Home News When you stand side by side at the dog park, you can reveal your true selves – but not your names | Melanie Tait

When you stand side by side at the dog park, you can reveal your true selves – but not your names | Melanie Tait

When you stand side by side at the dog park, you can reveal your true selves – but not your names | Melanie Tait

There’s a universal truth about dog parks: if you go to one regularly enough you’ll find out people’s deepest secrets even though you’ll probably never know their name.

The morning I was about to drive my packed car and two dogs away from our life in Hobart, I took Mabel and Goldie for their last run on the part of the beach near our house that was designated to make the lives of our canine pals joyous: the most beautiful dog park in the world.

I was in a weepy, wistful mood as I watched the dogs play in the surf, knowing that I was about to take them back to a tiny back yard in the inner west of Sydney. My neighbour and his little dog approached. It wasn’t long before we were both staring out at the sea, standing side by side, while our three dogs played happily.

My neighbour and I had lived beside each other in a kind of Protestant hostility of passive aggression – he, a former military man, and me, someone who had been having a mid-30s existential breakdown lasting the entire three years I lived nextdoor to him. Oh, the unmown lawns!

As the sun rose he started to tell me about how some health issues had him thinking about his father’s death, which he went on to tell me about in minute detail. By the time he ended we were both in tears: at the principled life of twists and turns his father had lived and the great dignity he had exited with.

After three years of cold war waged across a fence line, suddenly we were crying together? How did this happen?

Anyone who has dogs they take to dog parks or beaches knows exactly how.

Over 10 years of frequenting dog parks I’ve heard people’s deepest secrets and I’ve shared mine. I’ve heard tales of marriages, affairs, troubled children, ailing parents, family feuds and work dramas. One morning I hugged someone five hours after they heard their middle-aged child had taken their own life.

It was life advice dispensed by at the dog park that eventually made me sell my house, leave Hobart and my safe job … to be a playwright. I couldn’t tell you the name of the woman who advised me – I knew her as “Skippy’s mum” (my bank manager doesn’t thank you, Skippy’s mum, but I do!).

A friend of mine, new to dog-park life, was telling me how her partner was finding it completely bonkers that she knew everyone’s deepest essential selves without knowing anyone’s name.

She agreed: my theory might just be spot on.

My hypothesis, backed up by zero published scholarly studies or psychologists, is that we share so much at the dog park for the same reason we’re encouraged to talk to our teenage children about serious issues while driving in the car: we’re not looking into each other’s eyes, so we can be more vulnerable.

At the dog park, we stand side by side. Depending on the mix of dogs, it’s usually a relatively calm place. We’re in comfy clothes.

Like parents watching their kids at the playground, we’re making sure our dogs aren’t acting up. It starts with normal chatter about the animals – their names, ages, eccentricities. It’s usually early in the morning, or after a long day of work, and over time those connections become more open. And safe.

They’re safe because What’s Said at the Dog Park Stays at the Dog Park and 90% of us know each other only by our dog’s names.

Just a couple of weeks ago, visiting a dog park I’d not been to for nearly a decade, I bumped into a woman whose pug had been pals with my Mabel when she was a puppy. We spent half an hour catching up – our lives, our relationships, why we hadn’t had the children we planned back then, our work, our housing, even our finances – it was one of those conversations that leaves you filled up and sated.

As she and Peanut walked away, I thought: “Wow. I know how much money she got in a redundancy payout and what she’s going to do with it, but I don’t know her name.”

I’m sure she was thinking the same thing.

Melanie Tait is a playwright and journalist living in Sydney


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