You never know who you are going to meet when you’re out dog walking. I once read, for example, that actor Bill Nighy is a dog lover. He was quoted in the Age as saying: “I’m one of those people who stop in the street if they see an attractive dog.” I used to be like that before I got my own dog.
Since Bertie came along, dog walking is part of my daily routine. I haven’t met any actors let alone Bill Nighy (shame) but I have had fun people-watching in the various parks and dog-walking areas.
Dendy Park is a large off-leash area and seems to attract gaggles of gossiping dog owners who stand around while their dogs amuse themselves. There’s a lot of talking and very little walking. I like to stride out and get a bit of exercise (especially as I’m not a gym-going, pilates-practising, yoga-loving, marathon-running woman) but I find that I get pulled into conversations and can’t extricate myself.
Walking up to my local dog oval is the easiest and most convenient option, but one I only choose in extremis. There’s quite an eclectic mix here: still a few stand-arounders – either chatting, on the phone or occasionally throwing a ball for Fido; then there’s the old dears with little dogs in coats; a couple of prancing poodles with bows in their hair; a few boisterous Labradors and a few men in suits in deep communion with their phones – perhaps checking the share price – while the rest of us do laps. It never ceases to amaze me that this heavily peed and pooed upon patch of earth doubles up as a football pitch in winter and a cricket pitch in summer; an unholy alliance, I say. You see, this park is full of dog poo. And that’s because people are too busy chatting, texting or phoning to keep an eye on their dogs. That’s why I hardly ever go there. I did once fantasize about putting up a sign: Life is karmic: what goes around comes around. Shit happens to those who don’t pick up after their dog. But I thought better of it.
Just one suburb away is Elsternwick Park, a large open area with a couple of lakes, a children’s playground and, on Sundays, a strange phenomenon in the form of Pug Wood. This is where a group of pug lovers and owners plant a flag and gather round to talk all things pug. Unfortunately, I was a bit too far away to get a good picture, but you get the idea.
Elsternwick Park attracts more arty types than my own suburb which is full of dyed blondes with 4-wheel drives. Here the men wear bandanas and John Lennon glasses, a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. The park has a distinctly grungy feel with a higher quota of rescue dogs.
My favourite place to walk Bertie is along the beach. Just a five-minute drive from my house is Melbourne’s iconic (and much photographed) beach hut beach. The world feels much less cluttered down by the sea; there’s plenty of sky and space, but it’s also a great place to meet people from all walks of life, whether it’s tourists snapping away at the huts, a bride and groom having their wedding photos taken, joggers decked out in matching lycra and the latest Nike running shoes or ordinary folk like me in jeans, fleecy jacket and much-worn lesser-brand runners.
The social networking opportunities are second to none. Most mornings I meet Harley Davidson Man (HDM)walking his dogs sparky and chispa (like HDM I speak Spanish and so know that his dogs share the same name; chispa meaning spark in Spanish), a local builder who is busy buying and selling properties, a fellow writer whose first book has been published to great critical acclaim, fellow ex-pats, ladies who lunch and ladies who work or strive to change the world, retirees and lots of Asian tourists taking selfies and group shots in front of the beach huts.
I’ve found a wonderful new hairdresser through my beach friends, been invited to Bridge lessons, drinks, lunch and dinner, swapped recipes, publishing contacts and dog trainers. In fact, tomorrow Bertie and I are having our first one on one dog training session. I’m keen to stop him jumping up when people come to the door but, more than that, I want to get him to the required standard of obedience for us to take part in Story Dogs. Suzanne, the writer, helps to run the local Story Dogs scheme and told me about it. Story Dogs started in the USA and is a volunteer-run literacy program that helps children to read by teaming them up with a volunteer and a dog. The idea is that the children feel relaxed reading to a dog in a non-judgemental environment. A scheme that involves dogs and literacy gets my vote. It may be a little while before Bertie and I become accredited but we’re working towards it. All sorts of new worlds open for me at the beach.