Matthew Gilbert's dog, Toby.

Credit: Matthew Gilbert

'Off The Leash' Offers Glimpse Inside Dog-Park Culture

August 4, 2014

If you're not a dog owner, you probably have no idea that those bustling dog parks you pass are rife with drama: tender tumbling in the grass, teeth feverishly bared, treachery and treats. 

Boston Globe television critic Matthew Gilbert writes about this splendor in the grass in his debut book, “Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park,” in which he finds himself happily tugged into the dog eat dog world of his Brookline dog park. 

Read an excerpt, from publisher St. Martin's Press:



We all land at Amory with backstories, with our particular situations, needs, and histories, and we all find something there, beyond the practicalities of getting our dogs out of the house and off the sidewalk. It’s just a dog park, but dog parks have come to occupy a special position in modern life, as an ad hoc institution built on play, proximity, and pack relationships. We all have to interact there; our dogs make it happen. We don’t have the protections of a PTA-like organization or the rules of sports games or the separations afforded by our cell phones; the dogs break through the padding of technology, force contact. We end up creating the tone of the outdoor community with one another on a daily basis.

For me, the park was a megadose of presence. I was a full-on TV junkie, beginning as a kid who took his serial story lines and TV events very seriously. I remember grieving for days when Col. Henry Blake died on M*A*S*H, laughing out loud when Kimberly removed her wig to reveal she was a scarred madwoman onMelrose Place, and feeling scandalized when Sinéad O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. I was four, I was eight, I was fifteen, I was sixteen, I was twenty-three, and I was forty-two and working happily as TV critic for the Boston Globe, and TV was my consistent and close companion. Throughout those decades, I embraced the state of electronic thrall, that pleasing equation of being there plus not being there.

Sitting on this side of the glass, I fell in love for the first time when I was nine, in the den of our southeastern Massachusetts home. My father was long gone, that indistinct furniture salesman who’d left me with one vague memory—of his lifting me up to sit on a wooden desk, the lamp giving his hands a golden cast. I was watching black-and-white repeats of The Dick Van Dyke Show every day on TV, and secretly adopting Rob Petrie as my real dad. He was a goofy string bean of a man, an urban comedy writer with a suburban family. I loved him at age nine for his stumbles and social gaffes, for his macho-free masculinity, for the rare birds in his life, like his cowriters, Buddy and Sally, and I still do decades later. Those half hours with Rob Petrie had a religious character for me. I became one with the TV screen—knees on the floor, elbows on a footstool facing the set, hand on chin.

You’ve been there, no doubt, fed by the dependable love of the remote-controlled breast. You’ve visited that place of comfortable numbness, where the world is like another TV show. It’s not a bad place. I lived there for years at a time, through high school and college and my twenties, perfectly content to have a screen between me and other people. I made a very satisfying career out of it. Watching TV for the Globe, I scribbled down endless notes, thinking about the American character as I watched the boyish Dexter kill killers or the CSIs pick through the fetishes of Las Vegas. I became well versed in the existential fears of The Twilight Zone and the global paranoia of Lost, and when I stumbled across a new TV classic, a Mad Men or an Arrested Development, I felt high.

Sometimes, my husband, Tom, would be my TV copilot, sitting beside me in flight. He’d generously become my partner on the couch, celebrating when the networks sent advance episodes of the great shows and suffering through a portion of the junk pile—the shrill, idiotic sitcoms and generic cop dramas that every TV critic must sample. A political affairs guy by nature and profession, Tom nonetheless submitted to about a fourth of my viewing time (except when it came to reality TV, regarding which he told me I was on my own). And over the years, as the professional TV guy, I’d developed elaborate viewing rituals that Tom had come to tolerate. My viewing time was sacred. He knew I needed to sit with the screen in the exact center of my field of vision. He knew I didn’t like to answer the phone or look at the caller ID during a good show. And he knew no one in the room should talk unless the episode had been put on pause.

Toby and his owner, Matthew Gilbert.
Photo Credit: Matthew Gilbert

*   *   *

Toby, however, could not be put on pause. No TV, he.

