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Toby
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Life is a walk in the (dog) park

Unleashed, pooches and their human pals have more in common than you’d think

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 31, 2011

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I get high every single day — from Amory Playground in Brookline. Overlooking Boston, with a front-row-balcony view of the Prudential, Amory’s dog-friendly hours are a daily dose of joy not just for my Yellow Lab, Toby, but for me. Like so many dog owners, when my dog goes off the leash, I do too.

Even on rain-swept mornings, when the great field is sludgy and Toby’s rubber ball is an orb of mud, I like to go there, find a few like-minded congregants huddled under trees along the perimeter, and stand soaking with them. Sunny, dry days are better. We form a minyan of dog people, and we mumble together while our animals shake it up around us. The dogs improvise a biblical scene about dominance and submission, and they corral and chase one another into corners of the field like school kids at recess. We analyze their play, and we see ourselves in it.

I used to be clean most of the time, always soft-spoken, and unwilling to throw balls in public. I’d spend my spare “alone’’ time with my iPod on, or power-watching classic TV shows. Before Toby, who is now 6, I still stood a chance of seeing every episode of “Law & Order’’ ever made. Now, I rarely miss a morning at Amory, unconcerned about how imbecilic I look pitching the ball for Toby to fetch. Now my pants legs are ever-splotched from dog paws. After an hour, I am dirty and maybe stinky, too. More than once, I’ve been peed on by a dog, unaware until I detect an unusual warmth on my calf. My dog-averse friends will no longer take rides in my toy-cluttered, fur-flecked car.

There is something spiritual about these daily park visits, I am sure of that. They move me in ways my other quasi-religious forays — including one ground-rumbling mass “omm’’ in a Colorado forest — never did. Partly, the rush comes from the lushness of Amory, which includes two romantic baseball diamonds, a rim of fairy-tale weeping willows, and a pastoral hillside, for lying in the shade on perfect summer days. It’s an idyllic urban spot, like so many of the dog parks in this country; it’s one of the closest things to a fairground you’ll find on Boston’s Green line, between the B and C trolleys, a few blocks from Fenway Park and its interrogatory lights. With free admission, no dress code, squirrels on picnic tables, nannies with strollers, and the scent of pot occasionally tinging the breeze, the park carries the air of civilization at its most wistfully mundane.

But mostly, the rush is from the dogs — from being in the presence of freed animals in the city. I come to the dog park and leave behind so many of the rules and barriers of adulthood and city life. I roll into the parking lot, unhook Toby, and get pulled into this uncontrollable dog park world where sudden, unplanned things happen and where there are no traffic lights. While my DVR is sitting at home living by a tight schedule, I’m unplugged. I instantly feel a heightened pressure to be ready to spring into the moment of a dog fight, or one of the many owner fights, or to catch a dog charging into the street to chase cars. It’s liberating, to let go of the habit of circumspection and caution, to be more alert to the possibilities of the here and now. We become more dog-like at the park, even while we stand around brazenly anthropomorphizing our beloved pets into infants, TV characters, and, in the case of Quincy the Amazing Midair Frisbee-catching Collie, sports heroes.

Humans don’t bark — or do they? When we’re off-leash, we certainly do. In conversation with another dog owner, one of us inevitably has Tourette-like outbursts, mid-sentence. This doesn’t generally happen at a coffee shop or in the subway, among the civilized. But you can be confiding in a park friend about losing your keys, or losing your job, or losing your father, when she suddenly begins calling her dog — away from a puddle, away from a passerby on the walking path, or, in the case of the crumb-obsessed Toby, away from a baby carriage. And our calls aren’t gentle or even civil; they have enough raw affect to reach a brain that only hears affect. From “Daisy girl, DAYY-sy girl,’’ to “Come HERE Alexis,’’ we can be heard screaming out across the field. Despite a stubbornly mellow voice born for FM radio, I have had to become a scrappy newspaper hawker — “Toby COME, Toby COME,’’ again and again.

