Noisy Water Review

Becoming the Animal at the Dog Park

Dylan Forest

The word civilized carries two distinct meanings that are commonly conflated with each other. One is simply of or related to a civilization, which, anthropologically defined, is a largely populated city that is socially stratified, has a central authority, and where labor is diversified. The other meaning, the one that most Americans would probably think of first, is polite, refined, and well-bred. Most people in the Western world make a connection between living in cities and being tamer, less savage, less “wild”, and they hold this up as ideal. Our culture is full of messages that instill in us the savage/civilized binary, and it is the supposed moral and intellectual superiority of “civilized man” over “savage” that has justified innumerable cultures being eradicated, by being either wiped out completely or forced to conform to Western ideals. This hierarchy of man over nature also has a driving force in our compulsive need to master wildness in our environment – to pave roads, cut down trees, define boundaries, and otherwise translate the natural world into man-made terms.

This way of thinking of man as conqueror of the primitive, as tamer of the untamed, allows for unimaginable destruction of the earth to continue every day and creates a mindset that is far from healthy. In “Aerobic Sisyphus and the Suburbanized Psyche,” Rebecca Solnit outlines some of the changes that have occurred in our society in relation to this mindset of separation from the Earth. She focuses on walking as a metaphorical “indicator species”, with its diminishment as a warning sign as to the condition of our “various kinds of freedoms and pleasures: free time, free and alluring space, and unhindered bodies” (Solnit 215). Solnit demonstrates the various reasons walking has disappeared as a culturally acceptable and accessible practice, including city layouts catering more to vehicles and less to pedestrians, and argues that “walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading, and with it goes and ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination” (214). This relationship comes with engagement with and connection to the environment and the physical self, and has been a central part of many human cultures throughout history and across the globe.

Along with the analogy of walking as an indicator species, Solnit then develops this further, with the gym as a “wildlife preserve for bodily exertion” (228). She argues that these spaces exist because our daily lives no longer include using our bodies to perform tasks, but in all of us exists a need to engage physically with the world around us. When I read this analogy, I started thinking of other recreational places people go and the missing pieces in our culture that they replace. One that immediately came to mind was the dog park, especially because it is one of the rare places where people still walk for pleasure. It struck me that because it is such a unique space that many people frequent, the dog park might be a “wildlife preserve” as well, a place that arose out of the need to preserve a vanishing part of the human experience. As I spent time there, this became more obvious to me.

While the dog park is thought of as a place for dogs, it is notably presented in human terms. It consists of gravel trails that wind through a wooded area and are centered around a mowed grass field. Signs signify the boundaries of the area, and the path is fully fenced in from the surrounding trees. This illustrates a common theme in Western ideals: the impulse to control, master, and possess everything around, to re-form things into defined, “civilized” terms. This impulse is evident in many aspects of our history and current day culture, from the forceful colonization of the Americas to the continued development into all corners of the earth. It is an integral part of the ways we are taught to act and the personality traits we are told to cultivate in ourselves, for the process of turning a child into a rule-abiding adult is much like the process from wild creature to pet. This way of seeing the world is even evident in the dog itself, which is a wild animal re-formed through domestication to fit human ideals. Far from Solnit’s mourned past connection to the environment, this ideology is one of domination and suppression of it instead.

One of the first things I noticed while spending time in the dog park was that almost everyone was doing the same thing as their dog. People whose dogs were running and playing together in the field were circled around the outside, talking casually and smiling easily with each other. Dogs that walked straight through the area sniffing the ground or otherwise absorbed in their surroundings would be followed by a person looking at the trees, engaged completely in the environment in the same way. A man whose dog wanted nothing more than to chase a tennis ball was just as enthusiastic to throw it repeatedly. What this led me to conclude was that far from being just for dogs, the dog park is an excuse for people to carry out the sorely missed activities that are missing in modern civilization. Some would see this trend and assume that people were just following their dogs leads, and there certainly was an element of the space being dog-centered, but to assume the dogs had no thought of what actions would be acceptable is to not give them enough credit, both as pack animals who are instinctively conscious of social hierarchy, and as the products of thousands of years of domestication. Rather than being the leaders of the dog park, the dogs were actually acting as extensions of their corresponding people, allowing those people to enjoy activities they normally wouldn’t be comfortable participating in.

