Some say getting a dog was a pandemic lifeline; others say being with others at a dog park was helpful, too

ELIZABETHY USSHER GROFF - At Woodstock Parks dog park area, on May 4th a few of the regulars gathered for a BEE photo with their canine friends. From left: Laura Rhude and Kevin Price with dog Bentley; Peggy and Bob St. John with Barley; Ryan Lee (standing) whose dog Dakota has momentarily run off,  and Bryan Ronshaugen (squatting) with Winnie; and at the end John Linder himself, with Kipper.Pandemic puppies, German shepherds, Golden and Labrador retrievers, German shorthaired pointers, terriers, Bernese mountain dogs, and rescue dogs of all sorts – these are just a few of the canine friends that regularly gather at in Woodstock Park's dog area with their owners every morning at about 9:30, and on weekday evenings at 5.

Over the years, there have been periodic tensions, and some controversy, between dog owners and those without dogs – but Woodstock resident John Linder, who understands the various points of view, recently told THE BEE that he had a "happy story" about the value of the dog park during the time of COVID-19.

"We have been going to Woodstock Park on and off for 25 years, and it has been a big part of raising two dogs and two children. This has always been a popular dog park, but never more so than during the pandemic."

Linder says that over the years his family has become acquainted with fifteen or twenty households in the vicinity of their house, but they haven't had much contact with the wider neighborhood. However, over time, as he has daily interacted with other dog owners at the top of the rise in the park – and especially during the pandemic – he has happily gotten to know more people from other areas of the neighborhood.

And Bryan Ronshaugen, who has lived in Woodstock for 28 years but only acquired his 2½-year-old black lab Winnie two years ago, is also very grateful for the dog park. "Winnie and I have literally met hundreds of our neighbors and fellow Portlanders while hanging out at and walking to the dog park. During COVID-19 it has provided a daily, outdoor, socially-distanced way to connect with friends."

Valuable friendships develop at the park. While dogs play, their owners often begin conversations about their canine friends – how old, what kind, what's its name? And over time, Linder says, they have gotten to know each other quite well beyond just "dog talk".

But never more so than during the past year!

"The dog park has been a social lifeline for many people during the pandemic," Linder reports. "And it's felt like people were engaged in more-substantial conversations and were developing deeper friendships, because they had more time and fewer distractions."

Nonetheless sometimes people without dogs have made complaints. One was that the running of dogs makes more dirt appear, and therefore more mud when it rains.

Laura Rhude, who lives in Mt. Tabor but frequents the Woodstock dog park because she has found a community there, remarked that this winter her shoes acted like suction cups, being sucked into the mud. Dog-owner Linder, who has used the park for over two and a half decades, offers a long-term view. "The park was muddier this fall and winter than it has ever been. It has been on a downhill slide for many, many years. More people and dogs use it, and there have been no attempts to reseed the lawn, which would be a major undertaking and require keeping people and dogs off of a portion of the grass for at least six months. As the most-used sections become almost impassable, people spread out, and more of the park does become muddy."

Linder says the mud was particularly bad this year because there were so many cold, rainy days without rainless days intervening to dry out the soil. He suggests one option would be to re-seed (which PP&R says is too expensive) or to cover the large bare patch with wood chips. On a recent visit to the park, THE BEE found that other dog owners agree that wood chips would help.

In the meantime, in spite of occasional springtime muddy mess, in the pandemic the dog park has still felt like a "socializing blessing" to most dog owners we spoke with. Many would miss their neighbors' company and conversation were it not there.

Two people who have missed the dog park are Peggy and Bob St. John, retired owners of the well-remembered Iron Horse Restaurant in Westmoreland. They were in Portland from Baker City on May 4th to visit their six-day-old grandson. On this trip they brought along their dog Barley, and made sure they returned to the park to see old canine and human friends.

As someone who has made a lot of canine and human friends during the pandemic as well as over the years, Woodstock's John Linder quips, "I have joked with several of them [dog owners] that when our own dog eventually dies, I might just have to wear a T-shirt that says, 'Former Dog Owner' – so that I still have an excuse to hang out here!"

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