The Dog Run

By Anne Cooperstone

The old adage that dogs look like their owners was not true at our dog run.
The one of us with blond hair and collagen-plumped lips had a German shep –
herd. Another of us was a Persian Jew with a golden retriever. We were bulky
with skinny vizslas, hard-looking punks with long-haired dachshunds. One of
us was a young man with perfectly drawn eyebrows whose poodle had drawn
stares ever since the day it played keep-away with a dead bird. Some of us were
thirty-somethings clad in workout wear who paced the perimeter of the park,
throwing tennis balls with plastic contraptions so we did not have to touch the
slobbery felt. We had French bulldogs, five of them in matching harnesses. We
had a corgi named Joy who was known to snap at dogs twice her size.

We did not raise our dogs in our own image. If we had wanted carbon copies,
we would have had more kids. But we had dogs.


We were intimate strangers, united only by place and time. We heard every-
thing. There were no secrets among us. Not due to trust, but to proximity. We
did not know each other’s names but we knew which of us had to work through
lunch, which of us was studying for the LSAT, which of us had no responsibilities
at all. We knew who was fighting with their spouse, who was crying silently into
their paperback because of their father or their landlord or the closure of their
favorite neighborhood haunt and subsequent end of New York as we know it.
We were the first to see new haircuts, tattoos, piercings. We were witness to
sudden experimental and drastic shifts in fashion, one-night stands who came
along for the morning walk. One of us was a short, bald man who wore khakis
and spoke loudly to anyone who would listen about his incompetent urologist.
Another of us was a woman with curly hair and perpetually crossed arms. We
were Pakistani, Taiwanese, second-, third-, fifth-, eighth-generation immigrants
who wanted our dogs to be happier than we were ourselves, which is why we
spent our free time standing on a concrete island in the middle of the West Side
Highway. One of us, fresh out of college, would go the rest of his life recall –
ing the paradoxical remoteness of this park as his induction into adulthood.
Fifty-three percent of American households have dogs, twenty-seven percent of
New Yorkers. We were not special. We were not unclear about the difference
between space and community. Our very unity hinged on our tacit refusal to
acknowledge it.

There were those among us who stood out from the rest. Most prominent
was the dog mother, a member of the park’s community coalition and a career
dog walker. She showed up to the park with anywhere between four and twelve
dogs in tow. She stood six feet tall, perhaps taller. She wore black jazz pants
and her hair cropped short. She had a vague Eastern European accent and called
us by our dogs’ names. River, Leo, Chance, Penelope. She ran among the dogs,
chasing them from one concrete mound to another, clapping her large hands
in their direction, “Let’s go, let’s go! Come on, you sexy beasts, run!” To the
puppies she shouted, “Come on, kid, show ’em what you’ve got! Stand up for
yourself!”

We were disgusted by her and we revered her. We felt protective of her, we
felt offended by her. We told our friends and family about her during holiday
small talk. We trusted her authority, even as her excessive conviviality with the
canines offended our sensibilities. We brought a roommate or a lover to the
park not for the dogs but for the dog mother, standing like a shepherd among
them.

Some of us were closer to the dog mother than others. The handsome Persian,
the woman with the pink hair. The three of them would sometimes stand in a
small circle by the north-facing fence, separate from us. We avoided each other’s
eyes in these moments, wanting to keep private the ugly glare of our annoyance
or envy. We listened to them talk and laugh in low voices. It didn’t seem right
for them to bond in this way. It seemed flagrant, though not one of us could
quite put a finger on why. Perhaps it was the momentary break in the dog moth-
er’s hard, Slavic demeanor that made us uncomfortable. Or maybe it was our
attraction to the Persian, which hung like a sultry blanket over all of us, and
which made his friendship with the brusque older woman perverse. Or perhaps
it was the way the dog mother did not break conversation with the enclave to
drag a misbehaving dog to her side, their voices stretching and collapsing across
the park, forcing us to listen.

