Sunday, September 1, 2013

It's a hot dog's life

As Murphy and I push open the metal gates of the dog park, a three-legged black labrador nearly wags itself off balance in excitement. 

Murphy waves his grey bushy tail in greeting and sets about his daily examination of the canine message boards. Murphy is half cocker, half English shepherd. He’s my brother-in-law’s mutt and the reason we turned our world upside down by buying our own English shepherd. 

We wanted a dog just like Murphy – friendly with a bushy tail. Unfortunately we miscalculated the relative contributions of spaniel and shepherd to the Murphy mix and ended up with a horse. 

Even on four legs, Boots now stands taller than Izzy. At least he’s stopped eating the chair legs. Now we fear for the ceiling.

I used to think Californian dog parks were horrendous. Little patches of hard earth where owners and dogs commingle for collective defecation and ball-throwing in 90 degree heat. They only exist because dogs are banned off-leash in public places. I think it’s not so much for health reasons, more because the authorities don’t want to be sued for assault by canine. 

I believed this edict was unbelievably cruel. Dogs aren’t designed for leads; they need to run about, not be brought up in air-conditioned prisons where their only excitement is walking on hot pavement or a bit of fenced scrubland once a day. I probably thought Californians shouldn’t be allowed to keep dogs at all. 

But gradually I’ve mellowed. Because, while I’m over here working in LA, I’m getting used to this lifestyle. I’m enjoying the sun, and I’m enjoying my daily dog park excursions with Murphy. 

We have a set routine. I hang the lead alongside the others on the chain fence, then wait while Murphy sniffs and marks the first message boards. He chases a stray squirrel out of the park, then it’s off to greet the Rhodesian Ridgebacks. 

They were bred to keep lions at bay. With their ridge of hair growing the wrong way along their backs, these come in a fearsome pack of four. They surround Murphy as we approach, sniff, then disdainfully let him through. 

Their owners are two couples, one wearing Chargers tee-shirts, the other with caps supporting the rival Miami Dolphins. They sit at the hot table, the only one without a shading umbrella, and argue about San Diego’s chances against the Houston Texans. I don’t feel I can interrupt their conversation with more than a nod – what I know about the NFL can be written on the side of a Yorkshire Gold teabag. So we progress to the reading tables in the shade. 

Each table has an umbrella, a novel, a dog and a female reader wearing denim shorts. Clutching their paperbacks, they smile at me as I settle down with notepad, Murphy panting under the table, waiting for a visitation. 

In the distance, the three-legged dog is racing after a ball like a drunk whippet, while an obese man with a beard and a Starbucks drags his pitbull out of the mud beside the water fountain. A chihuahua called Sprinkles is yapping incessantly while her voluptuous owner whines at her agent down her mobile phone. 

This is Californian life in one little park. 

My table is soon joined by a collie called Sophie and a middle-aged couple called Ava and Bill. He does something with software, and Ava is about to take Sophie for rattlesnake avoidance training. Oh, and yes, they love my accent. 

I’m just finding out about the dangers of snakes in your back garden when my mobile rings. Jo is in a panic. 

Boots has gone missing and it’s pouring with rain. She’s 5000 miles away, and I’m supposed to: what, call for him down the phone? He’s rounding up the sheep again, and she has to trudge across three wet fields to retrieve him. 

Murphy looks up at me with his big brown eyes. 

What have you got us into, boy? I say. 

If my project over here is successful, we may be moving here for good. I wonder if the snakes will tolerate Boots as much our neighbour’s sheep. I take down the rattlesnake trainer’s number, just in case.

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