Back to the barks

03/21/2012 10:00 PM

By Bill Motchan

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My first visit this year to Mary Bartelme Park’s dog play area came last month. As we entered, my wife Mary looked at me with concern and asked, “You OK? Is it too soon?”

It had been just over two months since my dog was euthanized. I went into a mini-depression, and basically, did not handle the loss well.

Danny was a 12-year-old wheaten terrier, in severe pain and unable to stand or walk unassisted. I’d had him since he was a puppy and we’d been through several Big Life Events together. The death of my father. Getting married. A couple of job changes. Two moves, first from St. Louis to Detroit, then to Chicago. I estimated that Danny and I had logged 10,000 miles driving between those three cities since 2004. He wasn’t much on conversation, but then again, he never complained about me playing New Orleans jazz in the car.

Was I ready to go back to the dog park? It felt a little odd at first, since everybody within the friendly confines of the gated dog play area is accompanied by a dog. But it wasn’t really weird, like making plans to visit a Chuck E. Cheese without a child in tow, strictly for the gourmet food.

Since moving to the West Loop, the dog park has always been one of my favorite spots just to sit, soak up the sun, and, more often than not, leave with a bit of drool on your sleeve. If you have a problem with random dogs jumping in your lap, licking your ear, or bumping you with a hip-check, this may not be your best choice. But hey, who doesn’t like a puppy?

My neighbor Mark Scavo put it well. He owns — or perhaps I should say is owned by — a gregarious and roly-poly English bulldog named Turbo. While walking down Sangamon Street, they encountered another pedestrian. Turbo grunted a greeting, but it was not reciprocated. “What’s up with that?” Mark said. “The guy obviously had no soul.”

So, yes. I was definitely ready to go back to the dog park. It’s peaceful, for the most part, interrupted once in a great while by a growl or whimper. The dog park is a central meeting place where you can learn tips about new restaurants or just to network. But mostly, it’s fun to watch the dogs run together in big circles for no particular purpose except to revel in the joy of running.

It’s also heartwarming to talk to the dog owners and learn how many of them took in rescue dogs from unhappy homes. It gives you renewed hope in people in general. Take Maxie, a five-year-old rottweiler/Rhodesian ridgeback mix — and a rescue dog. Tracey Stone, Maxie’s human caretaker, has been visiting the dog play area at Bartelme since it opened in late summer 2010.

“It was really needed in the neighborhood,” she said. “That’s why it became a popular destination from the very first day.”

The dog play area tends to be a self-policing democracy, but if there were an unofficial mayor, it could well be genial Steve Tabloff, always accompanied by his cockapoo, Shug.

“I’ve been coming here since I moved here in late 2010,” Tabloff said. “It’s a great place to meet people in the neighborhood. I probably know 40 or 50 people — and their dogs — by name.”

He proceeded to prove his command of the four-legged visitors by pointing to each of the moving targets and identifying them for me.

“There’s Bella [Weimaraner] and Igor [Airedale] and Charlie [goldendoodle] and Tucker [pit bull-border collie-boxer mix] and there’s Tank [English bulldog].”

The dog play area, and the entirety of Mary Bartelme Park, is so popular, it’s not uncommon for dog owners outside of the West Loop to bring their pooches in, said Scott Maesel, president of the Mary Bartelme Park Advisory Council.

“We actually have dog owners from all over the city,” Maesel said. “Most of them know the park rules, but we need volunteers to help educate newer visitors.”

Maesel said the Park Advisory Council isn’t looking for enforcers, but rather West Loop residents who will keep an eye out for potential problems. Most dogs — and dog owners — in the park are remarkably well-behaved, though. When two dogs square off and the growls turn menacing, their owners quickly step in to take them to neutral corners. It’s also rare to see owners snarl at each other. Owners are expected to control unruly dogs or remove them for a time out until they can behave. Other park rules are fairly intuitive: dogs must be up-to-date on immunizations and have current Chicago DFA licenses. Puppies must be at least four months old.

The popularity of the dog play area is a key reason volunteers are needed, Maesel said. The Chicago Park District requires the dog friendly area be power-washed twice a year. Volunteers are needed for both the spring clean-up and for ongoing positions on the advisory council.

“We feel like we have one of the best parks in the city,” Maesel said. We’re looking for volunteers who use the area and want to offer visitors information and education.”

If you’re a dog owner who uses the Mary Bartelme Park dog play area and you’d like to volunteer, contact Scott Maesel at 312-676-1860 or via email at [email protected]

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By Anne Sinicropi
Posted: 04/01/2012 1:24 PM

Excellent Bill! You have a real talent! Please thank Mary for sending the link.