We didn’t give it much thought when the human mother first arrived with her
baby in the stroller. She had been coming to the park since she was seven months
pregnant. We were familiar with her swollen belly and chocolate labradoodle
Ernie, who was nearing his first birthday.

All in all, she fit in fine at the dog run. She complained loudly on her cell
phone about the neighborhood protests. She was sometimes joined by her hus-
band who, in oversized basketball shorts and a Mets hat, seemed nervous to
be outdoors. She wore a Cartier love bracelet and sometimes a matching ring.
Some of us wrote her off as stuck-up and pissed off, while some of us cut her a
break. Those of us who cut her a break were typically parents ourselves.

Pregnancy, like disasters, begot pleasantries. “I know what you’re thinking,”
she’d say to us as we bent to greet Ernie, an especially ebullient and affectionate
dog. “What a time to have a puppy.” When we expressed our congratulations,
she rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, well, I’m counting down the days till I can
get this thing out of me.”

About a month before her due date, she and Ernie stopped showing up to
the dog run. Whether it was bed rest or a premature delivery was any of our
guesses. She returned from her brief hiatus in late March with a healthy baby
boy in an ostentatious pram. We cooed from afar or up close. She was selective
about who she let peek their heads beneath the hood of the carriage. “Sorry,
he’s sleeping,” was her polite refusal to those of us who seemed more prone to
germs or venereal disease.

Not long after the baby’s debut, the dog mother’s pack flew into the park like
a murmuration. The dog mother bent to let the small Norfolk terrier hop out
of the carrier she wore as a backpack. It waddled after the rest of the dogs like
a forgotten starling.

The dog mother noticed the stroller right away. We braced ourselves as we
watched the impressive length of her strides toward the stroller. The human
mother remained unaware of the dog mother’s approach.

“What’s this?” The dog mother said. Some of us trained our eyes to the two
of them. Some of us could not bear to look.

“This is Arthur,” the human mother said, perhaps thinking the dog mother had
meant to say who. (“Arthur? Really?” one of us said quietly to our ducktoller).

“Strollers aren’t allowed at dog park,” the dog mother said. The wind gave
her a cartoonish band of blush from cheek to cheek across the bridge of her
nose.

“What do you mean they’re not allowed?”

“The wheels make the dogs go crazy. Same as skateboards. Anything that’s
moving on wheels. It’s like a predator in their territory.”

“It’s not a skateboard, though,” the human mother said. She was breathless,
her eyes wide like a threatened stag. We could not tell if she would cower or
attack. “It’s not even moving. It’s my baby. The dogs haven’t even noticed it.
My dog’s around it all the time and it never bothers him. Is this an official rule?
Is there a sign or something?”

The dog mother shrugged. Her eyes wandered to the dogs as if she were bored by
the conversation. Ernie was wrestling with a Wheaton Terrier. The dog mother did not
hold the human mother against him. “Well, if it becomes a problem, then we talk.”

“Fine,” the human mother said. Her nostrils flared and tightened. “I guess
we’ll just have to wait and see.”

The human mother looked at each of us, slowly, searching. We could read
it on her face, the audacity of us. Only the month before, we relinquished our
coveted seats on the benches for her swollen ankles and gargantuan stomach.
Now that the baby was out of her, strapped into the stroller like a helpless and
bug-eyed sitting duck, we had no obligation to protect her. Understanding that
we would not take her side, the human mother retreated into the shadows of
the oak tree that grew behind the west-facing fence. She stayed tucked in that
corner of the dog run, her body between the stroller and the rest of us as if it
were we who posed the threat.

In the following weeks, the human mother continued to bring Ernie to the
dog park with her baby’s carriage in tow. Our dogs paid no mind to the stroller,
whose cold architecture resembled the wrought-iron bars of Victorian England.
This small act of protest opened something in each of us; it lowered our guards,
and we speculated amongst ourselves about which mother was in the right,
speaking freely to each other as though it was something we had always done.
Voices we had listened to in our peripherals addressed us directly. Some artifice
between us had crumbled. We suspended our secret vows against communion.

