“Yeah, I’m on my way to Lancaster to cover a dog-park opening for work.”
I’m at the car rental counter at Philadelphia International Airport. I’ve got about three hours of sleep under my eyes and the lingering remnants of a hangover (well darn if you approach 30 and suddenly three beers in a four-hour first date leaves you, well, “sick as a dog”). Yet I am undeterred by the woefully long line at the rental counter — which is staffed by one worker — and totally enthralled with my first press junket trip.
After dealing with an irate customer, the woman at the counter seems to welcome my effusiveness: “A dog park opening? That sounds really fun!”
Before I know it, I’m turning onto the freeway, embarking on a two hour drive to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
As civilization thins out and the corn fields crowd along a road that narrows down to two lanes, I spy a horse-drawn cart containing young men in suspenders and straw hats, their only mark of modernity a plastic reflective triangle — Amish. I think about how Pennsylvania houses one of the largest puppy mill operations in the nation, but mostly I think about how my phone battery is running out and how I’ll be screwed if I lose my GPS.
My phone battery is in the red by the time I get to the hotel. I have clocked nearly a full day of travel. I receive a welcome gift bag and upon crashing into my hotel room, immediately get to work getting myself acquainted with the press packet they’ve prepared for tomorrow’s Dream Dog Park Opening. I wash the airplane grunge off me, have a hair off the dog that bit me by ordering a glass of wine, and set my alarm clock for a mere six hours. Sleep is for the dead.
I’m late to my breakfast with representatives from the the Dream Dog Park because I’m so out of order I didn’t check my email to find that breakfast has been bumped 30 minutes earlier, but no one seems to mind.
“The dogs seem to know it’s a special day for them,” one tells me. I feel a little skeptical. Dogs are smart, but can they really sense something like that?
Upon arriving at the park, I listen as a woman gives me a brief tour.
“This is all fake grass,” she tells me. I’d hardly noticed — it feels springy and soft, just like the real deal. “It’ll last longer and it’s easier to take care of.”
We walk up and down the Roller Coaster Bridge, and I’m surprised by how good a workout it is, yet despite its steepness, my feet don’t slip.
“The wood’s been treated and the ground has grip, so dogs won’t slide around on it, even when it’s wet,” she says.
There’s a Tree of Dreams that launches tennis balls from its boughs and a water fountain that won’t go stagnant and dangerous.
That’s an aspect of the old dog park that really stood out to me and that really seemed to bug contest winner Angela Bauman as well. In her video entry for the Beneful Dream Dog Park, the camera pans over a bucket of water that looks like it smells. It must have struck a chord. Her amusement park themed Dream Dog Park Contest entry was selected not only by voters but by the Beneful Dream Team, whose 2013 cast comprises talk show host and Oprah buddy Nate Berkus, home improvement buff Jason Cameron, and pet behaviorist Arden Moore.
Bauman’s dog, Beau, a German Shorthair Pointer, is running around the park along with a few other dogs. I feel as though in the time it takes to turn my back, suddenly the park is crowded with dogs and people. At its height, more than 1,000 humans and their dog friends attended the Dream Dog Park Opening.
So — full disclosure — Beneful paid for my trip to the east coast, and I am aware of the controversy surrounding dog food and its manufacturers. But here’s the thing — I really would rather a dog eat grocery store dog food than garbage out of a dumpster. Marketing campaigns aside, Beneful did make a half-million dollar in-kind donation to the city of Lancaster, transforming a dingy dog park into a canine wonderland.
I get to speak briefly with Arden Moore, and I ask whether she thinks the dogs know this is a special day. “They absolutely know!” she says, “Just look at them. There’s lots of signs of happy dogs — relaxed tails, play bowing, and chasing.” Indeed, despite the crowd of dogs, there is not one scuffle among them.
Moore worked with contractor Jason Cameron to make sure the park is not only beautiful and durable, but safe for dogs big and small — the nonslip surface of the Roller Coaster Bridge was Moore’s idea, the gorgeous weather-treated wood was Cameron’s.
Wandering the park, lost in my own sleep-deprived dream-daze, I come across Ziggy and his human friend, Patty Myers, and my heart stops. Ziggy is a bigger, rust-colored dog and he is wheelchair bound. From the way he chases a tennis ball through the water fountain, you wouldn’t know he’s suffering from a degenerate disease which is slowly robbing him of mobility. Rather than put the lively 10-year-old dog to sleep, Myers opted for a set of rear wheels. Nate Berkus notices Ziggy, and as security sweeps people aside, the host kneels down to toss the ball for Ziggy to a chorus of shutter snaps.
It’s cheesy, but Ziggy doesn’t care. Ziggy doesn’t care that my heart breaks a little as I watch him trundle off, his rear legs limp in their harnesses. Ziggy doesn’t care about anything besides a neon yellow tennis ball and chomping in delight at a surprise spurt of water. He doesn’t care about the brand name that adorns the park entrance — all Ziggy knows is that his formerly wood-chip-filled dog park is now covered in smooth, soft fake grass, and that he can roam with freedom just like the other dogs. It’s a dream come true.
Later that day, I’m back in Philadelphia, climbing wearily onto the rental car shuttle that’s going to take me to the gate so I can get on a plane for the second time in 48 hours.
I hear, “Miss! Miss!” Turning, there’s the woman who rented my car to me the day before. “How did things work out at the dog park?”
“It was so much fun,” I tell her, “All the dogs were so happy — as if they knew.”
Hours later, I’m back in San Francisco — it feels like a dream.
For the dogs and community of Lancaster, the Dream Dog Park is a waking one.
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About Liz Acosta: Dogster’s former Cuteness Correspondent, Liz still manages the site’s daily “Awws,” only now she also wrangles Dogster’s social media. That’s why she wants you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and — her personal favorite — Instagram. See ya there!