I loved “Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park” by Matthew Gilbert. As a former dog park person and now a neighborhood dog walker, I found myself relating to so much of what Gilbert describes in his book. Everyone knows all of the dogs’ names and we refer to owners as Jack’s mom or Nellie’s mom. Eventually you get to know the other dog park peoples’ names and then their stories. Gilbert’s book is his story of his first year with Toby and how Toby helps him come out of his relatively introverted shell. Toby makes him make friendships with folks he would meet no where else but at the dog park. Gilbert, a television critic for The Boston Globe, wasn’t even a dog person until he and his husband, Tom, decided to get an absolutely gorgeous yellow Labrador puppy. Gilbert worked at home and soon learned that a puppy needed exercise, a lot of exercise, so much exercise that walking on the sidewalks just wasn’t enough for a very energetic puppy.
Gilbert, (actually Toby), finds Armory Park and then the dogs and their human companions at the park. At first he just lets Toby play and doesn’t interact with the others. But as anyone who goes to a dog park knows that if you come come to a park with a puppy others will be drawn to you like a magnet and want to talk. And talk leads to learning everyone’s names and eventually their stories. Gilbert aptly describes the dog park denizens, including an older gentleman, Saul, who doesn’t have a dog anymore but loves dogs and tries so hard to connect with the dogs and their owners. One of the most poignant parts of “Off the Leash” is when Saul no longer comes to the park. Saul was in the early states of Alzheimer’s and had a minor car accident and had to move in with his brother. The dog park people track down Saul’s brother and find out that he needs more care than his brother can give and that he is moved to a retirement home. There are other stories that tug at the heart. Stories of when a dog dies. The dog park family rallies around the companion and brings food and tells stories and witnesses with the bereaved about the loss.
At other times “Off the Leash” is laugh out loud funny; dog people have stories to tell and if you are at a park, you have time to hear their stories. You also learn who follows the rules, and who doesn’t, who joins in and who doesn’t, and how the dog park people use their dogs to express feelings they would never normally share with anyone else. Gilbert calls this sharing dog ventriloquism.
If you have a dog or had a dog or want a dog, you will enjoy “Off the Leash”. Your dog might too, Nellie did, I read numerous passages to her. She did not pass judgment, she is a dog, I did, I am am a dog park person.