The Dog Park Saved My Sanity

Every night at 9 pm, my fiancee and I go to the dog park. This ritual has been going on for months, since I first discovered the tucked-away green space when I was driving through our neighborhood with a pair of scissors, discretely collecting prickly pear cuttings to plant in our backyard. The park is set on a small hill covered in prickly pears and after I stuck some of the spiky cuttings into my trunk, I climbed the few steps up the hill and found myself standing outside a half-length football field enclosed on all sides by a chain link fence.

I wouldn’t have thought about the park again except for that in July of this year, we brought home a black and brown dachshund mix from a local rescue. She was 12 pounds of long, wiggly love. We named her Woof Bader Ginsburg. Secretly, I had hoped that a dog would help my rising anxiety. We’d adopted Woof at a crossroads in our lives, individually and as a couple. We were engaged, had both just taken the bar exam, and were both to start our first jobs as lawyers. The stress of my professional reality combined with moving to a new city where we knew no one left me in an extended state of anxious ennui. Worst of all, I’d stopped writing, which had always been how I’d processed the world. I hoped that venting to a non-judgmental dog on long walks around our neighborhood would help me figure something out, like a child learning to read with a golden retriever next to her.

We adjusted to pet parenthood slowly. My fiancee had never had a dog before and though I had been begging for a puppy for years, having responsibility for such a tiny and un-self-aware living did the opposite of curing my anxieties. All of a sudden, our lives were dictated by puppy potty training, trips to the vet for booster shots, and trying to teach Woof to sit and not eat our shoes. I worried that our freedom to be spontaneous evaporated that first night she cuddled up between us on the bed. We would never be able to take a road trip or stay out late again. I worried I’d made a terrible mistake in bringing Woof home, but Amanda started crying when I shamefully suggested that maybe we could take her back, so we kept the dog and slowly she began to integrate into our lives.

The next time we took the dog for a walk, I pulled my fiancee towards the tucked-away park, remembering the sturdy fence that surrounded it. It was the perfect place to let our naughty puppy run off-leash without worrying about her running away. We were not the only ones who recognized the park for its dog-containing capabilities; when we crested the hill and entered the gate, we found four of our neighbors standing in the middle of the field while dogs sped in circles around them, chasing and wrestling each other. We let Woof off her leash and watched as she sniffed each dog in turn and then comfortably introduced herself to each of the humans by rubbing her floppy ears against their legs. Shy, I began introducing myself to the dogs instead of the humans. I squatted down and spoke in low tones to the chihuahua, the three black labs, the golden retriever, the pit bull mix, and surprisingly, another dachshund. I rubbed their ears and let them lick my face.

Bolstered by the dogs’ friendliness, I decided to give the humans a chance. Not by rubbing our heads on them as Woof had, them but by shaking their hands and introducing ourselves. A few were professors at the nearby university, one a flight attendant, one a retail worker. All lived close by, and though there is no official plan or schedule, they meet almost every night at the park as the sun sets to let their dogs run.

At first, we stopped by the park when we remembered or when Woof’s walks coincided with when the late night meeting time, but eventually we began to plan our walks, and then our whole evenings, around our trips to the dog park. We remarked upon the ability of the other dogs to wear Woof out, how she slept through the night after each trip.Our neighbors at the park gave us training tips, brought Woof treats and toys, and soon she stopped peeing in the house and we felt like we were getting the hang of pet parenthood.

It wasn’t long before Woof’s exercise became secondary to our daily trips. On nights she was already worn out and clearly ready for bed, we still clipped her into her harness and walked to the park. We both, but I especially, looked forward to our nightly conversations with our neighbors. As fall deepened into winter, my fiancee and I both received news that we passed the bar exam, and our dog park friends were some of the first people we told, sharing the good news while throwing slobbery tennis balls. Talking while chasing dogs elicited a casual comfortable friendship that usually takes much longer to develop. When we have nothing to talk about, we talk about the dogs, which are a reliably popular topic. We discuss dog jackets, dog diets, dog exercise, and remark upon other cute dogs we’ve seen in the neighborhood. But we also discuss the election, the neighborhood, our jobs. We ask after spouses and girlfriends. We pull out our phones to show each other pictures of Halloween costumes. My fiancee and I are new to this city, and our dog park friends are frequently the only people we see outside of work. It feels like friendship.

As part of my job as an immigration attorney, I go see our detained clients at the detention center on the other side of town. I sit in a small windowless cell as client after desperate client comes in and I try my very best to give them hope for their case. But hope in an immigration case here on the border is very hard to come by, and I leave each day spent at the detention center emotionally drained. One day, everyone I met with at the detention center was in crisis. Some of the clients were mentally incompetent and I struggled to understand them. I was worried about filing deadlines and court dates and motions and unanswered phone calls to our clients’ family members. And I began to worry that I would never be comfortable as an attorney, that I am too shy, quiet, conflict-adverse. As I drove out of the detention center, I started to cry. Who am I, I wondered, to have these people’s lives in my hands?

At our swearing in ceremony to become lawyers, they gave us informational pamphlets about the lawyer’s helpline, an initiative run by the state bar association designed to help lawyers get help when the stress of practicing law becomes too much. Behind only dentists, pharmacists, and physicians, lawyers are the most likely to commit suicide and one in three lawyers are problem drinkers. Lawyers are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and non-profit lawyers almost all suffer from the innocuous-sounding but draining “compassion fatigue.”

What compassion fatigue feels like to me is heartbreak on behalf of your clients, and that day I was heartbroken. The pamphlet was still on the passenger’s side seat. I picked it up and dialed the 1–800 number, but when it began to ring, I realized I didn’t know how to put my feelings into words. I hung up and drove home.

When I got there, Woof was waiting for me at the door, her entire sausage-like body wiggling and her tail slapping against the wall as it wagged. I dropped my work bag onto the floor, grabbed her leash and we walked. I was still in my work clothes, self-conscious in my suit, but Woof didn’t care what I was wearing as she dragged me up the hill to our park. It was early — the usual crowd wouldn’t arrive for hours and I expected the park to be empty. Instead, I saw the familiar long shape of the other dachshund that comes to the park, his chihuahua brother, and their owner. I sat down in the grass in my suit and let the dogs climb on me and lick my face. I rubbed their bellies and their ears and eventually I stood up, and said hello to their owner. My neighbor. My friend. And we talked about the dogs and he mentioned what an uncharacteristically sunny day it was.

And I took off my suit jacket and let the sun shine onto me.

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