Canine nirvana: A walk around the Oak Bluffs dog park

Humans, from left: Dana and Bob Vignor, and Michaela Henderson, with their canine companions. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

On any given day, between 8 and 9 in the morning and again just before dark, you’ll find dozens of dogs and their owners at the Tradewinds Fields Preserve, familiarly known as the dog park in Oak Bluffs.

The 71.8 acre property, which includes a wide, open field (a functioning runway), is a far cry from the fenced-in areas that serve the needs of urban and suburban dog owners. Like their human counterparts, Vineyard dogs – and canine visitors – have it pretty good compared to the rest.

The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank owns Tradewinds Fields. The large, T-shaped runway area is bounded by County Road, Farm Neck Golf Course, the town water department land, and a wooded area leading to Farm Pond Preserve that extends Land Bank managed property as far as an outlet on South Circuit Avenue. People enter the dog park from all but the golf course side, but most gain access from a parking lot on County Road marked with a small Land Bank sign.

Land Bank conservation lands foreman Matthew Dix stresses that the Tradewinds land is “a multiple use property. Dog walkers should be aware of that and “assume that not everyone loves your dog as much as you do.” Joggers and hikers seldom welcome a friendly greeting from a pooch, especially a large, muddy one, and the sight of a big dog barreling toward you or your kids can be intimidating.

“Be respectful of others,” Mr. Dix said, “and clean up after your pets.” He notes that Tradewinds is the only Land Bank property with a trash receptacle for pet clean up.

Mr. Dix warns that the runway is still in active use. Although a small aircraft landing is a rare event, especially in the off-season, the Land Bank discourages people from walking on the runway, and signs say so.

Although some owners of unruly or escape-inclined pets keep their dogs leashed, most run free at the dog park. Mr. Dix notes that the Land Bank follows town leash laws at all its properties, and in Oak Bluffs the law requires dogs to be leashed or under voice control.

“It’s a good spot for dogs to run safely without a leash,” said dog park regular Mark Jenkins, owner of two cairn terriers. “It’s a good way to socialize your dogs and for them to learn good manners. And it’s social for the owners as well.”

Prime time at the dog park offers a multi-cultural canine experience. Recent canine sightings include breeds as unusual and diverse as a Coton de Tulear (Madagascar breed) an African Boerboel (South African Boer’s dog) and a Picard Shepherd (supposedly the oldest of French sheepdogs). Aside from the occasional scuffle, harmony reigns with typical doggy conviviality. Small dogs tend to try to keep their larger counterparts on their toes, while pampered purebreds mix it up with mutts who’ve never seen the inside of a grooming parlor. There’s no predicting who’s going to hit it off. As much as you may think you know best, you con’t choose your dog’s friends.

Although the park is not the place to try to de-program aggressive behavior, many dog owners have found the inevitable impromptu pack a good schoolroom for socialization. Rita Brown visits daily with a canine brood that has changed over the years and currently includes four small dogs. She notes that her most recent acquisition, a chihuahua mix, has become much more comfortable around people and strange dogs. “She has really socialized a lot. Before bringing her here, she didn’t like men,” Ms. Brown says.

Owners also find a trip to the park a good way to meet people outside of their work or social circles. Regulars greet each other and catch up. Newcomers will discover that discussing your dog’s particulars is a great icebreaker. While the conversation tends to veer towards everything doggy (the Dog Whisperer’s name comes up often) topics range from local news, gossip, world events, theater, literature, sports, you name it.

Almost everyone who frequents the dog park agrees that they enjoy the outing as much as their pets do. Debbie Dean of Oak Bluffs, who walks her lab Lilla almost daily into the field from Farm Pond, says, “I’m forever grateful for bird watching, socialization, and this enormous piece of property.”

The dog park can be the perfect antidote to the bi-polar nature of the Island. With the longer days of summer, the doggy crowd is more spread out during the day, while the smaller window of daylight in the winter provides for a clustering of dog walkers at dawn and dusk. During the sometimes lonely Vineyard winter, a visit pre-work or at dusk will all but guarantee some much needed companionship. In the summer, one can escape from the crowds of Oak Bluffs and find peace and tranquillity just a 20-minute walk (or five-minute drive) from downtown.

Nature entertains in the form of panoramic vistas, often stunning sunsets, and the nightly spectacle of hundreds of crows making a final turn en masse around the open ground on their way to settling in to the woods at night. For many, the dog park is a highlight of the day. Sandy Grymes visits with her standard poodle, Muji, twice a day regularly. “The dog park is the most stabilizing part of my day,” Ms. Grymes said. I’m here in the winter by four and in the summer before cocktail hour. I couldn’t have a dog without the dog park.”

It’s not just Oak Bluffs residents who use of the property. Ms. Dean notes that she has a friend from Chappaquiddick who makes the trip often. Perhaps Chappy residents are more in need of socialization, of the canine and human variety, than the rest of us.