The joy of watching dogs play

An excerpt from Boston Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert’s new book ‘Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park’

Gracia Lam


One winter day, I was at Amory dog park in Brookline with my yellow Lab Toby, who, at 5 months, was a lanky boy with eyes that were beginning to smile along with his lips. A woman with an Irish setter mix was calling to me across the field.

She was pushing her arm out straight, bending up her palm in the “stay” command, and yelling “Stay!” Her voice sounded like meowing in the distance, as she yanked her dog on-leash toward us with her other hand. Unless I’m more out of touch with fashion than I think, she was wearing pajama bottoms and white socks with clogs.


Chilly gusts of wind were tossing the tree limbs and blowing traffic sighs over from Beacon Street, so I pretended not to hear her. It was not a flattering moment for me, but I wasn’t up for socializing. I accelerated slightly in the opposite direction, Toby’s head bobbing at my right knee. She kept calling, and I could feel her smiling aiming at me like a laser.

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I finally stopped. “Stay, stay, stay!” she said with breathless laughter as she reached us in a slow jog. “Look how cute your puppy is,” she said. “My dog Travis can be cranky and ball-obsessed. He’s not always feeling social.”

“Yup,” I said, nodding. In her extroversion, she couldn’t see me blinking as she talked, my mind wandering to my DVR, where episodes of TV shows were collecting like letters waiting to be opened and read. She was blind to the barriers of the face, or maybe she saw through them.

As she made small talk, Toby started dancing in front of Travis in a puppy fit, hopping left and right. I held out a red rubber ball, which Toby grabbed from my hand and pushed toward Travis’s face.

“Let’s try this,” she said, unhooking Travis. And in an instant, Travis was chasing Toby and the red ball into the middle of the park. He reached Toby, tackled him, play-bowed slightly, and they began to wrestle, the ball still in Toby’s jaw, a bright red O. It didn’t matter that Travis was bigger than Toby; they were on the same page, flopping and rolling together. They looked like a blur of red and yellow fur turning in the porthole of a clothes dryer.


Watching them, I started to feel something remarkable. There’s a surprising amount of satisfaction in watching dogs play — I’ve learned that over the years — but this was my first taste of that giddiness, of viewing the choreography of dog pleasure so closely that you feel it yourself. Really, it’s a physical sensation, vicarious and yet visceral.

As we watched, Travis’s owner and I began laughing out loud, at first in an idling giggle, but, gradually, in a full-on laugh, like we were next to each other at a stand-up concert. Her easy posture, and the way she danced a little in her clogs as she cackled hoarsely, only made the show funnier. She knocked my arm with the back of her hand every time Toby shook his puppy snout like a mean predator. And then I was knocking her arm, too.

It was oddly intimate, the laughter that erupted between this unnamed woman and me. I felt a burst of warmth toward her, and the desire to continue in the moment of play. I understood this as the dogs began to lose interest and Toby returned to me. It had been an episode of unguarded pleasure from out of nowhere, with a stranger. I wanted more.

She began walking out toward Travis with her leash in hand, and Travis started wandering away, toward new balls on the horizon.

“Stay!” she yelled.


Matthew Gilbert is the Globe’s TV critic. This essay is excerpted from his book Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park, out July 29. Send comments to

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