“What if someone was in a wheelchair?” we questioned, our stoic Bernese
licking the toe of our Doc Marten. “Like the guy who comes on Sundays with
the little rat dog? You know, I always wondered whether dudes in wheelchairs
could get it up still. I talked to this guy once whose cousin was in a wheelchair
his whole life. He lost his virginity to a ziplock bag. I’m serious. Don’t ask me
how.”

“How are you supposed to know if there’s no sign?” we asked. One of us
carried a baby in a sling.

“If you take your mini in a sling, why can’t she?” we pointed out. We
watched, perplexed, as a Doberman pinscher chased its tail.

“You need a sign for rules like that,” we said. “You can’t just expect people
to know arbitrary things. Some things are just logic. That’s not logic. Like, if
cigarettes are so bad for you, how come I always feel so much better after I
have one?”

“We’ve all seen what happens to them when trucks go by,” we said. “They
turn into elephants who see a mouse.”

“Should we be defending her, do you think?” we wondered. We all had it in
us to question ourselves, but we always stopped short before coming up with
an answer. We watched our dogs play, embarrassed by their joyful abandon,
absorbed in the banality of our quandaries.

The second time that the human mother was approached about the stroller,
it was not by the dog mother but by the Persian Jew on the dog mother’s behalf.
It was a strategic move, sending the incubus as a conduit for her authority. We
were all suckers for his big brown eyes. Each of us suspected we’d crumble if
subjected to his direct gaze.

“Such a sweet baby,” he said, peering over the hood of the carriage. The dog
mother was on the other side of the park, chasing the dogs with a hose.

“He’s a little terror,” the human mother said. Perhaps we imagined her blush.
She let the Persian put his head close to the baby. The ends of his hair tickled its
face. Its giggles pealed across the park. “He likes you,” the human mother said.

“I was the oldest growing up,” he said proudly. “I took care of all my sib –
lings. Changed a lot of diapers.”

“I wish my husband would change a diaper,” the human mother said, huffing
with laughter. The Persian laughed too.

“Listen, I hate to be this person,” he said. The human mother’s smile dropped.

“But the stroller is stressing some of us out. We get nervous about how the dogs
will take it.”

“He should have stalled more,” one of us said. We nodded, agreeing. “Not
enough small talk. Sales 101.”

“But they’ve all been fine so far,” the human mother said. She blinked quickly,
as if she were going to cry. “There hasn’t been a single problem with it.”

“She’s not wrong,” one of us said. Our pit bull Queenie lapped from a puddle.

“Totally, not at all,” the Persian said, crossing his arms and bouncing on his
heels. “The issue is there are new dogs every day, and we can’t predict which
one will have a bad reaction, you know?” He sighed and scratched his head. “I
know I pretty much sound like a dick. I’m really sorry.”

“No, I understand your concern,” the human mother said, softening. She
spoke to him as she might speak to her teenager years in the future. “You care
about your dog. We all do. But what am I supposed to do? I have a baby. I can’t
choose all of these dogs over my own child.”

“I just don’t want this to turn into a bigger thing than it has to be,” he said.

His eyes darted toward the dog mother, who was coiling the public hose. The
human mother followed his sight line.

“What is it with her and you all?” she asked.

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Never mind.”

“Maybe we can come up with some solution or something,” the Persian
said, backing away from the human mother. “I just want everyone to be happy.
Really cute baby, by the way.”

It was midday, around lunchtime, when the pomsky, or the golden retriever,
lost it. It was a cold, bright day. The park was crowded and loud—barking,
laughing, the fuzzy noise of too-loud music overwhelming headphones. The
sound of the two dogs snapping cut through all of that. That sort of urgency
existed on another frequency. We all went quiet in one moment, and in the next
were frantically calling our dogs to our sides. As soon as they were accounted
for, a hush fell over the park, until one of us lunged from the mass for the
golden, and another of us for the pomsky. While the golden skipped obedi –
ently to his owner’s side, the pomsky darted under a bench and cowered there,
screaming. The dog mother stood still among us, an unshakeable monolith in a
village’s crumbling remains.