Tom and I brought Toby home in early October of 2004, a seven-week-old yellow Lab reaction ball of crazy love with baby teeth like carpet tacks. He was just perfect, with his Buddha belly, which felt like a firm down pillow. His energized little dashes and tumbles fell somewhere between acrobatics and expert slapstick comedy. Human beings practice for years to do what Toby was doing before he was even toilet-trained. He felt like a miracle to me, from top to bottom, with his daily growth spurts, his already giant paws, the softness of his ears, and his dead-on stare up at us after he dropped a toy or a stick at our feet. From the moment we got him home, I couldn’t stop contemplating his flawlessness. I’d say to myself, “I have a dog named Toby,” as if it were some kind of incantation.

He instantly changed the layout of our third-floor Brookline walk-up—and of our settled, professionally centered lives. We baby-gated the kitchen, and we turned the space under the small square kitchen table into a fort for one of his crates. Another crate—yes, Toby’s two daddies overdid it on the crate business—took over our small bedroom. We raised all our ground-level plants, and we put musty old carpets down on our slippery wood floors so the little guy could get his footing. Tom and I stopped sleeping for a few weeks, and we both took vacation time to make sure one of us was always with him. It was not uncommon to look away and look back at a shredded document on the floor, or a pool of pee with paw prints trailing off it.

To find my first dog, I had spent months asking friends for breeder contacts and looking online at hundreds of breeder Web sites, gawking at their photos, succumbing to their cheesy Hallmark music. I was thinking that I could somehow design my future dog’s personality by choosing carefully. Ultimately, I landed on Mirabelle Labs, whose site was jammed with photos and dog family trees. I loved the look of the Mirabelle stock—mid-size, a little square-headed—and reached out to owner Dana Loud, who, after reading my application to buy one of her planned puppies, welcomed Tom and me for a visit to see her farm. Apparently, she wasn’t scared off by my too-personal answers to her basic questions about food brands and dog safety; I’d written out a lengthy worrywart debate with myself about whether or not it’s okay to let a dog ride in a car with his head out the window, since there would be cars and trucks passing by. I guess she could tell that, beyond my neurosis, or because I needed to channel it productively, Tom and I were looking to take special care of a Toby.

Visiting Dana’s farm that spring, we met a black Lab named Mia, who, if all went according to plan and her encounter with a yellow named Drake was a success, would be the mother of our puppy. Mia was a bouncy lady who was delighted to see us, loping in circles around us as Tom and I laughed at her. Dana told us she bred for friendliness, and it was obvious she was pulling it off. Mia was one of those dogs—Toby is, too—who really do seem to smile at you. She smiled at us and wiggled her torso and jogged, her mostly furless belly a tad distended from previous litters, her nipples quite visible. She was irresistibly welcoming.

“This will be her last litter,” Dana told us as we sat in her yard, making it all seem so much dearer.

Tom and I felt very close during this period, just having gotten married and now preparing for our new family member. A lot of couples see puppies as rehearsals for babies; we saw our puppy as an end in himself, a cementing of our home life together. Neither one of us wanted children, a fact we’d established early in our relationship. But we wanted mutual responsibility; we wanted to share our apartment and our love with another creature.

We returned to Dana’s farm five weeks after Mia had given birth, in September, to choose from the two yellows in her litter of six. I’d told Tom I wanted to get the whitest of the yellows, because I loved fluffy whiteness, and indeed one of the two was a milky little fellow. But his slightly darker brother stole our hearts, with his strangely knowing glance, an expression Toby still gets when he’s lazily looking our way from his comfortable couch or bed. He gazes out beneficently on the people. Inside the pen on Dana’s thick New Hampshire grass, turning his head with its outsize snout to look straight at us while his fellow puppies slept and wrestled around him, little Toby, with his teasing eyes, said, “I’d sure like to chase you two fellas around a dining room table—you know you want to.” He seemed to be quietly plotting ways to find a ball, drop it at our feet, and make us throw it. Physically, he was just this side of a guinea pig at five weeks, but he already seemed to have a fully defined personality built on jokey roguishness. He lay there staring at us on the late-summer grass, fenced in with his siblings and another litter, this one consisting of six chocolate Labs, and Tom and I were gonesville.

