Rosser Park Field Research Project 2005

There are few places one can walk with a dog leash in one hand and a bag of faecal matter in the other without fear of being arrested for intending to commit lewd acts of fetishism. There are equally few places where not carrying either item is considered downright bad form. Rosser Park, at the end of my street, is one such place.

Within our culture, we tend to romanticise the idea of the dog park. Movies depict likeminded couples meeting via their slobbery dogs, impressionist painters created images of people walking their canine friends in their artwork, and books are written about dog walking and what people learn from time with their pet. Yet in reality, for most people walking the dog is just another chore that must be attended to – like hanging up the washing or taking the kids to school, albeit a chore that the majority of people enjoy.

The observations I have made in this project come from my daily walks in and around the dog park over the past twelve months that I have had my dog, with two or three visits a day in the last fortnight to focus on the people.

THE SPACE:
Rosser Park is an environmental park in Benowa. Although it is primarily a dog park, areas of it are set aside for bird watching and therefore designated strictly dog-free. It has recently been earmarked as the site of the future Gold Coast Botanical Gardens, and is currently undergoing some socmetic changes which have altered the layout of the park slightly. In addition to the bird wetlands and the dog park, there will soon be a visitor’s centre, cafeteria, guided walk and a sensory garden. New rose gardens have been planted as has a butterfly garden full of larvae attracting plants, and excavation has begun for the new buildings.

The rose garden is a particularly puzzling development, as is the council’s tendency to plant palm trees in odd spots of the park, i.e. around the wheelie bin we put our dog’s poo in. It is obviously an attempt to beautify the area, but I do wonder whether it is for the benefit of myself or my dog – though Charlie does have quite an interest in botany! It is ironic that the concept of the city beautiful is alive and well in an already naturally beautiful location. For what purpose could we need a rose garden in a wildlife park? Were the colours of the birds not enough? Do roses attract native birds to the area? I was under the impression roses only attracted bumble bees and old ladies.

These features have been implemented to encourage pride in ‘our’ park, yet there are obvious signs of public responsibility already. That people stop to pick up dog poo, and admonish those who don’t, that people turn up day after day to the area, and that there is virtually no litter should lindicate that there is already a fairly high level of pride in Rosser Park.

Unlike densely populated cities such as Sydney, space to exercise a dog is not a rarity in South East Queensland. Gold Coasters quite commonly have backyards, as the apartment living ideal hasn’t caught on to the same extent, and we have a whole stretch of beach that dogs can be walked on. Our dog parks are therefore a bit of a luxury, as opposed to a necessity. As such, they aren’t particularly busy spots. At most, there may be about 20 dogs in the park during rush hour.

THE PEOPLE:
Dog parks are great places to observe human interactions, as although we are generally all strangers, we are guaranteed to have at least one thing in common with others in the park – our dogs. Interaction stems from an awareness of a common bond. As I walk my dog daily, I regularly get to see firsthand how different people are when they’re out with their dog.

The therapeutic benefits of owning a pet are common knowledge, and it does seem that people are more relaxed and somehow softer. I know in my case, the barriers I put between myself and strangers within daily life do not exist to the same degree when I am out walking Charlie. I am far more willing to believe – purely by their association to their dog – that people in the park are decent.

The peak periods – early morning and late afternoon – see the dog park morph into a giant mother’s meeting as people stand around admiring their ‘children’, and surreptitiously checking that their dog is the cleverest, most personable, most well behaved in the park. I know this, because I am guilty of it. I also vehemently believe you can absolutely tell a person by the character of their dog. The woman who walks two perfectly manicured Collies, and who would never dream of letting them swim in the lake, walk through the mud or roll in the grass, frankly doesn’t look like she’d be much fun. Conversely, people walking excitable Labradors & Golden Retrievers tend to be pretty happy and affable. What my dirty, scruffy mutt says abou me I can’t be too sure, but because he is so friendly and ridiculous looking, some is always asking me about him.

There is a definate hierarchy within the users of Rosser Park. Highest of all are the dogs, followed closely by their owners. They have right of use in the park, even the council signs say so, with notices to the general public to be aware dogs will be off leash and running around. They are the prime reason for the piece of land existing as it does. The owners, due to their close relationships to their dogs, are VIP users purely by default.

Of the owners, there are those who are happy to stop and chat to other ‘parents’, and those who hurry past urging their dog to catch up. These people would never be seen joining in with the social aspects of the dog park. Some of them use walking their dog as a form of exercise, and therefore don’t want to have to stop ever five minutes while jogging around the block. Others just tune out to avoid the obligation we feel to acknowledge people we pass every morning. A very good family friend, Don, walks his Golden Retriever in Rosser Park at 6.00am every morning. I see him often, and although he generally stops to talk to me, he has recently taken to wearing earphones so he doesn’t have to stop and talk to anyone. Some use the park to train their dogs, although how anyone expects their dog to remain focussed when there are 20 other dogs running around having a great time is a mystery to me. Their motivation seems to be showing off their dogs talents, as they can be seen smiling smugly every time their dog manages to ‘sit’, ‘stay’ or ‘roll over’ on command.