Having acknowledged the strong hold that a culture-wide aversion towards the untamed and “wild” aspects of our surroundings and personalities has on America, it is not surprising that these activities require an animal to be present in order to be appropriate. Nowhere in our culture would we see the same space minus the dogs, and even imagining it made me laugh. Normal, functioning members of society would not be seen engaging with nature and each other in such an unstructured and unrestrained way. In the presence of the dog, who we allow to be wild (for the wild is only the domain of the non-human), people are permitted to behave in a way that most Americans would consider animalistic. The popularity of the dog park and the consistence I saw in people’s behavior proves that there is a strong desire to disobey our culture’s rules of conduct and reconnect with the animal within.

This reconnection seemed to take three different forms, first of which being employed by those who congregated and socialized while their dogs played. These people were enjoying an easy and casual social mixing and sense of community that Rebecca Solnit argues has all but disappeared in the modern city. She writes, “Cars have encouraged a privatization of space, as shopping malls replace shopping streets, public buildings become islands in a sea of asphalt, civic design lapses into traffic engineering, and people mingle far less freely and frequently” (Solnit 221). This type of mingling is exactly what I saw at the dog park. People smiled and greeted me much more often than they would have elsewhere in the city, and I saw people mixing across age and class lines and between subcultures in ways I didn’t expect. Everyone seemed much less confined by social rules, but most social interactions were initiated through the dogs, using the animal as an appropriate vessel through which to enjoy such an uncivilized act as unrestrained socialization.

While some people seemed to be seeking connection with other people, some were clearly seeking a connection with nature. Several people walked through the area following their dogs and gazing into the trees, much more engaged with and interested in the space around them than you would see on the street. In fact, in my entire time at the dog park I didn’t see one person checking a cell phone or listening to headphones, certainly unusual today when most people I see walking seem to be actively distracting themselves from paying attention to their surroundings. One woman I saw sat and looked at the view for 15 minutes while her dogs whined beside her, which at first was in stark contrast to the trend I had observed of people following their dogs lead, but I then realized it fit firmly into my hypothesis that the dog park was a place for people to act out desires, not solely a place for dogs.

People’s desires also led them one other place: to a connection with their physical bodies. Several runners and the aforementioned man playing fetch both seemed fully absorbed in the moment, caught up in the feeling of making their heart beat faster. Far from the type of mindless, unengaged exercise one might experience in a gym, everyone who was exercising at the dog park looked not only stimulated, but fulfilled. I could not imagine that any of them were counting down until the end of their “work out”. This is a type of use of the body that we rarely see today, when most of the people who exercise do so in a way that is far removed from a natural, unhindered use of the body as both a tool and a part of the self. When explaining the state of our connections to our bodies today, Solnit writes, “The industrial revolution institutionalized and fragmented labor; the gym is now doing the same thing…for leisure” (230). When the full experience of being a living, breathing, sweating entity, acting and reacting to all that is around you, is isolated and broken down into mindless repetitive tasks, the part is separated from the whole, and one loses touch with the continuity between mind, body, and surroundings.

In “Nature and Madness,” Paul Shepard warns of the ways that this loss of connection with the physical world interferes with the way our minds evolved to function, and he even argues that it has led to a sort of culture-wide insanity. Shepard writes, “From the epoch of Judeo-Christian emergence is an abiding hostility to the natural world, characteristically fearful and paranoid. The sixteenth-century fixation on the impurity of the body and the comparative tidiness of the machine are strongly obsessive-compulsive” (Shepard). Here Shepard illustrates two delusions that have heavily contributed to a culture of chronic disengagement from one’s environment, body, and community: the hierarchy of man over nature, and that of the machine over the body. The two concepts are not as separate as they may seem, for in what way is the human body not a part of the natural world? Replacing the body with machines through industrialization was just one more step towards trying to suppress nature; it devalued the organic in favor of the man-made.