In the car, I quickly said, “I loved the yellower puppy,” and Tom sighed.

“Phew. Me, too.”

When we picked up Toby from Dana two weeks later, we had a small crate in the backseat—yes, another crate—and we put him inside for the two-and-a-half-hour ride back to Boston. We didn’t want him jumping and peeing all over the car, or getting thrown around by turns. It was his first time in a crate and in a car, and Toby began crying out immediately, making the first part of the ride, through some gorgeous early-fall New England landscapes, miserable. I couldn’t bear his helpless wailing, which continued until he fell asleep after twenty or so endless minutes. I was sure we were scarring him for life. They weren’t like baby cries, those alarming jolts; to my sensitive ears, they seemed to be imbued with sadness. We were traumatizing the joy out of him. We were tearing him away from his mother. I sat in the backseat, next to the crate, fretting, while Tom, who’d had dogs almost all his life, sat at the wheel, secretly rolling his eyes at my hypersensitivity. He understood a dog’s resilience far better than I.

Once home, our car ride was a distant memory for Toby—more likely, not even a memory. Toby instantly tore around the kitchen like a tiny blond tornado while we entertained him for fifteen minutes, a pattern that took hold. That first October that we had him, before the park was on the agenda, we all seemed to operate in fifteen-minute-long sessions. He’d be the feisty ringleader for that period. He’d pick up stuffed toys in his mouth without quite knowing what to do with them, swatting the air with his giant paws, running and looking back to make sure we were chasing him; and then—bam—asleep, on the spot.

As Toby would lie snoozing, I’d lie on my side next to him on the tile floor, staring at his perfect snout, examining its delicate geometric system of whiskers, watching his moist black nostrils flex so slightly, his eyelids flinch in dream state, his heart putter beneath his fur. I felt as though I could stare for hours, dazzled by his happy innocence, his complete unself-consciousness, his lack of impulse control. It was parenting, albeit in a different way. Knowing that he’d wake up and see my face looming over him, and not be frightened—it touched me. I’d put my nose up to his belly, sniff, and smell something irresistible—warm popcorn, maybe, or fresh promise. I felt like I could do this forever. Tom would catch me and laugh, thinking of how long I’d resisted getting a dog. I was lying on the dirty floor, for one thing, and I was in a stupor of adoration. He saw me falling in love with Toby, and I saw him falling in love with Toby, and it was so peaceful.

Lying there, looking at the puppy sleeping after a round of play, detached from my remote control, I already sensed that he had some kind of curative power over me, that he could somehow wake me up. This gorgeous blob of chaos was going to dominate me.

*   *   *

At that time, I became obsessed with training. The assault on our daily routines was lovely, but it also sent me into recovery mode. We contacted a local guy who advertised online for home dog training and made an appointment. Don, in his twenties, with a brown shag haircut, came to our house one bright October morning, and in that hour, he told us that being firm and direct with your dog was the key to mastering him. As it turned out, we needed training, not Toby, and particularly me. After talking about how dogs want leadership, he took us down to the sidewalk for a walking session, pulling Toby forward despite Toby’s efforts to sniff at trees and jump up at his legs. He told us that Toby’s neck was strong, so we shouldn’t worry about tugging on the leash for correction.

“Always keeps him on the same side behind you as you walk,” Don explained.

“If he runs ahead of you and tries to be the leader, stop and stand in place to show him who’s boss,” Don advised.

“Always make him sit before you take off his leash,” Don recommended.

When Don used our dog’s name he said “TOBY,” with authority, with not even the slightest insinuation of a question mark at the end of the word. By the end of the hour, I realized that I had to start training myself to issue commands more like an army sergeant than a plaintive friend. Mellow-voiced to the point where more than one person has suggested I go into phone sex if the whole journalism thing doesn’t work out, I needed to make my FM radio voice heard through a haze of puppy distraction. I needed to project; the soggy bass needed to play lead. I felt like a fool talking so bossily to my dog, especially outside, when someone might hear me issuing orders, but I believed it was essential.

