How America’s Dog Parks Are Just Like Its High Schools

(Photo: Pexels)

(Photo: Pexels)

The ubiquity of dog parks in America’s towns and cities is a relatively recent phenomenon. I grew up in a progressive, pet-friendly Northern California town of 75,000 and we didn’t get a dog park until 2002. Like most Americans over 30, as a child and then as a teenager, when I wanted to take my dogs somewhere and let them roam free, I had to find a deserted baseball diamond or high school football field and then hope they didn’t run away. Now, nearly every town of appreciable size boasts a plot of grass and dirt dedicated – sometimes unofficially – to the simulated freedom of Man’s best friend.

The explosion of these parks across the country has been a boon of innovation. Municipalities have put their liberty-squelching heads together to craft ordinances governing their usage and levy revenue-generating fines for when those ordinances are not obeyed. In Los Angeles, for instance, you’re in for it if your dog isn’t licensed. And God help you if you take Fido to the dog park after dusk because, apparently, that is when domesticated canines turn into flesh-rending werewolf hellions.

Specialty pet toy companies have also gotten into the act. Many have developed fabulous new product lines dedicated to the growing dog park market. The most recognizable of these is probably the Ball Launcher.

This is the long plastic wand-shaped apparatus with a modified scoop on the end that allows athletically disinclined pet owners to play fetch with their high-energy dogs without exposing the fact that their fathers let them down when they were growing up.

Along the way, dog parks have evolved like every other American social institution whose composition is defined by the coming together of disparate personalities around a single common element. That is to say, they’ve turned into high school—with only slightly less humping.

This is not a new concept. Last year, New York Magazine did an entire feature piece titled “Why You Never Truly Leave High School.” The phenomenon blossoms like kudzu in law schools, hospitals, retirement homes, and corporate offices all across America. Dog parks are simply among the newest physical spaces to mimic the high school cafeteria at lunch hour; where older, immature personality types can show their newer, adult faces.

The Dog Nerds

(Photo: Donna Sutton/Flickr)

(Photo: Donna Sutton/Flickr)

In one area, usually near the entrance, you have the dog nerds. These are the fanatics who take immense pride in the ability to identify every single dog breed in the animal kingdom. They take even more pleasure in topping each other as new dogs enter the park. Their favorite game is figuring out the mix of breeds that make up your adorable shelter mutt, then accosting you to make sure you know about it. It’s a fun game if you like games where random strangers set you up to look like an idiot:

Dog Nerd: Your pup is so cute, what’s her name?

Dog Owner: Daisy.

Dog Nerd: Hi Daisy, you sweet thing. What kind of dog are you, Daisy?

Dog Owner: We got her from the shelter. The vet says she’s probably some kind of lab/collie mix, but we’re not really sure.

Dog Nerd: Oh no, don’t listen to your mommy and daddy. I can absolutely tell what you are. You’re part Springer Spaniel, part Australian Shepherd, part Chesapeake Bay Retriever with maybe a little smattering of Dalmatian because little Daisy is a naughty one, aren’t you!!

The first time this happened to me, I felt like a horribly callous, neglectful parent. Like if I’d adopted a black child and when someone asked me where she was from I’d said “the orphanage.” Or worse, “Africa.”

The last thing you want to do with Dog Nerd is challenge their authority. Even if you know for a fact what your dog is, even if you watched your dog’s parents have the sex that conceived your fuzzy friend, when dog nerds know, there is no moving them off their position.

Dog Owner: Daisy’s half border collie, half yellow lab.

Dog Nerd: That’s funny, I could swear I see some Samoyed in her.

Dog Owner: Nope. She’s half and half.

Dog Nerd: Hmm.

This is when Dog Nerd consults the Tribal Council, who have been passively eavesdropping on your interaction and are ready immediately to render a verdict. Usually there is one well-adjusted member in the group (usually the professional dog walker) who tries to smooth things along by changing the subject.

Dog Walker: She’s such a cutie. What a beautiful coat.

But the Geek Chorus is unmoved.

Dog Nerd: Look at her bushy curled tail though.

The verdict is in: PART SAMOYED!

I’ve seen owners and dog nerds get into heated arguments over the breed mixture of animals that didn’t belong to either of them. Miller Lite’s old “Great Taste, Less Filling” campaign had a more compelling argument—at least they were trying to sell something. Fortunately, breed arguments are slowly becoming a thing of the past as the bane of the dog nerd’s existence grows in popularity: Dog DNA Testing.

Oh, you’ve had dogs all your life and have tons of dog books? That’s great, I have science. BOOM!

Dog nerds do not like when this happens. They protest the accuracy of breed identification tests, which is fair. But in many ways that is like the old meme about arguing on the Internet. Even when you win, you’ve lost. It is a lesson nerds of all stripes rarely learn.