All of this happened in thirty seconds or less. No blood was drawn. It re-
mained unclear whose dog started the brawl.

Immediately, we began to talk.

“But I thought the pomsky’s the one that started it,” we said.

“That golden is here every day,” we said.

“Did anyone see what happened?” we asked.

“I think it was about the ball.”

On top of one of the concrete mounds, the golden’s owner checked the dog
like it was a newborn baby. Four legs, four paws, two ears, one nose. The dog
was fine. Meanwhile, the dog mother helped coax the pomsky from under the
bench, the dog’s high-pitched yelping like a car alarm with a systemic glitch
which flattened all dips in pitch into a steady, ear-bursting line. We craned our
necks to get a better look, expecting some kind of gruesome twist of the knee
or some otherwise obvious injury to explain the sound. But the pomsky looked
unharmed.

The two men congregated on the mound to discuss their dogs.

“Is your guy fine? I don’t think they actually fought or anything—”

“Can I please have your insurance information? And all of your dog’s vacci-
nation records?”

“Sure, sure. Sorry, just clarifying, is your dog hurt? Did Bowie bite or scratch
or anything? Has he seemed to twist something?”

“I don’t know. As you can hear, he sounds very upset, so if you could just give
me your information, that’d be terrific.”

“Oh sure, sure, why don’t I give you my phone number.”
The pomsky was escorted out of the park. Bowie’s dad, unsure what the
appropriate or polite thing to do would be, simply picked up the ball and
continued playing fetch.

The dogs were beginning to run again, sensing that the foul play—if there
had even been any—was over. We continued to question each other as if the
charge of our frenzy might be enough to generate an answer that surely none of
us had. Did anyone see which one started it? The pomsky seems fine, but then
why was it crying like that? Bowie is here every day playing fetch. That dog has
never had a single problem. But did you see how scared the pomsky was?
We stopped talking only when the dog mother sprang into motion. Though
none of us expected her to approach the human mother, we were relieved that
there was someone taking charge. We watched, immobile, the two mothers
meet.

“Hello,” the human mother said from her corner of the fence. Ernie bounded
circles around her diaper bag. “No treats now, Ernie.”

“Hello, Ernie,” the dog mother said. Ernie whined at the diaper bag. “Crazy,
eh?”

“It was very dramatic,” the human mother said. “I’m glad they weren’t hurt.”

“No one was hurt, this time,” the dog mother said. “Dogs are animals. We
can’t forget that. They get aggressive. Even our best pets give in to natural
instincts at times. It’s not their fault. That’s why it’s our responsibility to
prevent it.”

The human mother nodded, staring ahead. We avoided her eye. “Completely,”
she said.

“So you know then what I’m going to say?”

The human mother furrowed her brow. “What does the stroller have to do
with the dog fight?”

“Bowie is gentle. Good sharer. That’s when you look to external sources.”

“You think the dogs fought,” the mother said slowly, “because I was here
with my baby?”

“Not baby,” the dog mother said. “Stroller.”

“Look. I’m getting fed up. There is no rule that says strollers are not allowed
in the dog park. You know how I know that? I looked it up. This might be a
private park, but it has a public website. And guess what? You’re not even on
there. Not by picture, not by name. So whatever authority you think you have
over this place does not register with me.”

The dog mother wore a pleasant expression. “You think you’re the first
spoiled mama I’ve dealt with? There are always spoiled mamas, mamas who
think their babies are the most precious things to walk the Earth. If there is no
spoiled mama, then there is a bitch in heat. Or else, there is a helpless puppy.”
“Is there a head of this committee you’re supposed to be a part of?” The
human mother said. She pursed her thin lips. Ernie was still nudging around
the diaper bag. “Someone else I can talk to about this?”