Simultaneously, I was studying all the training books—by Cesar Millan, by the Monks of New Skete—about taking charge of your dog, who was once a wolf. They made me feel even more that I had to be commanding, or else Toby could ruin our finely tuned balance, our vertical control, our brightness, our sharpness. We were two men with demanding jobs—I worked mostly at home; Tom went to the office—already straining to maintain our well-earned stability. With the advent of Toby, I was scrambling to keep up with my TV shows, to have sustained thinking and writing time, to have something to say to my zeitgeist-addicted editors and to my readers about the nondoggy universe. In those first weeks and months of Tobyworld, my sense of control was under siege.

*   *   *

That I was in such close proximity to a dog, even enjoying his breath on my face, was a little absurd. Here’s the way backstory: For most of my life, I hated dogs, all dogs. I was terrified of them, so much so that I once slept in the bathroom rather than face my roommate’s visiting dog, who waited for me outside the bathroom door, panting, barking, whining, hoping to play with a new friend. I was in college and living off campus, and my roommate was out, so I dozed sitting up, my neck against a roll of toilet paper, until she came home at four in the morning, whereupon I pretended that I just happened to be using the toilet at that moment. “Oh, hey, good morning, good night,” I said with blurry eyes to her and her dog, a German shepherd mix, who was now wagging his tail at her, as I walked out of the bathroom. I was afraid of things that moved quickly and unpredictably—not just dogs, but basketballs and baseballs, speedboats, love, anything that could abruptly invade my personal space and crack the glass.

As a teen, I spent most of my time stoned, and stonelike, a statue with wide, vacant eyes, mouth shut. My face was pale, angular, wary of the playful spirit. Forever bored, I’d sit rubbing joint and cigarette ashes into my jeans and listening to cerebral rock ’n’ roll with friends. I’d get drunk and laugh my stomach sore, and then, the next day, return to my mope. My mother foisted me on my older brother David for a week during his freshman year at Lehigh University, and he was unnerved by my clenched blankness around his new friends, all of them newly and giddily out of the nest. “At least keep your mouth open when you sit there,” he begged.

I was morbidly afraid of playing sports, and forged gym notes at school on a regular basis, adding the feminine curlicues that I thought befitting a pretty young mother. Soccer, football, Ping-Pong—the ball would race back and forth and over and up, and I’d feel unprotected, stupid, trapped in a secret hell of dread. Amid the rampant motion of a basketball game in which I was forced to play at school or summer camp, I’d go into emotional lockdown. I must have looked like a human bomb shelter to the sports teachers, all clenched against flying things. One glance at the basketball court and you’d spot me and think, Major geek and freak. Play frightened me, and it mystified my early sense of reason—I just couldn’t see the reward in letting go, in running around a field in sneakers and risking damage and embarrassment. I may have seemed like the proverbial “old soul,” but I was more of a scared child.

And dogs were like dodgeballs with teeth and bad breath. The idea of playing around with a dog was unthinkable. I was afraid of all dogs, from bossy Malteses to gentle Great Danes. When I was seven or eight, I had a recurring nightmare about being chased by a Saint Bernard while riding my bike on Plymouth Street, a few blocks from our home in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The dog’s head was giant and tufted and he was nipping at my heels as I pedaled desperately onward. I could see throbbing red veins in his eyes. He chased me uphill, hundreds of pounds of teeth, jowls, and foamy spittle. This wasn’t a W. C. Fields mascot with a small barrel of brandy around his neck; this was Cujo, and he was running me out of suburbia. His expression didn’t convey the bored loyalty of the classic Saint Bernard; it reflected fury at me and my bike-riding ass. He wasn’t forcing me to go home; he was banishing me. The dog—and, by extension, all dogs—kept me from where I belonged. He was driving me off to the land of parentlessness, shame, and death. Yeah, it cut deep.

