New York City Dog Park Observation
Witnessing the Complex Interplay Between Humans and Animals
The relationship between humans and animals is a complex web of interactions which unfolds in the external world and can be observed with the five senses. Internally, there are equally important functions and mechanisms at work both for the human and for the animal. There was no more vivid a place to immerse myself in the observation of this fascinating interplay than at the 87th St. Dog Run on the Upper West Side of New York City. As an outsider from California, I was especially keen to the differences in culture and environment which set the backdrop for my eyewitness exploration. The people with their unique set of cultural norms, the dogs with their uninhibited display of behavior, and the metropolitan surroundings all came together like a motion picture. I took part as an observer and as a participant that interacted with both the humans and dogs. I attempted objectivity and understood that I am inherently subjective. The results of my observations revealed many themes which spoke to the core of human and canine social needs, and how those needs translate into the way we all relate with each other.
It was a cloudy afternoon with warm thick air in Manhattan, New York. The weather was pleasant, comfortable and many people were out for a stroll along the Hudson River Greenway. The surrounding neighborhood was affluent and it was quite common to see children being walked by their nannies in strollers or by hand. I could hear but not see the traffic whistling by the apartment buildings. The park was tucked away enough that I could no longer see the city, just the peaceful Hudson River which divided New Jersey and New York State. There were boats floating by, bikers on the path, friends taking walks, and local dog owners headed to a small enclosed dog park. Like the rest of the city, the park was bustling with activity and life.
During my first 15 minutes at the dog park, I thought to myself, nothing too unusual is happening here…dogs are running around and owners are sitting on benches watching their dogs. My observation deepened when I noticed that some dog owners were on their phones appearing occupied by more important matters. Other people seemed to find refuge from technology and the city’s fast pace while in a more natural setting with their dog. The range of interactions between humans became more apparent.
To my left was a group of four people with different dogs sitting along some benches. They were enjoying conversation about their dogs which seemed to be an ice-breaker, while simultaneously watching their dogs interact. It was as if though they were watching a TV show together and experiencing matching emotions; joy when the dogs made friends, fear when they saw aggression, dismay and embarrassment when one dog started humping another, and laughter at some unexpectedly cute and funny behaviors.
To my right was a young man curled up to himself, sitting alone with his headphones on and his feet up on the bench. He was not interested in his dog’s behavior or in chatting with other people. He brought a beautiful Husky male. I then noticed two small Terrior breeds that thought it more comfortable to stay by their owner, an older woman on the phone. They looked up at her often but she was unresponsive to them. A few other owners were standing around and engaged in observing their pups. I realized that some owners were attuned to their animals and the people around them, while others were completely disconnected.
Two young girls in school uniforms caught my eye. The first, about 8 years old, was sternly giving commands to her dog which looked like a Poodle and Golden Retriever mix. At first, she seemed quite bossy, until I realized that she did not want him to drink dirty water and was being protective. She approached the hose and water bowls, scooted the other dogs away, and refilled the bowls with fresh water. Her dog was very obedient and waited for her command to drink. Another young girl with a gregarious Brittney Spaniel was literally running around with all the dogs, joining in on the play. I would soon see that she truly loved her dog. When the large and proud Husky (belonging to the young man with headphones) entered the park, he showed dominance to all the other dogs, sniffing them and nudging away sniffers. The gregarious Brittney must have upset the Husky. The Husky became aggressive and the two got into a scuffle. The Brittney whimpered away to the young girl, slowly sat beside her and relented to the new alpha. This left the girl observably sad and concerned. She rested her cheek on the Brittney’s head, stroked him and repeatedly told him, “It’s going to be okay.”
The Husky went on to find his old buddy, a Chocolate Labrador Retriever. I spoke with the Lab’s owner and commented on the wonderful temperament of his dog. When the Lab entered the park, he first showed submission and let all the other dogs sniff him before he let out his playful boisterous side. After speaking to the owner, I couldn’t help thinking that he had a very similar friendly and active temperament. He was a tall fit man in exercise gear, contented with a smile, interacting with others, though standing confidently on his own. He told me the Husky and Lab had been friends for 5 months and frequented the same park often.
During the next 20 minutes, I observed the two dogs wrestling each other, and there was never a squeak out of either of them. They were soul friends, connected for a reason I would never know. Many other dogs tried to join in on the play but these two were just not interested. Except for a small black French Pitbull which was about to steal the show.
The Frenchie was persistently jumping on top of the Chocolate Lab when the Lab would topple over in submission to the Husky. The Frenchie was so small he could balance on the Lab’s tummy. It looked like he was surfing by the way he stayed balanced. Then he’d fall off but manage to get back on. It was a spectacle for the people at the park and I could hear others, including myself laughing. I thought, what a brave little dog. The Frenchie managed to win over the Chocolate Lab’s friendship and a new bond had formed. For the rest of my time at the park, the Lab and the Frenchie were inseparable as they tumbled around and around. The Husky went off to get water.
Most of the dogs took their time to sniff out and assess their counterparts before interacting. However, some showed more consistent aggression, or avoidance from the time they entered the park to the time they left. Upon further examination, I could see that dogs, like humans, had compensatory and risk-averse behaviors which might have originated from their unique life experiences, personality and caretaker handling. Some were more flexible and some more set in their ways.
My observation at the 87th Street Dog Run was dynamic as groups often are. I observed that the predominant emotion in the park was happiness and joy, not only for the dogs. I learned that animals can help reveal the way their human disciplines, shows affection, experiences the present moment, interacts with other humans, and handles challenging situations. Additionally, the animal showed an emotional experience which revealed their own social needs in the canine hierarchy. It seemed that the humans and the dogs were seeking the same things; acceptance, happiness, and a break from the mundane. The dogs helped humans meet these needs while humans helped the dogs reach theirs. It was a complex and wonderful dance to watch.