The Burners

(Photo: Willy Verhulst/Flickr)

(Photo: Willy Verhulst/Flickr)

Clear on the other side of the park, often tucked into a corner at a picnic table or under a tree, are the burners. This is the group of misanthropes who gather every day after work to chain smoke the stress away. They kind of hate everything, but in an unironic way, which makes them the most authentic people in the entire dog park most days.

The Burners usually have older dogs, or dogs with old souls like them. Funny looking pugs with crusty noses who shed like they’re in chemotherapy. White faced golden retrievers who open their legs like canal locks at the sight of a potential belly rub. Bony, retired greyhounds that lope around and plop their heads on the table to be pet when a new person sits down. They all meander a little and fulfill their obligations—mark a few trees, sniff a few butts, drop a few turds—before settling in near their people to laze the rest of the evening away.

This is a hard group to break into unless you have an old dog, sciatica or a two-pack a day habit. But they are often the smartest, with the most colorful histories and the best senses of humor. At the dog park in Laurel Canyon a few years back I learned every British slang word for ‘drunk’, ‘sex’ and ‘penis’ from a hardened 65 year old Welsh lady who only smoked Dunhill cigarettes now because she was boycotting Phillip Morris after they “pussed out” and rebranded as Altria. “Own your sin,” she said. “This is America.” Then her dog took a dump that she aggressively ignored.

The Trendy Popular Kids

(Photo: Carlos Varela/Flickr)

(Photo: Carlos Varela/Flickr)

If the Burners are the hardest group to break into at the dog park, the trendy popular kids are the group least worth the effort. They stand in a circle, around an invisible trashcan fire being stoked by the sound of their own voices, talking over each other about whatever is cool right now on TV: Mad Men, Girls, True Detective, Archer, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Walking Dead, Community. Their dogs run around unsupervised like ill-disciplined maniacs because, like their kids, they’re just an accessory.

The easiest way to spot these dogs is to look for the most popular breeds over the last few years. This year it’s the corgi. Last year it was the French Bulldog. The year before that was the year of the hypoallergenic designer poodle mixes—maltipoos, goldendoodles, etc. Before that it was the Yorkie and the Chihuahua.

While their owners compete with each other to come up with the most fawning synonym for “courage” to describe Lena Dunham’s willingness to get naked on camera, this kaleidoscope of undirected energy careens around the dog park like a tornado of fur and slobber. Nothing in its path is safe. Not ankles or knees or children or other dogs.

At a dog park just outside Washington D.C. back in 2008 I tried to stop one of these hordes that was frightening my new little beagle. Like Randy Quaid flying into the mouth of the mothership at the end of Independence Day or Hancock stopping the train from running over Michael Bluth, instead of running away from or reacting to the menace, I pulled a Sheryl Sandberg and leaned into it. The result was nothing short of catastrophe. My presence in the storm’s path split it in two and sent the pieces spiraling off in opposite directions. Now they were covering twice as much ground in half the time. It was mayhem.

What were their trendy, cool owners doing at the time? Comparing their new 3G iPhones and breathlessly agreeing with Jon Stewart’s most recent takedown of FOX News and the Bush White House on The Daily Show. All of those cool things are fine and fun, but not so cool that they can’t be put aside for a minute to corral the building Category-4 hurricanine. Right?

Oh, no. Gossip is far more pressing and important than being a responsible citizen. It’s the same wherever you go, the only thing that changes is the subject of the gossip.

At the Lake Hollywood dog park in Los Angeles, the talk is all about show business and vague allusions to “things you’re working on,” celebrities you know or have been in the same room with, and apocryphal stories about Hollywood. If the trendy cool kids at this dog park are to be believed, for instance, more people have been to George Clooney’s Lake Como house in Italy than were at Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

In San Francisco, the talk is about startups and the newest, neatest app that solves a problem no one has. Everyone has a friend who works at Google. Everyone knows someone who is “Employee Number 8″ at [Insert The Next Big Thing]. At some point someone will say, “OMG, I am totally going to tweet that out.” Words like ‘synergy’, ‘leverage’, ‘pivot’, ‘CPM’ and ‘conversion’, I’m convinced, entered the zeitgeist through San Francisco dog parks while somebody’s bulldog was taking a crap.

In Washington D.C., the cool kid chatter centers around politics and each person’s proximity to real power. Somebody’s husband is the chief of staff to the minority whip. Somebody else’s BFF is a reporter on The Hill. Somebody’s friend plays kickball on the Mall with a guy who sits in on high-level meetings in the Oval Office. This is the currency that buys cool at a DC dog park. The next most valuable commodity is institutional knowledge. That’s why departmental and organizational acronyms get casually thrown around like they’re in the army: DOD, DOE, DOL, HHS, OEOB, POTUS, CIA, FBI, CBO, TGIF, BBQ.