Unsurprisingly, women are by far the most willing to stop and chat. Unlike the men, who are generally there to do their duty as official walker of the family pet, women are more likely to take time to make connections in the park, and appear to be there purely because they enjoy spending time with their dog. It is simliar, I suppose, to women nattering to other women about their children. Yet despite being such friendly places, there is relatively little human contact other than a brief “Good Morning.” There are groups of people who gather round and make small talk while their dogs play, but most contact is made on a very superficial level, and friendships don’t appear to extend past the confines of the park. I see many people i recognise from the dog park when I am at the local supermarket, and I never stop to say hello. Yet two hours later we may by chance be walking our dogs and the same time and end up prattling on for half and hour.

There are strict rules for how to go about initiating conversation with others in the park. It is far more likely that a stranger will address my dog Charlie than they would me, as there is a highly technical system in place that governs relations between humans. Strangers in the dog park adopt a complex method of communicating with each other by addressing the stranger’s canine companion. This can be done on behalf of their own dog i.e. “Rover, say hello to the little puppy”, but equally as likely is a direct connection between dog and human – “Hello little cutie! You look like you’re having fun.” There aren’t too many places where it’s completely normal to see an adult talking to an animal, nuch less reacting as though the animal is actually talking back! However, a stranger conversing with your dog does not necessarily mean you can enter the conversation. The signal for human to human communication to commence occurs only after that stranger has asked your dog a question they obviously want a real answer to, such “What is your name little puppy?” or “How old are you, little man?” At this point, the owner is finally allowed in to the conversation.

Further proof of the lack of human to human interaction in the dog park is that several people call out “Hello Charlie” to my dog as we pass, yet no one knows my name, nor I theirs. I do, however, recognise Alfie, Bella, Butch, Hootch, Cleopatra (awful name for a dog), Millie and Leroy the Labrador – whose Japanese owner always calls out “Harro Chawie’s mum! You seen my dog Reroy?” The only time you really see people making a point of talking to each other is if there is a vicious dog in the park, or one that appears overly boisterous. In dire situations such as this, people make a point of connecting with others. Another example of people keeping an eye out for each other is evident in the way some efficient sould has tied several poo bags to a big hold in the fence, to alert other owners that their dog may get through. There is a spirit of camaraderie within such actions that suggests we are citizens of the dog park community as much as of the Gold Coast itself.

Fairly low in the social pecking order are those people who come to the park without a dog. Like all minority groups, they are treated with a level of suspicion ordinarily reserved for strange men hanging around a kiddie’s pool. These people use Rosser Park as they would any other, passing through on their morning or evening walks around the block, riding bikes, using the park as a playground, and coming down to picnic with the birds. Given that it is a designated “off leash” area, it would seem unlikely that people wary of dogs ever set foot in the park, yet it happens. It is a bizarre sight to see someone uncomfortable with dogs trying to have a picnic on the grass when every Fido in the neighbourhood is running freely around them.

A very popular spot in the afternoons was the kid’s swings and playground, where mothers regularly brought their kids after school. They seemed to have a whole little community of their own going on near the swings, made up of regulars who’d sit and chat while their kids played. Due to the revamping going on, the playground has been moved to a spot within the off leash area of the park. Interestingly, the original layout of the park is so ingrained in the regular user’s memories that dogs are now running all through the playground, and area from which dogs are strictly forbidden. Consequently, fewer kids are actually on the swings at the moment. The mothers who used to bring their kids down to the park after 3pm haven’t been seen since the playground was shifted.

Backing on to one side of the park are several houses. What is particularly interesting is the way those residents have claimed pieces of the park for themselves. Each house shows signs of the owners attempts to appropriate a little bit of land as an extension of their backyard. Several homeowners have staked out their patch by planting jacarandas, poincianas, oleander, jasmine and wisterias directly outside their property in order to add small touches of themselves to what was already there. It’s a little like the way explorers once gallivanted around the globe sticking empirical flags in foreign soil. Others have constructed pontoons or rams directly into the lake. Taking this concept to a whole new level, one bloke religiously mows the grass outside his property, so that within the park is a perfectly manicured section of lawn. His attention to detail is commendable, as he never seems to overstep the invisible lines and start mowing his neighbour’s grass.

Every house has a gate in their fence providing their own personal entrance to the park, despite the fact that few of these homes actually house dogs, and a few residents always seem to be lurking around in case some dogs dares to poop on their lawn. The result is that walking down this section of the park feels a bit like trespassing on private property. The majority of walkers don’t seem to go down that side of the park. Although I walk there, it does feel vaguely like I’m cutting through a back alley. It’s a shame, given this area is the shadiest, prettiest spot in the park.

It is this competition between those who currently use the park that will be interesting to watch as the redevelopment continues. If the anticipated tourism becomes a reality, the space will be very different from its current incarnation. Botanic Gardens seldom welcome dogs with open arms, as it is possible that we may get to a stage where canines are no longer Top Dog, so to speak, of Rosser Park. Having said that, hell hath no fury like a dog owner banned from a dog park, so I can only assume we won’t go down without a dogfight or two!

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