But devaluing the natural world leads to neglect of a critical part of what it means to be human. We did not become who we are today by dominating nature through most of history - in fact, it is a relatively new phenomenon. Most of the course of our evolution occurred in hunting and gathering groups, small populations that thrive by learning to cooperate with each other and the environment. When technological ability to manipulate the environment is scarce, survival means learning to interpret the signs of the Earth, to follow animal migrations or ripening fruit, anticipate the changes of the seasons, or otherwise become invested in paying attention to and understanding the natural order of things. Such a lifestyle encourages a sense of the self as a part of nature, rather than master of it, as we see ourselves today, and it was this subsistence pattern that carried us through a majority of our evolution as a species. In fact, while our closest humanoid ancestor, the species Homo erectus, began appearing about 2 million years ago, humans didn’t even begin to start domesticating plants and animals until around 10,000 years ago. That means that even when not counting the millions of years of humanoid evolution that occurred before Homo erectus, we’ve still only been altering our environment as a way of life for 0.5% of our history. In evolutionary terms, 10,000 years is the blink of an eye.

All organisms are a product of the environment they evolved to thrive in, and humans are no exception. The human brain evolved in adaptation to the environment it existed in and for millions of years that environment was in small groups that lived off the unaltered land. Thus, we became a species that was proficient in navigating interactions with other people and with nature. When withdrawal from both of these things is glorified, we are being urged to fight a war against that which we come from, to cut down the forests we were designed to inhabit. Shepard explains that “Biological evolution cannot meet the demands of these new societies. It works much too slowly to make adjustments in our species in these ten millennia since the archaic foraging cultures began to be destroyed by their hostile, aggressive, better-organized, civilized neighbors. Programmed for the slow development toward a special kind of sagacity, we live in a world where that humility and tender sense of human limitation is no longer rewarded. Yet we suffer for the want of that vanished world, a deep grief we learn to misconstrue” (Shepard). This sense of longing is what leads us to seek out our best approximation of what’s missing in our lives, to create “wildlife preserves” for disappearing but critical aspects of human nature.

The grief that Shepard references is obvious with one glance at American culture and its discontents. Along with the earlier mentioned worldwide implications of our disengagement from nature, there are painful personal implications for the people coming of age in this society. I know that I am not alone in feeling that something important and meaningful is missing in my experience of the world, and that becomes evident in the large amount of people heard wondering what the “meaning of life” is, in the droves of people seeking meaning in religion, or the ever-growing number of people being medicated for anxiety or depression. When you never develop a sense of your place in a community or the earth, you are deprived of a sense of being a part of a greater whole. Isolated within yourself, separate from the sense of being connected to everything else, separate even from your body and the sensual world, how could one feel anything but alone and without purpose? When your mindset includes acknowledging the self as just one component of a greater ecosystem, your existence cannot be meaningless. When that same mindset also includes freely and regularly connecting with other people, it’s hard to develop the complete social isolation and feeling of being inherently different and misunderstood that I struggled with so much as a teenager and still continue to work through. But, like Shepard notes, most of us are so far from functioning the way our species is geared towards that even when we know something is amiss, we still misconstrue that. In the instance of the dog park, we do that by putting limitations on the space and by experiencing it through an animal. We clearly have a long way to go before we are able to authentically live out our engrained desires without feeling like we are behaving in culturally unacceptable ways.

To me the dog park seems to illustrate clearly several things. In its mere existence, it affirms that there is a need to preserve aspects of the human experience that are missing in modern American life. The way we must experience the space both through a man-made environment that is separated completely from the rest of civilization, and then through the presence of the animal, shows how strongly our culture emphasizes separation of humanity and wildness, and how far most of us are from overcoming that, even when we want to. But wildness as a stunted and inferior characteristic and the concept of humanity as separate from all that is natural are relatively new ideas that sprung from the concept, as Solnit says, that “progress consists of the transcendence of time, space, and nature” (223). Not only does this concept deprive us as humans, it has countless detrimental effects on other peoples and environments. It says a lot of our instinctive desire to be connected to nature (whether that is through connection with the environment, other humans, or our bodies - they are all a part of nature) that even in a culture so completely inundated with the idea of man as conqueror of the wild, people have created a place like the dog park, which does everything it can to sidestep all of society’s rules about proper interaction with the world to create one of the last places that exist in a city where people can try to get close again to nature. Even though a hamster wheel is no run through the woods, the animal utilizes it because the need is so overwhelming and because within its cage it has no better choice. We are not so different.

Works Cited

Solnit, Rebecca. “Aerobic Sisyphus and the Suburbanized Psyche.” Think Vertically! Essays for Inquiry, Analysis and Reflection. Southlake, TX: Fountainhead, 2010. 214-236. Print.

Shepard, Paul. "Nature and Madness." Primitivism. Web. 25 May 2011.


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