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Mike White and his dog, Cooper.

How to Walk a Dog: The joys and heartbreak of owning a dog

North & South senior writer Mike White’s new book, How to Walk a Dog, is about the joys and heartbreak of owning a dog, and the extraordinary people he’s met along the way. In this excerpt, White looks at some of the places he takes his SPCA-rescue huntaway, Cooper.

There’s a simple, easy beauty in dog walking. Almost anywhere you can go, they can go.

Exceptions occur when officious councillors and puffed-up bureaucrats ban them from city centres, and when native birds are nesting on beaches. But, in between town edge and tideline, pretty much anywhere is wandering territory. God, we’re lucky, and so are our dogs.

The whole concept of urban dog parks, however, has become common in recent decades in response to the rise in dog ownership, and to provide interesting alternatives to pavements.

But decisions about where these parks are situated are fraught. In a time when developers and politicians are screaming out for land to build homes on to counter the housing shortage, I often look over our favourite dog parks and wonder, How long? How long before some witless, dogless dullard of a functionary decides townhouses would be perfect for Tawatawa Reserve or Tanera Park?

Tawatawa, where we often go in the afternoons, was actually a Wellington dump in the 1970s – Preston’s Gully landfill, they called it. When rain soaks the park’s earth to capacity, occasionally you’ll see an oily film floating on puddles and wonder what lies not far beneath your gumboots. On the park’s sloping flanks, small rivulets that spring up in storms have eroded areas where dump detritus pokes through, like fossils uncovered by floods, or bleached skeletons exposed in the sand dunes.

One wet afternoon, I met Dave, who was walking his boisterous black German shepherd called Molly. Seeing the iridescent slick on one puddle, which hinted at some buried car wreck or oil can leaching through to the surface, I stupidly muttered that the council only gave dog walkers shitty areas. “I don’t think it’s shitty,” replied Dave. “I think it’s marvellous.” And he was so right. The park is an extraordinary asset that backs on to the town belt, meaning you can walk forever, or certainly for hours. 

 

Tanera Park, where I walk Cooper each morning, has dormant demons too. It was the site of what they called the Ohiro Benevolent Home, built for the homeless and indigent in 1892, which eventually became the Central Park Hospital. It closed in 1975, the buildings were demolished, and the land returned to the town belt for recreation.

But in the middle of the park is a small rectangle, maybe five square metres, which has been fenced off with waratahs and wire ever since I’ve been going there. I once met a guy who’d lived in the area for decades and he swore it was a pit where hospital staff dumped toxic materials. He also swore that he’d seen it frothing – the earth literally disgorging foam like some poisoned geothermal vent – when it rained heavily. I wish he hadn’t told me that, and I now make sure Cooper never trespasses its scruffy barriers. But then again, if that’s the price for the pleasure we gain from the park, it’s small and acceptable.

Amenities are meagre at Tanera Park. There are two park benches, which largely service late-night drunks, if the frequency of abandoned RTD cans and bottles is anything to go by. On the bench at the bottom of the park, by the community garden, someone once scratched off the lichen growing on the wooden backrest and wrote a poem in felt pen.

And as I sat here,

blowing bubbles into

the night; the clock past

midnight and it was

Christmas day.

One whole year since she

kissed me goodbye

never to return again.

On one side of the poem was a tiny drawing of someone in a cap sitting on the bench holding what I initially thought was a glass of champagne, but think was bubble-blowing paraphernalia. On the other side was something that looked like a kitchen spatula or maybe a fly swat, but, again, I think was probably what you dip in the soapy liquid to create bubbles.

The poem remained there for a few months, but then one morning it was gone, scrubbed from the seat, its mournful verse completely obliterated. I couldn’t believe it. Who could be so unfeeling, so insensitive that they’d dare touch another’s emotions like that, when the writer had nailed their torn heart to a piece of public furniture? They’d used a semicolon, for goodness’ sake.

Of course, it could have been the writer who removed it, having second thoughts – or perhaps their true love had returned home. I really hoped so. But standing there in front of the wordless seat, I felt nothing but sad and angry at the park philistine who I imagined was responsible.

You can never stay sad or angry for long at the dog park, though. I need only walk to Tanera’s upper level, and push aside the fennel and gorse that grow around the giant pōhutukawa to see the word “JOY” graffitied in pink paint on its trunk. When I first noticed it, I debated whether it could be considered tagging or might be some Brooklyn gang slang. But no, I don’t think so. Of course, it may be. It may simply be somebody’s name, shouted along the pōhutukawa’s brittle bark. But whatever it is, and as twee as it sounds, it happily reflects how I see the dog park.

EVEN BIGGER AND BETTER THAN the dog park is the beach. A beach is simply a dog park without boundaries. Its limits are set only by how far the sand stretches or how far beyond the shallows your dog’s bravery takes it. Cooper lives across the road from a beach, but it’s a disappointment to him, particularly because the council insists all dogs remain on a leash, which makes a legal walk there a small cruelty for dogs: several hundred metres of sand and sloping shingle, only to be kept from it by a metre of taut lead.

But further afield the beaches are wider, the sand softer, the councils more relaxed. On the Kāpiti Coast, at places like Paekākāriki, Raumati and Waikanae, Cooper’s walks take him close to a heaven of sorts. He senses the beach’s smells and sounds from blocks away – the surf, the salt, the prospect of a thousand driftwood sticks, that ossuary of trees along the high-tide line – his nose straining closer to the crack in the car window, excitement escalating.