Collectively, we probably sound like hungry farm animals. Or maybe we’re a congregation of supplicants, yelling and yelling to be heard just once.

Maybe we sound like fools, too. Who cares. The anonymity of the park can be disarming, freeing. It’s part of the uplift, too. I can’t count how many deeply satisfying conversations I’ve had with strangers over the six years of Toby’s life, interactions charged solely with the love of or fascination with dogs. How strange and yet natural it is to share intimate details of your “goose’’ or “monkey’’ with someone you’ve never seen before and may never see again — a BU student, a homeless man, a suburban mom. In those moments, it feels like a small world. Or maybe a carnival, or a World Series game, or a Grateful Dead concert. Who you might be, or not be, outside the park borders doesn’t quite matter. Such social hierarchy has less weight on a rainy morning when you’re standing together wrapped in electric blue and orange nylon. If you know dogs, if you love dogs, if you are funny, if you’re a good listener, if you’re a good talker, then you can find your spot. We enter the park as pretty much just ourselves. It’s a purer hierarchy.

In many cases, we don’t even know one another’s names, just the dogs’ names. We’re unleashed from the burden of our names.

And, of course, we’re not all strangers. There is an attachment among park people that, after years, can be profound. I’ve made a few lifelong friends standing in that field. Many of us see our park mates more than we see friends out in the world; we’re the cast of “The Office’’ or “Cheers,’’ reading one another’s weaknesses, teasing as a sign of affection, noticing absences.

Indeed, this community of dog lovers has been the great bonus of the park. Dogs, little gusts of spirit, are a way into our own hearts, yes, but they are also a bridge to other people. We could be walking alone with our dogs, day in and day out, looping the neighborhood blocks, nodding or not nodding to the other dog owners on leash. I could be playing tug of war with Toby in the TV room, in front of an episode of “30 Rock.’’

But instead we choose to meet up, despite the social irritations and the occasional bad dog — or maybe because of the social irritations and the bad dogs and the ever-present potential for cracks in the surface. The tone of interaction usually isn’t very refined, as we pick up poop and carry it in plastic bags, its malodor assaulting our nostrils; as we pull humping dogs off their conquests by their collars and maybe reveal a glimpse of pink; as we share and overshare and listen to the rantings of the less tethered among us. We let it all hang out.

The dog play ushers in an atmosphere of extroversion and, sometimes unexpectedly, celebration. With the yelling, and the dirt, and the swirling dog energy accelerating our un-self-consciousness, it’s as though we’re children at the playground all over again. Forts are built and ponytails are tugged — figuratively, of course, but still. It’s as close to the unadorned, primitive socializing of “Peanuts’’ as I’ve known. Yes, all of the dynamic problems of groups (read: families) are in the air — the triangular tensions, the unrequited attractions, the ganging up, the passive-aggression. But they are in the air, and not subterranean. They are as obvious as the little mutt who thinks we can’t see she’s got a big, illicit clump of grass in her mouth.

One day recently, I took a step back and watched. Sitting under a maple tree on the hill that borders Amory and simply observing bodies in motion, I saw that the humans moved like the dogs, only at a much slower pace. The dogs — romping, chasing, looping — were an accelerated, time-lapse version of the people. As a group, the owners migrate slowly, curling forward, shedding and gaining members along their path; the dogs do it 30 times for their one.

Sitting up on the hill in that moment, watching the human and the canine social whirl side by side, I see all the movement in the park as a sky filled with planets and constellations. And the dogs are our shooting stars.

Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert is working on a book about dog-park culture called “Off the Leash: Dispatches From the Dog Park.’’ He can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

Mostly, the rush is from being in the presence of freed animals in the city. I come to the dog park and leave behind so many of the rules of adulthood and city life. I roll into the parking lot, unhook Toby, and get pulled into this uncontrollable dog park world.

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