The conversation is always some tension between how the party in power doesn’t know how to govern and how the party out of power is obstructing the ability to govern. Fortunately, since all the trendy cool kids are either private sector, non-profit, or appointees, they can always agree on one thing: federal employees are lazy and incompetent and allowed to fail upward. If you know anything about the demographics of the DC metro area and that statement sounds vaguely racist, rest assured they all pronounce the n-word with an ‘a’ at the end when they’re singing along with Kanye and Jay-Z tracks in their cars with the windows rolled up.

The trendy cool kids at every dog park are infuriating to every mindful person with a social conscience, but no one hates them more than the dog park’s lone wolf. He patrols the park, silently seething at the obliviousness and lack of decorum displayed by these brats. He feels powerless in his daily life, put upon and held back by people younger, dumber, and less ethical than himself. The dog park is his sanctuary, his release. It allows him to exorcise those demons and exercise some agency.

He is The Poop Nazi.

The Poop Nazi, first and foremost, leads by example. He follows immediately behind his dog with a plastic bag until it squeezes out some soft-serve kibble. Sometimes he gets their quick enough to catch the poop in mid-air. It’s frighteningly conscientious. Sanitation complete, he then spends the remainder of his time surveilling other dogs’ buttholes. To the Poop Nazi, dog poop is the enemy of Order and Stability. Left unchecked, dog poop is liable to send the dog park into an irrecoverable death spiral toward a lawless doggy Thunderdome. It is a concern of the highest magnitude.

To be clear, the Poop Nazi can be a man or a woman. If she is…well…a she, she tends to be a high-strung busybody with a similarly high-strung dog that never listens, despite screeching pleas to “COME!” or “STOP!” or “BE QUIET!” As in life, she can’t even get her dog to listen to her. She spots you the second you come through the gate and doesn’t break her gaze until she’s sized you up. Look at the way they just waltz in here not even watching where they’re walking, she thinks. I bet they don’t even have a bag with them!

Then she waits.

Eventually, she knows, your dog is going to drop into poop stance and unleash its fury. When it comes, she watches your dog, staring at the rectal confection as it settles into the fresh grass between your dog’s back paws. She turns to you, waiting for you to make your first move. If you don’t dart immediately toward the poo, she peers deeper at both you and your dog, turning between the two of you with increasing sharpness and frequency. If you exhibit even the slightest indifference to your dog’s poop, she becomes utterly transfixed. Her dog could attack a baby or run into traffic; still, her focus stays locked on you with panicked intensity.

Why aren’t you picking up your dog’s mess?! She worries to herself. It’s been nearly 30 seconds. There could be no one within 100 feet of your dog. There could be no one else in the park at all. It doesn’t matter. It needs to be picked up NOW! Someone could step in it! It could kill the grass! There could be anarchy!

She can barely contain herself. Someone has to say something. Just not her. This is the confounding part about the Poop Nazi, and probably the thing that best explains her fate in other areas of her life. She demands people account for their actions (or inactions), but she won’t come right out and say it. She doesn’t want to. She can’t. That would be rude. It’s much more polite to stare at strangers and silently judge them. That is, until the incivility gets to be too much.

She begins to shake, like the tremors before a volcanic eruption. Her face reddens and her head starts to click back and forth between you and your dog even faster, like a golf course sprinkler. Here it comes. She makes eye contact and takes a step in your direction.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” she says. “Do you need a bag?”

Ahhh, Do you need a bag? The Poop Nazi Credo.

The more poop nazis I encounter over the years, however, the more I realize they’re not being pissy or passive aggressive, they’re just very polite. Overly polite, in fact.

Thirty seconds earlier this woman was shivering with indignation. She’d already decided to hate you, consigning you and your kind to one of the deeper circles of the Inferno along with people who put their bare feet on the dashboard when they’re riding in cars. Your lazy indifference was a moral hazard and violated the sanctity of the Laws of the Dog Park.

Yet, ‘do you need a bag’ was all she could muster. I used to think this was basic passive aggression. You know she already holds you in the lowest esteem. So why couldn’t she be aggressive with her disdain? What does she have to lose by saying something like “Aren’t you going to pick up your dog’s shit?” Or maybe a more direct and informational route: “Hey, your dog just took a crap. It’s over there.” Leave it up to YOU to actively be a ne’er-do-well, so at least then she can justify being pissy.

The more poop nazis I encounter over the years, however, the more I realize they’re not being pissy or passive aggressive, they’re just very polite. Overly polite, in fact. And what is really bothering them is not the dog poop itself, but what it represents: a breakdown of polite society. Getting in your face, publicly confronting you, is impolite. It would be to practice something other than what she preaches. And what she preaches is a return to conscientiousness and civility. We can quibble with her tactics, but I feel like her goal is unimpeachable.