When we let him off his lead, he sprints down to the water’s edge, turns, crouches flat on the sand and waits for us to arrive with a stick. If the stick isn’t big enough, he will ignore the first throw, barely flinching as he stares back towards the dunes, back to where you’ve come from, to where you must return and do better when selecting the next stick. Once he’s satisfied with your choice, he leaps the small waves to retrieve the stick, bounds back onto the beach with fur now slicked by the sea, and drops it about 10 metres from us. Never by us, even though that would be simpler for everyone. But when you’re filled with élan from being in the vast open space of a beach, logic is an afterthought.

Cooper then circles us as we fetch the stick and continue our walk along the beach. The circles are contiguous and regular in diameter. If you turn and look back where we’ve come, the pattern of pawmarks he leaves in the glistening sand is like a stretched-out phone cord. We fling the stick until we think Cooper has probably swallowed enough sea water, and then tell him that’s enough. He feigns disbelief, but eventually drops it and trudges after us as we carry on up the beach. On the way back, he scoots ahead and finds the discarded stick, and the whole process begins again, in reverse.

But sticks and dogs and beaches are occasionally a dangerous mix, and when this occurs, getting close to heaven can take on a different meaning. One day, when walking Cooper along Raumati’s beach, I found a magnificent stick, heavy at one end which made it easier to heave beyond the shallows. As we walked and played fetch, we passed a black spaniel who was sodden from swimming and showed a keenness to join our game. Lily was no match for Cooper’s speed, but that didn’t deter her from dancing around us.

On one backswing, as I went to hurl the stick seaward, I felt a small jolt. I looked around and there lay Lily, motionless on the sand. Dead. 

In the time it took Lily’s owners to double back up the beach, it all became clear – I’d clunked Lily in the head as I wound up to throw the stick, and had killed her.

Her owners approached, as I crouched beside her body. ‘What happened?’ they chorused, standing over me with looks that quickly swung from bewilderment to accusation. I knew what had happened. But it had been an accident and not my fault, I rapidly reasoned to myself. It was Lily who’d run up behind me, I couldn’t see her, and she’d just got too close to the action. But, if I began to explain this, I knew any context would be lost and “What happened?” would be quickly and simply answered: I had killed their dog. So I hesitated.

And, in that instant of weighing my options between honestly telling them about the tragic calamity, and lying and pretending I had no idea, Lily twitched.

I held my breath, hoping it was a sign of resurrection and not a death spasm. She twitched again, then raised her head slightly from the sand. And then she was up, and wobbling off. She’d just been knocked out cold. Any further conversation between her owners and me was lost in an enormous wave of relief, and then curious thoughts about whether dogs get concussion.

Cooper impatiently dropped the stick back at my feet. “Throw it again,” his eyes and tail said.

EVEN BIGGER THAN THE BEACH, and arguably better in Cooper’s list of favourite places, is the bush. While you can’t take dogs into New Zealand’s national parks, we’re lucky to be allowed them in other parks. One is Tararua Forest Park, more than a thousand square kilometres of bush and barren tops straddling the spine between Kāpiti and Wairarapa. We often go tramping there, and usually end up at a blissful campsite beside a river, where Cooper swims for sticks till he shivers and chases Frisbees till we tell him to have a rest. It is, for him, the ultimate dog park, and I’ve no doubt he wishes we could live there forever. Or most of the year, at least.

One Queen’s Birthday weekend when the forecast looked good, we decided to head into the Tararuas for a night. When we reached our campsite, the whole valley was wreathed in river mist and there was still frost on most of the clearing, despite it being mid-afternoon. But my partner, Nikki, built a fire, the not-quite-dry sticks hissing and popping, and Cooper snuggled in close to us and it.

After dinner, we toasted marshmallows and I tried to be clever and stuck four of them on one multi-pronged stick. I was doing okay, and they were just about ready, when Cooper got interested. Not in the marshmallows, but the stick. Any other dog would have eyed the marshmallows, but not Cooper. For him, the pissy bit of mānuka barely bigger than a twig was the prize, so he nosed in and gently grabbed it. With four golden marshmallows at stake, I wouldn’t let go, and a delicate tug-of-war ensued, as Cooper backed away with the stick and I hung on. The stick finally snapped, the marshmallows fell into the mud and Cooper stepped on one of them. It stuck to his foot as he pranced off with the stick, and I threw the rest into the fire to burn brightly with sugary toxicity.

When it was time to turn in, we tucked Cooper up like normal under the tent’s fly, but it was bloody cold despite several layers under and over him. Around midnight, there was a fair bit of groaning coming from him, so we unzipped the tent to see what the problem was, and in he flew. He immediately took up the prime position between us, grumbling if we cramped his space, stabbing our backs and stomachs with his paws as he stretched out. Eventually, we got some sleep – Cooper far more than us.

Just past dawn, he stood up, shook himself and made it obvious he wanted to go out. I opened the tent, thinking he needed to pee, and out he toddled. After 10 minutes he hadn’t come back, so I looked out to see where he’d got to. There he was, a few metres away, sitting on the frozen ground, surrounded by frosty grass, his Frisbee in front of him. Another awesome day was about to begin.

How to Walk a Dog

How to Walk a Dog by Mike White, illustrations by Sharon Murdoch (Allen & Unwin, $35). Buy now.

This excerpt was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.