice for him in return.

The Linda Park was only barely a park, a strip of grass on a steep hillside in the town of Piedmont, an odd well-to-do enclave completely surrounded by the much larger city of Oakland. The road had originally been part of Oakland's long-gone Streetcar system (the Key Route), and the odd shape of the hillside was left over from some construction requirement of the Streetcar line from decades ago. Technically, Linda Park wasn't even an official Dog Park yet--that would come soon afterwards--but numerous local residents were treating it like one, on the Ohlone Park model. Between about 3pm and dark, a few dozen people would walk their dogs over and let them off their leashes. The dogs would run and sniff and play, and the owners would talk and monitor the dogs. The steep hillside made the park useless for ball games, picnics or pedestrians but were no problem at all for four footed critters. The slope kept pedestrians away and made for a simple line of demarcation between dog and human traffic.

Throughout the afternoon, people and dogs came and went, so there were always a few people there. While a few dozen might ultimately show up, no one was there the whole time, so at any given moment there would just be a population of 5 or 10, which constantly shifted. As our dogs romped and sniffed, there was no way not to find out the name of every other dog. Even if you didn't end up talking to the other people there--you usually did--inevitably the name of every other dog became known: "Jasmine, put it down"--"Maxine, come here"--"Good girl, Molly"--"Barnabas, no!"

Even though I had no plans to statistically sample dog names in Alameda County, I couldn't help it. From the Linda Park, I knew the names of all the dogs, I had met their owners and in many cases talked to them, often at length. From my childhood to adulthood, dog names had gone from adjectives to human names, and the human names were coming closer to the names of actual humans. It doesn't take a PhD in Sociobiology to figure this out--dogs have become a more and more important part of American lives, and they now have names like family members.

But why Max and Maggie? If they were family members, why not name the dogs John or Caitlin, Josh or Heather, or other typical contemporary kid names? Sure, I ran into dogs named Cody or Heather, and I ran into kids named Max and Maggie as well, so there was at least some crossover. It's not hard to say that there's some wish fulfillment of some kind in those names, but what wish was being fulfilled?

Attempting to think through the whole question of dog naming was rapidly drowned in a sea of evidence. At Linda Park and then at other Dog Parks, I was presented with a veritable mountain of information about dogs and their owners, isolated as if a scientific experiment to exclude almost everything that wasn't directly relevant to the dog. Yet that included a surprisingly broad pool of information--young women explaining their bedtime habits, mothers explaining how they favored different children, men describing how they felt alienated, all to a group of veritable strangers. No subject seemed off limits, as long as our dogs were central to the story.

Dog parks, only formally invented in 1979, turn out to be a remarkable window into modern urban and suburban life, a disintermediator of the various barriers for contact that modern society has thrown forth. I, personally speaking, like cars and iPods, Amazon and email, caller ID and Netflix, and don't miss all the little interactions that used to be required to navigate the day. But even I need some sort of actual contact, and the unique status of the dog park provides a surprisingly random cross section of whoever lives near you. Dog parks spread from Berkeley in 1984, but they are still new in many communities, so many people are new to dog parks. Most dogs live 10 or so years, so people who have only gotten a new dog in the last few years, usually after an old one passed on, are only just discovering dog parks. Relatively few people outside of California are on their second "dog park dog," so it's a new thing for most people.

Dog parks serve another powerful function for dog owners. People who are crazy about their dogs want to spend time with them, and a dog park allows those people to spend time both with their dogs and other people equally enamored of their own dogs. As a result, the dog park becomes a "Third Place," separate from Home and Work or School. For some people, the Third Place is a coffee shop, a bar or a gym, and all those have their functions. For a dog owner, however, the Dog Park provides a Third Place that includes your dog, so the weekly or daily visits to the park take on a much greater meaning than just exercise and fresh air for bipeds and quadripeds.

At some point, dog parks will be fully digitized to facilitate commercial exploitation and social scientists will have dissected them, and dog park design will be mandated like automobile safety requirements, but that hasn't happened yet. My book isn't an attempt to define the current state of the dog park, whatever that is, because such an effort would be obsolete before it was published. It's not an exhaustive guide to dog parks nationally, since a website is a better vehicle for that (and some good ones exist already). No one has been to every dog park, or could even try, but I have been a dog park regular in a variety of parks in three widely divergent states, so that gives me a unique vantage point.

Max and Maggie were the most popular names at dog parks during the years 1995-2010. That will inevitably change, as will dog parks themselves. However, outside of California dog parks are still in their early days, and there seems to be no sociological record of them. Trying to define why Max and Maggie were popular is just one of many observations from what I now recognize are the early days of the dog park phenomenon. As dogs parks spread from town to town, to the pleasure of the mostly younger dogs living in those towns, more and more people go the parks, some for the first time, others only occasionally and some almost every day.

If you don't have a dog, or your dog is old, or you live in some configuration where your dog is happy, sociable and tired anyway, than you don't care about dog parks. For the rest of us, however, a tired dog is a happy dog, and finding ways to make our dogs happy and tired in a reasonable frame of time and without resorting exclusively to treats, and that leads to dog parks. Maybe you go to a dog park regularly, or you've only been once or twice, or you've only heard about them vaguely. But they are in your town, or the next town, or at the very least they are coming soon. This isn't a how-to, or an expose or a handbook, just a snapshot of what is and what has come before, and what it says about those of us who like and need dog parks.

This enterprise then, is a chronicle of dog parks in America at the turn of the century and the humans who go to them. It's broad but not thorough, deep but not intricate, just my assessment of what dog parks were and are like while they are still new, and what dog owners--us--are getting and hoping to get from them. If someone had lived in different places, and gone to different dog parks they might have written a different book, but I suspect not that different. Dog parks have their own private logic, so they are more similar to dog parks far away than other places nearby. In many ways dog parks are a country unto themselves, a private but not secret nation inside a larger one. Since no one is writing it down, I have--here follows what I have learned and seen about Dog Park Nation.