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.

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