I’ve never considered myself to be much of a joiner. Not because I dislike other people, but rather because small talk makes me self-conscious, and when I find myself in like-minded company, I have intruding, unwelcome thoughts about the ways in which we are different rather than all the ways in which we are similar.
So when I started bringing my three-and-a-half year old dog, Molly, to the off-leash dog park near my house, I figured I’d be counting myself among the people who sit on the benches staring at their iPhones and pretending not to see anybody else. These people, it seemed, had admirably mastered the art of socializing their dogs without socializing themselves.
But on our first day there, as soon as I settled in to a comfortable spot away from other humans, Molly climbed up and sat down next to me. She didn’t run, she didn’t play, in fact she didn’t move at all. She just sat there surveying the park, apparently taking her antisocial cue from my antisocial self.
“Go play!” I told her, to no avail. I threw her the ball only to have her run after it, look back and me, and then happily trot back over to where I was sitting. Now, don’t get me wrong – normally, I love having Molly hang out with me and help me check email. But not when we’re on an excursion the sole goal of which is for her to run off some of her Australian Shepherd morning energy.
I soon realized that I had no choice – I was going to have to stand up. And much to my dismay, standing up meant finding a way to interact with the small group of people who were always talking to each other in the middle of the park – the joiners.
This is how I made my attempt to be part of the group: first, I hovered off to one side, alone. Then, I lingered on the outside of the circle, occasionally interjecting a thought or two. Finally, at long last – after about a week or so of uncomfortable helicoptering, I introduced myself.
And over the course of the next few months, I got to know my fellow park-goers. There was George, a 60-plus photographer with a Pit Bull mix named Annie. Then there was Betty, a 50-something fashion buyer with a Husky named Ben. There was Sara with a Chihuahua mix named Sammy, and there were Tim and Fran with a Basenji mix called Peter.
I started seeing them every other morning, and what do you know, I found myself enjoying learning about them and their dogs’ quirks. For instance: Ben the Husky, who weighed about 120 pounds, was being taught not to jump on people, a fact that I learned the hard way after having him land a muddy paw on my face. Annie, at two years old – the human equivalent to 14 – was going through her aloof teenager phase in which she sat at the side of the park and refused to interact with anyone. And Molly, meanwhile, now that I was standing up and setting a good example, was figuring out how to play with the other dogs.
Still, the fact that I had inadvertently become part of a community didn’t really sink in until one day when I was faced with…well, not exactly tragedy, but certainly an incident that shook me up.
It was a Tuesday, and Molly was having a grand old time chasing a four-legged friend around in circles. Another dog tried to butt in repeatedly, but kept getting shut out. As soon as I realized that the situation was escalating, it was too late: the shut out dog, clearly mortally offended by his exclusion, launched at Molly, teeth bared, clamped his jaw down near her ear, and refused to let go.
I started yelling, grabbed Molly by the collar and pulled her off. We took two steps away and the dog latched on again. I couldn’t see where Molly was bit, or how strong the other dog’s hold on her was, but when someone else finally grabbed the other dog by the hind legs and yanked her off, Molly’s fur went flying and blood began dripping down the side of her head. I heard myself say, “Oh my god,” right before the owner of the other dog materialized seemingly out of nowhere and her voice came into focus as she tried to assure me that nothing had happened.
“It’s fine! She’s fine! We’re all fine!” she said, getting closer and closer to me.
“My dog is bleeding. I don’t think everything is fine,” I said.
She kept coming, sat down next to me on a bench as I tried to figure out what to do. “Nobody got hurt, everything is fine!” she insisted. I was certainly not fine. I tried to tune her out. She kept talking. “Nothing happened! Your dog is OK!”
I was seeing red. I just wanted to get out of there. Without saying another word, I took Molly by the collar and led her out of the park. I was shaking. I got her in the car and tried to rinse her ear off, where the blood was coming from. I called the vet and left a message.
When I finally got home and inspected Molly’s ear, I could see a small tear where a little piece of skin had been ripped off. I fought back some murderous rage towards the woman who owned the other dog. Molly seemed relatively fine, but she didn’t let me touch her ear, wincing when I moved in with a warm washcloth and hydrogen peroxide. The vet finally called me back.
“If it’s just a little tear,” she said, “you don’t have to bring her in. I wouldn’t stitch it anyway.”
I was relieved, and I realized that I was much more shaken up than Molly, but I couldn’t quite stem my tide of panic. I told my fiancé about it. He was upset. I told my friends about it. They were upset. But I found that the people I really wanted to tell were my dog park friends. I wanted to tell George, and Betty, and Sara and Tim about the horrible trauma I had suffered at the hands of an ostracized Chow. Without meaning to, I realized, I had become part of a community by sheer virtue of showing up to the same place at the same time multiple days a week and putting in a little effort.
And as it turns out, it’s not so bad.