During the last few months of her long life, we’d still take Scout to the park, where she’d meet up with her friends — Molly, Archie, King, Cooper, Pepper, Auden, Moose, and the rest of the canine crew. By this time, as the old lady of the dog run, she was given a lot of space, whether out of respect or, more likely, lack of interest, since she only occasionally made a half-hearted attempt to play.
She died in October at sixteen and a half (as with young kids, when you get very old, the quarter and half years matter). A husky-shepherd mix, she had come to us from Moose Factory, Ontario, as a five-month-old pup who had been found in a chicken coop. She was house-trained, so there had been at least some care, some sense that she was a pet to someone. Thanks to the tireless work of rescue organizations, she made the long trek south, like so many other northern dogs. Lucky for her and for us.
When we adopted her, our boys were eight and five. Now they are both grown and gone from home. So many of the memories I have of them over the past two decades include her, in my mind’s eye: at baseball and hockey games, birthdays, the cottage. Even skiing, where she once ran up the snow-covered hill to find us. She was the best girl ever, and that’s not just my opinion; it’s objectively true.
Scout had a terrific life here in the city, in part because Toronto is such a great place for dogs. I’m not sure why that is; maybe it’s a corrective to the Anglo chill that burrowed into this place for decades. Regardless, our four-legged friend was treated well pretty much everywhere she went. Shops welcomed her and gave her treats. They left water bowls outside to cool her down on hot days. The corner store around the block had her picture on the wall, and she was featured a couple of times in our local hardware store’s Instagram feed (@dogs_of_hardware). People would frequently stop to pat her — especially young kids who thought she might be a wolf. And there was the park, where she went most days, usually twice a day, for nearly two decades.
Dog parks are a unique microcosm of urban life. They’re local hubs where pet ownership provides the bond that leads to conversation and acquaintance. As in the ’80s sitcom Cheers, these public settings aren’t primarily about friendship (although some develop); they are more about social connection. New owners show up, and they become part of the pack, so to speak, while others move on, drift away, don’t really stay in touch beyond a wave on the street or a brief hello and scratch on the neck.
Conversation at the dog park is pretty much what you’d expect. It’s about everyday stuff. It’s about our pets, of course, but also about our kids. About school. About work, music, movies, and Netflix. It’s about neighbourhood events, apartment vacancies, and home renovations. It’s health advice and book recommendations and helpful suggestions about aging parents. It’s water-cooler talk without the water cooler, where people drift in and out, depending on whether they’re picking up after their dog, stopping Duke from humping Maddie, or intervening in the rare fight that goes from zero to a hundred faster than the greyhounds Claire and Florence (some dogs’ names have been changed to protect their owners’ privacy).
But as the foul pandemic outlasted the spring, then the summer, then the fall of 2020, I noticed that the dog park became more and more important for many of us dog owners. Whereas our chats used to be mostly informal and light, there now seemed to be a real urgency to interact. Owners stayed longer at the park, often joining other groups of people when their initial socially distanced bubble dispersed. Conversations also became more personal.
Mimi’s owner — with whom I had previously spoken only once or twice — confessed to being overwhelmed by working at home, or “living at the office,” as she put it. She would describe the impossible routine of her day, with a young daughter to care for, and wonder how she’d deal with the demands being placed on her. People have regularly felt comfortable opening up to me — a willingness to listen has been part of my job as a journalist. But this kind of personal sharing, coming from someone I barely knew (I still have no idea if Mimi’s owner is single or in a relationship), opened my eyes to some deep need to be heard as we all strained against a terrible year.
In early October, in one of my last trips to the park before Scout died, Happy’s owner, a veteran high school teacher who usually keeps the conversation light, told me that he already felt as tired as he normally does in May. He said he didn’t know how he was going to get through the year trying to figure out the government’s constantly changing rules for schools or the mix of online and in-person “modalities.”
Blaze’s owner, meanwhile, wondered aloud if he wanted to even keep his job at all: while working from home and being around for his kids, he was reassessing his entire career. He didn’t want “to spend more time on a treadmill” if he could help it. I haven’t seen him for a while, so I don’t know what he decided.
Diego’s owner, whom I’ve known for years, opened up to discuss the challenges she was having with her daughter, and Rebel’s owner confessed to “losing it” over a simple thing, her nerves finally frayed from months of digging deep to stay patient, as a damn virus turned her routine completely inside out.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the common COVID exchange to begin with “How are you holding up?” or “How are you guys doing?” It was as if we were all trying to cope with reality by hearing how others were coping. Some version of “A day at a time” was a common answer. “This isn’t forever” was another. A third was the recognition that many of us have it better than others. Based on my unscientific dog-park observations, young couples and younger families were especially interested in this style of exchange.
For others, the pandemic was a kind of thermostat, cranking up existing emotions. Teddy’s owner started to linger at the park, even as the weather grew cold and the days grew short. She’s an older woman who lives alone. It’s hard not to imagine that this has been a lonely and difficult time for her, and that the park is one of the few places she gets regular contact with others. And I often think about Jack’s owner, whose spouse has advanced cancer. What must he think, listening to people complain about having to wear a mask and keep a safe distance from one another? Even at the dog park, our narcissism can sometimes be breathtaking.
COVID‑19 didn’t create these connections and associations. It didn’t encourage extroverts to be even more outgoing or invite introverts to exercise muscles they prefer to keep idle. But, paradoxically, given the way the virus spreads, it encouraged us to find ways of being more social, to share our concerns and check up on one another more than we previously had. As we were forced to consider our own well-being, we became more aware of the needs of others.
I haven’t been to the park since Scout died, so I wonder, now that the vaccines are rolling out and our collective patience is wearing thin, whether this intimacy has remained. Given the light at the end of the tunnel, has dog-park talk reverted to its more optimistic and lighthearted tone? Or have the changes I noticed last year remained, perhaps more important than ever? After all, we’re still a long way from normal.
I’ll find out soon enough. We just got a new rescue, whom we’ve named Bear. We hadn’t planned to welcome another pet into our home so quickly, but truckloads of northern dogs continue to come south. We saw a picture of a face we liked, went to meet him, and couldn’t say no. He’s about a year old, eighty pounds, and big-hearted. So, if all goes well and he takes to his training, it won’t be long before I’m back to the outdoor water cooler, grateful for the science that allows us to overcome this plague and for the connections these loving animals bring to our lives.
Dan Dunsky was executive producer of The Agenda with Steve Paikin, from 2006 to 2015, and is the founder of Dunsky Insight.