The other day I was hiking up the dog-friendly Makapu‘u Lighthouse Trail with my three dogs — we affectionally call the Ratter Pack — and I was reminded about a feeling I used to get at the dog park.
That my dogs aren’t good dogs. And that meant I wasn’t a good owner, either.
Let me back it up: When I first got Sunny, a Pomeranian-toy fox terrier mix, six years ago, I couldn’t wait to take her to the Hawai‘i Kai Dog Park. I was living in the area, newly single with a lot of free time, and wanted to socialize my little puppy as soon as possible. Once we completed the necessary rounds of shots and I got her registered with the city, I started taking little Sunny Girl to the park every weekday afternoon.
The first time I walked into the park, I wasn’t sure how Sunny would react. At home, she was super mellow and quiet. She liked sitting on the couch with me, watching “Top Chef” and eating fried chicken. (Remember, I was single.) So I figured she would be a little shy around other dogs.
Man, was I wrong!
And then she started barking.
She barked and barked, mostly at the bigger dogs on the other side of the fence, trying to get them to run with her. And her bark could be incessant if she wasn’t getting her way.
Most people didn’t seem to notice. But there were a few dog owners who would give me dirty looks, roll their eyes or make snide remarks like, “Oh, there goes that dog again.” Sunny didn’t seem to care, but it made me feel badly.
I kept thinking, “Is my dog really that bad?” “What does that say about me?” “Am I a bad dog owner?”
I tried to stop her from barking, which was frustrating, and other dog owners could tell how stressed out this was making me. My new friends at the dog park would tell me to let it go, she’s just barking, who cares? But I did. I didn’t like people judging me — or my dog, for that matter — by her fairly innocuous behavior at the park. She wasn’t biting any dogs, she didn’t play aggressively. In fact, she was just barking — to get other dogs to play. I knew she wasn’t a bad dog, but I kept feeling other people thought she was, and it was really getting to me.
Once, a man walked into the other park, the one for larger dogs, and Sunny started barking at his pooch, a very relaxed English bulldog. I was embarrassed. I ran over and tried to grab Sunny — she’s quick, I gotta say — and apologized over and over again to the man. He just smiled and waved his hand. “It’s what dogs do,” he said. “They bark. It’s a dog park. Let ’em bark.”
That made me feel instantly better, to have someone — a stranger — tell me what I’ve been thinking all along: What’s the harm?
It’s taken years to get over that feeling that I’m not a good dog owner. I know that I am. I take them walking every day. We hike at least twice a week. We go to the beach, they get bathed weekly, I feed them healthier food than I eat myself.
Still, the looks and remarks can hurt.
As we were walking down the trail, we met up with a large pit bull mix and his owner. Two of my dogs barked at him — I warned the owner ahead of time — and her eyes just widened as we approached. She shook her head and mumbled something under her breath. When another couple approached us — my dogs were well done barking by then — she remarked to them that she was so happy she had a good dog. I wanted to both cry and throw my shoe at her head.
My dogs are happy, they sleep well, they play together, they’re healthy, they get a lot of exercise.
But yes, they bark.
Get over it.
At least, that’s what I have to tell myself.