Around the same time, I saw the local animal officers lead a rabid mutt out of my neighbor’s front bushes with a contraption that looked like a fishing rod with a carrot on the end. It was after school, and I watched safely from the brick front steps in my yard two houses away. I expected to see a ferocious beast emerge from the arborvitae, shooting sparks and clawing at the air, but the dog was listless and spent. His hind legs looked rubbery, and he seemed to be pulling himself forward with his front legs, slouching toward his doom. Rabid. The word forever fixed itself in my brain beside dog. Dogs are lame and dirty; dogs want to chase you down; dogs have a crazy disease that can infect you. If I ever accidentally touched a dog at a friend’s house, or touched something that had touched a dog, my hand would quietly buzz until I could wash it and turn off the alarm. An older kid in fifth grade had once told me that if you visualized a dog attacking you in the presence of a dog, you would, in fact, get attacked, so my negative thoughts became more inescapable because they were so powerful.

“Go-wan!” was what my frightened mother would half-yell at any neighborhood dog that came close to her on the street, as in “Shoo, go on.” Usually composed, gentle, and fashionable, she’d try to wave them away as she would a fly, stepping back awkwardly in case her warnings were impotent, looking very alone. She and I both backed away from play and haphazard movement; when your guard is down, we knew, precious things are stolen—my father, for example, whose unremarkable flu had quickly devolved into early death from a rare blood disease. Both of us were steeled against more sudden plunder.

Fear—it’s the birth of winter, the frozen root, the hands lifted so they won’t get bitten, as if frost doesn’t reach above a certain height.

*   *   *

But I found Tom in 1998, and he pried me out of my retreat. I’d always expected that I couldn’t love, that I was afraid to love because I was afraid to lose, that I was a hybrid of clichés about literary types who can’t let go, grievers who can’t move on, and TV addicts whose souls are as slippery as the aisles of a chain store. I’d always expected I would wave my hand and say “Go-wan,” like my mother, to any eager suitor twitching his nose at me and signaling me to come frolic.

I was wrong.

And with Tom, and his gushy, melancholy Irish temperament, always ready for a sentimental moment, I found dogs. There’s a comedy album from the 1960s calledWhen You’re in Love the Whole World Is Jewish. For me, falling in love made me and the whole world into dog lovers. When I fell in love with Tom, when he made his way through my cool desolation, something in me in fell apart; a wall or two crumbled. Some people learn to love a dog and then a person; I came at that backward. Once in the world of contact, in love with a human being, I felt more at ease around the uncontrollability of an animal. Tom’s doting aunt, who lived an hour away in Bedford, had a border collie and three poodles; her old three-story house was ruled by this fab four, and a few cats. And Tom still grieved his golden retriever, Teddy, tearing up at the mention of his name. His brother had a wise yellow Lab elder. A friend had gotten a Samoyed, a feisty fluff ball. After a lifetime dodging dogs, I began to feel more secure and open around them. The longer I stayed in love with Tom, the more I could rock and roll and improvise. Embracing a dog, like embracing a person, is taking on the unpredictable, the mysterious, the joyous, and, someday, the terrible.

For a few years, Tom pressed me for a dog, but I was anxious about what would happen to our lovely sense of order, the ménage a trois between Tom, me, and the TV. There was only a certain amount of love to go around, it seemed, once all of my TV work was done. That’s why I kept saying no; I felt love and devotion toward him, but what if those feelings came in limited amounts? But my resistance eroded. I’d been wrong before, and, after dog-sitting a friend’s spectacular black-and-white lady mutt named Bailey for a weekend, I began to find the thought of never owning a dog unbearable. It felt like I’d had a best friend over for a weekend. When Bailey’s owner came to pick her up on Sunday, she ran to him, and I was a little crushed. The minute they left and the door closed, I put a big frown on my face.

“I miss Bailey,” I said, and Tom laughed at me, enjoying his triumph.

That holiday season, I gave Tom one of those cards with a close-up of a puppy on the front—dog-owner pornography, card-manufacturer shamelessness—and inside I wrote simply “OK,” as in “I’ll be okay,” “We’ll be okay,” and “Okay, let’s get a dog.”

Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Gilbert

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