Male poop nazis, on the other hand, are a different breed.

In my experience the male poop nazi tend to be anti-social control freak who sit by himself, flanked by dogs he has trained to stay by his side and do nothing unless commanded. Often, I’ve noticed, his dog is female. A delicious bit of irony when you consider those may very well be the only members of the opposite sex this man has been able to keep around long enough to establish an emotional connection.

My most recent run-in with a male poop nazi came just last week at the Lake Hollywood dog park. It was noon and I was leaning against a picnic table in a warm patch of sun, reading Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. The Poop Nazi, looking a lot like Dr. Claw, had finished his first patrol and sat sunken into a bench in the shade by himself, fiddling with his phone and absent-mindedly caressing his dog as it sat alertly in front of him.

As I continued reading, my beagle Buckley wandered around as he normally does, his nose to the ground and his tail in the air. A few minutes later, the shadowy figure emerged from under the trees that lined the east side of the park and stood with his arms folded 30 yards away.

“Do you need a bag?” I heard from across the grassy expanse. I didn’t pay any attention to it. For one, I was engaged in my book. For two, I had no idea he was talking to me. The Poop Nazi repeated himself. “Hey, do you need a bag?” I looked up and made eye contact. He was talking to me. I found Buckley off to my left. He was wandering, sniffing around, just as he was when I last saw him.

I knew he wouldn’t leave it alone, and I know fighting passive aggression with passive aggression is either a losing battle or a Pyrrhic victory.

My wife and I have had Buckley for 7 years and have been taking him to dog parks on a regular basis almost since the day we brought him home. He’s licensed, fully vaccinated, unfailingly sweet, good with every kind of dog, and very regular with the 1s and 2s. We have a properly fitting collar for him as well as a leash with a sturdy clip. We keep all our plastic bags and make sure there are extras in our cars as well as one on our person. I’ve never not picked up Buckley’s poop at the park and have, in fact, picked up other dog’s poop when I’ve noticed it in the vicinity. I’ve even broken up several dog fights with my bare hands while their negligent owners (trendy cool kids, of course) shrieked and screamed at one another. My wife and I are the consummate dog park patrons.

Yet here I stand once again. Another Poop Nazi breathing down my neck because I dared to let my dog’s business linger on the grass for more than a two-count. Finally I responded to the Poop Nazi.

“Nope,” I said, and went back to my book. I shouldn’t have responded like that, I know. I knew what he was getting at, I knew he wouldn’t leave it alone, and I know fighting passive aggression with passive aggression is either a losing battle or a Pyrrhic victory.

But it was the more annoying part of this whole charade that tipped the scale—this guy had been watching Buckley and me, and he knew I didn’t actually see Buckley do his business. In this situation, more than any other, the better approach would have been to say, “Hey, your dog just took a crap. It’s over there.” I mean, he knows that I didn’t see where Buckley did his business. What was he expecting? That his little plastic olive branch would spark in me the power of divinity and the bag would lead me to my dog’s poop like Joseph Smith and his hat full of seer stones?

“You probably should have one,” the Poop Nazi continued. He was not going to let me go, or soften his condescending, judgmental posture, until he was satisfied that I would pick up Buckley’s poop.

“I know. I’ve got one in my pocket. Thanks.” I wasn’t going to bite. I was going to force him into being direct if it took twenty minutes. Fortunately, the anxiety that accompanies your typically wound-up control freak would never let it go that long.

“Good thing. Because your dog just went to the bathroom right over there.” The Poop Nazi pointed to the spot with laser-like precision. Yep, there it was. All two little slimy turds of it. I looked at him, looked at the poop, looked at him again, and then returned his judgmental stare before responding.

“Why didn’t you just say that?”

He didn’t have an answer. None of them ever do. How could they? This is what they do.

The Poop Nazi returned to his phone and his shade-covered bench while I leisurely strolled over to Buckley’s poop, scooped it up, and threw it away. Like the typical daily high school experience, the rest of our time at the park was fine. The dog nerds nerded out over a goofy mutt that turned out to be half basset hound, half German shepherd. The burners burned and their lazy dogs lazed. The trendy cool kids talked about the Oscars and tried to one-up each other with the number of screeners they had. Buckley wiggled in the grass and played chase with a terrier of some kind. While I soaked in the sun and discovered that Mary Barton is the book where the saying “a watched pot never boils” comes from.

Poop Nazis would do well to take that advice to heart. A watched pile of dog poop never gets picked up. Like them, it just sits there steaming until it finally hardens and, ultimately, gets ignored.

Nils Parker is the editor of multiple NY Times bestsellers, partner at Brass Check Marketing, and the co-author of the book Mate: Become the Man Women Want.

How America’s Dog Parks Are Just Like Its High Schools