Animal Instincts

How you disport yourself at the dog park says a lot about you.

By Tim Murphy


While First Dog Bo Obama enjoys free rein on the vast, verdant White House grounds, most city-dwelling canines have their outdoor playtime confined to a working-class time share: the public dog park, a mecca for pre- and post-work R&R for their owners. Since the first one opened in Berkeley, Calif., in 1979, more than 600 such fenced-in doggie zones have popped up around the country. There was a 34 percent jump in the creation of such runs over the past seven years. They’re places teeming with conflict and emotion. “As America has moved away from farm culture, we tend to view animals as children,” says Michael Schaffer, author of One Nation Under Dog. “People at a dog run will make fools of themselves.” Professor James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society agrees: “People who normally would never mix are forced into association through their dogs’ needs.” According to Cesar Millan, star of National Geographic’s The Dog Whisperer and HGTV’s Leader of the Pack, “Everyone has their own pack within the big pack of the dog run. People are not as friendly as dogs.” Bloomberg Businessweek recently spent long hours observing dog-owner interactions at various Manhattan dog parks and asked the above experts, as well as body language expert Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, & Charisma, to analyze the findings.

21% (of people observed)

The Bragging Parents

Those who speak of their dogs like precocious kids. Serpell: “I hate to use the phrase ‘child substitute,’ but, well, childless women will go over the top. Guys like a macho dog, a bit of a bully.” Millan: “It’s worse than that TV show Toddlers and Tiaras.” Schaffer: “The flip side is that if people’s dogs won’t come when called, they feel shame and failure.”


The Irritable Snobs

Those who quietly judge unruly dogs. Millan: “We are a very judgmental species.” Serpell: “There is a new trend against punishment, even jerking a leash.” Schaffer: “That’s the in-group reinforcing its sanctimoniousness. It’s like how other parents talk about how the mac ’n’ cheese in your kid’s lunchbox isn’t organic.”


The Casual Gossipers

Conventional guys who dish excitedly about other dogs. Schaffer: “People who regularly don’t want to seem too gossipy are willing to indulge in that setting. Same for talking in a silly voice. You’re not the real you there, you’re the dog-you.” Wood: “It’s one of the rare settings where men have permission to say the word cute.”


The Mortified

Those aghast by their dog’s sexual aggressiveness. Millan: “We humanize dogs and think they shouldn’t do a sexual act on the street. But it’s normal for them.” Serpell: “Humping is a bigger problem. I had to assist in a decopulation recently.” Wood: “I chose my dog at the rescue because he was humping others. I thought, ‘That dog has joie de vivre.’”


The Dog Foodies

Owners who vigorously discuss their pets’ diets. Serpell: “There’s a coterie of dog owners who think if it’s made by a corporation, it must be bad.” Schaffer: “We spend $60 billion on our pets annually, a figure that’s tripled over 15 years.” Millan: “When I told my dad that I fed my dog lamb, he said, ‘Are you crazy? You could feed all of Mexico with that.’”


The Oversharers

The friendly atmosphere leads some to discuss their meds or religion. Wood: “There’s no artifice when we’re with our dogs, so it’s natural to go into self-disclosure.” Serpell: “Maybe people who frequent dog runs don’t have many friends, so they unload there.” Millan: “Put together a Catholic, Muslim, Jew, and a dog. Everyone will notice the dog.”


The Authoritarians

People who blame owners when dogs misbehave. Serpell: “An aggressive dog is an abomination, like an aggressive child. People feel strongly there must be something wrong with the owner.” Schaffer: “Most people shun owners of aggressive dogs. They’ll talk to the dog instead of the owner.” Wood: “We criticize dog parenting much more easily than kid parenting.”


The Loud Trainers

Owners who pretend to connect eye-to-eye with their pets. Millan: “They don’t understand what you’re saying. They just know that you’re becoming frustrated.” Schaffer: “You’re showing off that you’re a good, responsible dog park citizen.” Wood: “You’re seeing fear of rejection of not being a good parent.”


The Overwhelmed

Owners who can’t control their pugilistic canines. Serpell: “Suddenly it’s like civilization breaking down.” Schaffer: “People are simultaneously worried their dog will be hurt, will hurt a person, or will make people think they’re a bad owner.” Millan: “Panic is the worst thing you can do. Walk toward the fight calmly. You don’t fight chaos with chaos.”


The Devout Loners

Those reading the paper, texting, and standing far from the pack. Wood: “Parks create immediate intimacy, so these settings are too much for them.” Schaffer: “They might not like other people.” Millan: “They’re thinking, ‘These people are going to talk about themselves through the lens of their dog.’ They don’t want to deal with the bullshit.”

Other Notable Dog Run Behaviors COUPLES LOOKING INTO DOG PARKS AND GETTING WEIRDLY AMOROUS. Schaffer: “Dogs a house, marry, have children.” • CLUELESS THAT ONE’S DOG HAS POOPED. Serpell: “People can become entranced by each other and ail to notice it’s time to scoop.” • SHOWING UP WITH PETS OTHER THAN DOGS. Serpell: “A friend of mine took a pet tortoise once.”


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