“Honey, this is dog park, not Saks Fifth Avenue,” the dog mother said,
drifting away from the stroller. “Leave the stroller at home next time, okay?
Simple as.”

“It’s not natural, you know,” the human mother said. We watched, pits in
our stomachs. “The way you act with the dogs.”

The dog mother raised her two long arms, spreading her captivating wing –
span to its entirety. “I am what I am, baby,” she said. “I am what I am.” She
looked at the new mother, and then at all of us, as if to say—and you? Do you
know who you are?

Though we weren’t sure what had happened was the human mother’s
fault—in fact, we suspected it almost surely wasn’t—we stood in silent forti-
tude behind the dog mother. We were relieved to have a leader so we did not
have to choose one ourselves, or god forbid be one ourselves, even if it made
us feel like bootlickers, like children. One of us recalled a speech our father
had made in the throes of some fight between siblings: “There are seven billion
people in this world to fight with. Out of all those people, why would you
choose your family?”

The baby had started crying, and while the mother fussed with its blankets
and pacifier, Ernie got hold of the diaper bag. It tipped over as he pulled it,
spilling extra bottles of formula and treats onto the ground. Ernie sucked the
treats into his mouth like a vacuum, and soon the other dogs, too, caught wind
of the treats’ scent. They circled the stroller like hyenas, tongues lapping at the
pavement. The dog mother did not turn around.

“Shoo!” the human mother said, when she noticed the growing pack of dogs.
“Shoo!” But there was nothing she could say to sic them off. We looked to the
dog mother, but her back remained turned.

More dogs were crowding the stroller. The human mother was losing access
to her baby. She planted her foot between a Samoyed and a pit bull and started
unstrapping him, all of the protective buckles and Velcro working against her,
now, in this impending emergency. She at last pulled him free, stepped care –
fully backward, retracing and retreating. She had almost made it out of the
pack when one last dog joined the picnic, a clumsy St. Bernard puppy whose
excited leap into the fray knocked the human mother off her feet, her body
suspended in the air for one almost-comic moment before she and the baby
crashed to the ground.

For a second, it looked to us as though the dogs were devouring the mother
and baby themselves. The baby cried louder, now, and we spotted in brief flashes
between furry legs the small gash above his right ear, dark against his nearly
translucent skin. The human mother struggled to stand, clutching her baby like
a doll. Her face was contorted as if in a scream, but no sound reached us at the
other side of the park.

Some of us rushed toward the melee, others of us reached out our hands in
warning, in fear. By the time any of us got to our dogs, the human mother had
plucked herself and her screaming baby from the herd. She backed into the
chain-link fence, clutching her child. She looked up at the dog mother who,
in the chaos of her children’s picnic, had done nothing at all. We tried to look
away, to spare the human mother the pain of being witnessed, but we could not.
We could not.

In bed that night, we stared blankly at the ceiling, watched the cerulean and
carmine of ambulances refract through our windows, listened to the sound of
fireworks being set off by kids in alleyways. We replayed the scene in our heads,
felt the stretch of our hands reaching, trying. We woke with our lips salty from
tears or sweat.

The human mother, unsurprisingly, did not return to the dog park. We did
not know how to contact the mother, to check on her baby. “She must think
we’re wretched,” we said. But it was not the human mother who haunted us,
nor the possibility of her disgust. It was the image of our dog mother standing
feral and unmoving above the fray.

“She didn’t even try and stop it,” we whispered.

“A child was hurt,” we said. “A baby.”

Not badly, some of us argued. Not at all, some of us said. We hushed one
another, unwilling to entertain the idea that the baby was anything but fine. As
abruptly as it started, our talk stopped. We watched the dog mother, our hearts
in our throats, confronted by ourselves as if she were our mirror. I am what I
am. She ran after our dogs with single-minded concentration that resembled
something like peace.


Anne Cooperstone is a writer based in Brooklyn.

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