Something had to be afoot. Seven people sitting in mismatched plastic chairs or balanced on a dusty, sloping picnic table, basking in glorious early-November sunshine, and not a dog in sight. Any clues to the real purpose of this assembly were equivocal. Two of the attendees were barely engaged, dozing off or perhaps squinting to avoid the sun’s brightness, yet one member of the group was speaking animatedly, arms gesticulating to emphasize whatever point he was making.

As I cycled uphill past the Centre Street Leash Free Dog Park (CSLFDP), it was clear that something was happening. These folks were a different breed. The results of our municipal election had been accepted without contention, yet dog food prices were soaring, up 47.9 percent in two years for one brand. My mind needed answers, and I was prepared for the dogged work required to get them.

I called my dog park contact George, and explained my vexation. What was going on at that place, tucked quietly behind the brow of the escarpment, out of sight and mind to all except those few lonely travellers who journey along that deserted section of Centre Street? I needed to know.

His reply was a casual, “Not much.”

Then George remembered there was the girl from Niagara Falls who came to the park with her mom and dog Gizmo. She wore a live snake around her neck, but never allowed it to slither away leash-free, so the dogs were cool with it.

He next recalled the woman who brought her cat to the dog park. No one ever discovered whether it was the woman or the cat that first hatched plans to use Pelham’s CSLFDP to initiate an Equal Rights for Felines protest to spotlight Niagara’s need for exclusive cat parks. Dean Allison didn’t invoke the Emergencies Act so no troops arrived, Sam Oosterhoff was not withstanding much of anything at that particular moment, and all the dogs in the park were chill with the idea, so long as it wasn’t in their back yard. The one-cat protest was considered a success.

And there was Millie, the Goldendoodle who loved to race against cars. She’d wait at the fence by the road, and whenever a dog parent drove away from the park with one of her friends, Millie would dash along the fence beside them. Most drivers played along, allowing her to match their speed inside the park as they drove away. George, his dog Bailey’s face pressed against the SUV window, would instead blast out the parking lot and up the hill. Millie would take off, and once she was in full stride, George would jam on the brakes and stop for exactly eight seconds, confusing Millie and undoubtedly any driver who happened to be behind him. It was a good time for all.

Perhaps I’d been barking up the wrong tree, and what I’d witnessed wasn’t a dog park conspiracy. The best way to know the truth would be to go undercover, but I didn’t have a dog.

Next afternoon, I stepped out of my car into the warm and sunny CSLFDP parking lot. There were nine other vehicles, and a group of people seated in an approximate circle in the large dog section of the park. Numerous assorted and tail-wagging dogs lingered about.

In preparation for this visit, I’d done an internet search to learn what was expected of dogs and people attending a dog park. Reading and complying with each individual park’s rules was a priority in etiquette protocol. The CSLFDP’s sign appeared to be missing, but then I noticed it on the ground tipped against the fence. It had been ripped off its mounting posts, perhaps to make it easier for short dogs to read.

Not many of the rules applied to me, like the one requiring mandatory poop bags, because I didn’t have a dog. I was a bit confused though when the article stated it was imperative that I clean up after both my dog and myself. Reading a little further on, the article’s author clarified that he was referring to coffee cups and snack wrappers for people.

I didn’t need a leash, as neither myself nor my imaginary dog were in heat at the moment, and I had an official yellow card to prove my vaccinations were up-to-date and the rabies shot I’d gotten to cycle in Africa was still valid.

Wearing dog tags didn’t seem to apply, yet after a remark by someone that all the dog owners remembered the animals’ names but not their owner’s names, a woman suggested the owners too could wear collars and tags. No one responded. Perhaps the suggestion was a bit kinky for this group.

Etiquette rule number ten, “Do a pre-workout,” spoke to me until I realized it was the dog that was supposed to do the workout so that it wouldn’t arrive at the park over stimulated and unhinged.

Protocols in hand, I approached the double gate to enter the park. A greeting committee of six or seven dogs immediately approached, tails wagging, anxious to meet my accompanying dog. Seeing none, they gave me a cursory sniff for treats or whatever, and quickly left without interest or incident.

Their owners were a little more apprehensive of the dog-less guy approaching. Their lively banter went quiet as I pulled up a chair. It didn’t help when I announced that I was from the Voice and was doing an expose on Pelham dog park culture, then brandished my digital sound recorder.

The day was saved when a long-time friend in the group, Mike, acknowledged he knew me, indubitably at great personal risk.

Mike announced that the group had already solved the world’s problems at their daily dog park town hall meeting before I arrived, and had moved on to reviewing new Netflix shows and discussing the paperwork necessary for dogs to travel to United States.

The dogs took turns positioning themselves in front of me, expecting the “new guy” to display his ear- scratching and shoulder-massaging skills. I failed the test, only one returned for additional scratches.

Apparently CSLFDP is one of the better leash-free parks in Niagara. Mike added that in his opinion this park was Niagara’s most chill, with the same people and pups coming regularly enough to get to know each other.

When I asked if there were ever problems with the dogs being aggressive, Carol responded, “I’ve never really seen a problem with the animals. No, it’s usually with the people. The dogs will work it out, they get along fine. It’s usually with the parents.” I was waiting for someone to add, “Just like at my kid’s hockey games.”

Everyone (the humans that is—it was hard for me to know exactly what the dogs were thinking)—agreed attending CSLFDP was a godsend during the pandemic. “It was the most normal place you could go,” said one. “We didn’t wear masks, we just stayed apart. I really looked forward to coming every day because of my sanity.”

Just as I was beginning to realize the park wasn’t a den of conspirators, a dog peed on the leg of Connie’s chair. The overspray, or whatever dog parents call it, appeared to splash on her shoes and tights. Totally nonplussed, she simply looked up at the group and stated, “That’s what the laundry’s for.”

Shoulders shrugged around the circle, and Jack, the little pug that methodically peed on everyone’s feet each visit, was mentioned with hushed wariness. That reminded someone of Coco, the Jack Russell or maybe she was a beagle, whose high-pitched, fire-siren-like whine from the car window always announced her arrival at the park. Benny, or a spotted, droopy-eared beagle looking like Benny, was impatiently turning excited circles outside the gate, anxious to join his buddies and adopted parents inside.

And so it went, until the big German shepherd—I missed his name, the one who had returned to me many times for an ear scratch—stared up with his big brown eyes, then clamped his teeth over my audio recorder. Message delivered. I thanked everyone for sharing their time and stories, ensured them that it would be pseudonyms only, and departed.

As I drove home past E.L. Crossley I realized that a classroom isn’t the only place one can get educated. CSLFDP had just granted me a fun course in Dog Park 101.