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Where men are men, and dogs are dogs

09/16/02 12:00AM By Philip Baruth
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(Host) The City of Burlington opened a dog-friendly park near commentator Philip Baruth's home last year. It's a wonderful addition to the city, but for Philip it was a little bit too late.

(Baruth) The greatest dog park in the history of the world is Mountain Lake Park, in San Francisco's Richmond district. In Mountain Lake Park, when you walk out with your dog in the very early morning, there's a perpetual carpet of fog curling at your ankles. Elderly Chinese immigrants are everywhere doing their morning tai-chi, silent and supple and miraculous.

And running through the fog, and into and through the tai-chi groups, are a hundred different kinds of dogs, all off the leash and all going nuts in the fog and the early morning chill. My all-time favorite dogs at Mountain Lake Park were two huge standard poodles named Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin and Hobbes made you understand that poodles were bred to hunt, and after you'd seen them you didn't make poodle jokes any more for the rest of your life because you had this feeling that Calvin and Hobbes would find you, wherever you were, and make you take them back.

It turns out that the second greatest dog park in the history of the world is now at the end my street, Clinton Avenue. There's an overpowering irony to this. When I moved to Burlington in 1993, I had a seven-year-old dog named Tammy. Over the next four or five years, Tammy and I got busted or warned in most of the city's parks for unauthorized off-leash behavior. You haven't lived until two Burlington cops in lycra riding outfits have hidden in the trees and ambushed you on mountain bikes for having your dog off the leash. All during this time, there was talk of establishing a dog park, or two or three, but it never seemed to happen.

And then, lo and behold, last year I woke up one morning to find that right at the end of my street, Curtis Avenue, the City had created a big beautiful dog park with a dynamite view of Lake Champlain at the far end. Of course, by then Tammy was seventeen going on eighteen; she was so thin and bony that you could almost close your thumb and index finger over her spine. She was blind, and mostly deaf; and that night, the one and only time I took her to Starr Farm Dog Park, she stood stiffly in one corner, near the entrance, and none of the other dogs came near her.

She was so near death, I think, that they could smell it on her. It broke my heart, because this was a dog who had run with Calvin and Hobbes in the early San Francisco fog and made it look easy. And so, after about fifteen minutes, I walked her home, and she died five days later. I had a world-class dog park, and for the first time in seventeen years, I had no dog.

But I realized pretty quickly that just because you don't have kids doesn't mean you can't go watch high school basketball. Now my daughter Gwendolyn and I go to the dog park about every other evening, and we sit on a picnic table and we discuss the breeds: the essential goodness of the Cocker Spaniel, the Saint Bernard's bleary desperation, the precisely mixed message of the miniature Doberman Pincer. If anyone asks, we're trying to decide which sort of dog to get next; but the real truth is that we go and we sit inside the dog park because it's just a better place to sit than the world outside the dog park.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont. His new book with Joe Citro is "Vermont Air: Best of the Vermont Public Radio Commentaries."
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