Justin Powell 1 p.m., Dec. 13
Island Escape Within the City
It has been a long three weeks at work. I am tired. I want to sleep for days. The holiday craziness with its seven day workweek and 16 hour workday has finally ended, weeks after Christmas. Walking dogs for a living sounds like an easy way to live. Sometimes it is, but not at this time of year.
I wake up after two hours. It is 4 pm on Saturday. My own dog is lying at my feet. I could easily sleep another two hours, maybe even through the night. While I have spent so much time with other people’s pets, my own has had to sacrifice.
My long working hours are having a behavioral effect on my dog, Xaria, a Belgian Malinois. While shy of people, she normally loves to meet and play with all dogs, strange and familiar, one-eighth to double her size. Lately, however, she has developed leash aggression toward dogs she doesn’t know. When on leash she will growl and sometimes lunge at a strange dog. She never bites.
I see her at my feet and I have to decide between more sleep and a trip to “the island.” We had better go to the island.
When we get to the fenced off dog park area of Fiesta Island, Xaria doesn’t wait for me to open the back door of the car for her. She hops up to the front seat and follows me out. Her tail is long and furry; she sweeps it back and forth on the ground like a long, feathery palm frond, with comic intensity.
It is a warm day in January. I regret that I am wearing a sweatshirt but I’m not sure what T-shirt I have on underneath so I leave it on. The grass here is low and lush. It looks freshly cut. It isn’t. The grass is low because it is new growth after dying off in the dryness of summer and fall. This is too much anarchy for some people at City Hall who want to rein it in. They don’t want the grass to grow wild, they want to mow and irrigate. They also don’t want the big dogs to play with the little dogs. They want a stage, a dissecting road, a parking lot and a bocce ball court.
Near the entrance of the park a young Vizsla is chasing two birds around in circles. I’ve seen him playing this game before. He can go for hours. The two birds could easily fly up and away from him, but they don’t. Do the birds participate in this game because they do not know they can escape, or because they enjoy this form of Russian roulette?
I look around for a tennis ball to throw for Xaria. I don’t see one this time. We’ll find one later.
We pass a yellow lab about Xaria’s size. He is bouncy. He looks at Xaria as if to ask her to join him in play. She lets him pass, as well as a German Shepherd a moment later. Two Boston Terriers run up and greet her. They sniff her, she sniffs back. On the spot she appoints them to the position of “Best Friends of the Moment.” The three of them hop and skip around together, intermittently chasing each other about twenty feet ahead of me. I have been demoted from companion to chauffeur.
There is a shade tree and some picnic tables in the middle of the dog park. When we reach them I sit down, Xaria won’t go far from me. The Boston’s family continues on, Xaria unceremoniously parts with her new friends.
This location offers one of the great panoramas of San Diego. From here you can see Pacific Beach, Solidad Mountain and Bay Park. SeaWorld is just over the water to the south. I see the sky trams moving gracefully along the horizon. To the left of Sea World I see the downtown skyline. On the island I feel at once removed from and close to the city where I live and work, where I grind through the everyday.
A man is playing with his Rottweiler nearby. There is a tennis ball lying in the dirt. The rule is finder’s keepers here as there is no real ownership system on the island. Anyone who comes in with a ball is unlikely to leave with it.
Balls are a social lubricant for many of the dogs. They are the catalyst for games of chase. Xaria likes to bat them with her feet, to kick them up and attempt to catch them. She is doing that now. A couple of Labradors, one black, one yellow, have taken notice. The black one moves toward her, keeping his head down as if to pretend he is not interested in her ball. In turn, she is watching him while pretending not to notice, and doing a poor job at it. In a flash, she picks the ball up with her mouth and runs away, the two Labs give chase.
In her exuberance the ball slips out of her mouth. A fumble! She goes for the recovery. The two Labs seize on this opportunity. The three dogs bump and block each other. The yellow Lab pushes ahead. He comes out of the melee with the ball in his mouth, his head high. Xaria gives no hint of lost pride in losing the ball. A dog rarely minds if he ends up with it, or if the spoil goes to another. After all, the game is in the chase, there are no poor sportsmen here.
Fiesta Island isn’t a place of conflict. There is room enough for everyone. There may be a hundred dogs here at this moment, here with their families- couples who meet here, families with children, lone runners and walkers.
Most people come here to spend time with their dogs; some come here because they don’t have dogs of their own and want to be around them. These people often bring treats for the dogs and chat with the dog owners in exchange for a little face time with their companion. Even for humans, there are fewer social barricades here than in other places.
The sun is dropping lower, the sky deepening. I look at the time on my phone, we can’t stay long today. The joy of dogs at play is contagious, I feel good in a way that I haven’t in a while. I made the right choice in coming here. This outing has done more to rejuvenate me than an entire night of sleep could have.
With a whistle of my lips I call Xaria to me. “It’s time to go little one,” I tell her. I return to the entryway and she follows. She greets a few more dogs along the way. The Vizsla is still going at it with the birds.
“Sit Xah-Xah,” I say. She does and I clip the leash to her collar.
We go to the gate where we pass a Miniature Poodle. Xaria lets out a low growl, asserting her need for personal space for the first time today. That darn leash aggression has reared its ugly head. The leash has signaled the end of our little escape within the city.