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SOCIETY OF THE DOG PARK

People and animals find a joyous setting to form bonds.

Deer abound in John Chesnut Sr. Park, but a fenced-off section of the park is alive with another breed of creature - man's best friend.

"There's so much happiness here," said Deborah Miller, 58, who goes to the dog park daily with Charlie, a whitish blend of bijon frise and poodle. "It's hard not to smile."

While the dogs romp and play their owners chat and sip coffee.

The camaraderie now extends beyond the park to parties, picnics and dog sitting, thanks to Miller, whom fellow dog owners affectionately call "the cruise director."

Miller, a self-proclaimed "dog nut," has united man, woman and animal into a community for all occasions, both in and out of the park.

Living nearby, Miller comes to the park twice daily, around 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. She said she knows every dog owner who has passed through what the group calls "the puppy park."

"I have a large Rolodex in my head," she said.

Man and beast enjoy a good party. This December will mark the fifth annual puppy park Christmas party at Miller's home. Last year, she said, some 80 people attended, with their pets.

"It's a purely social event," Miller said. "I wanted us all to meet each other and know each other better since our pets had bonded."

The good times roll throughout the year. Each July, the puppy park picnic is held at one of the park shelters. Participants bring food and drink for each other and Miller provides treats for the dogs.

The annual dog birthday party is held at Miller's home each February, where she provides hats and squeaky toys for each animal.

"A lot of the dogs were born in February, so we have it then," she said.

For the last year, Portia Watson, 66, of Eastlake Woodlands has come daily with Skyler, her miniature Australian shepherd.

"This has changed my life," she said of the dog park experience. "I've made so many friends."

Serious work goes on as well.

Bill Hardy, 62, and Cody, his Alaskan husky, have been coming since the dog park opened five years ago.

"My role is to run interference with the county to keep up this park," Hardy said of his strictly unofficial duties.

Cody, he said, is a chorus master, who howls on cue. The other dogs chime in.

"We take care of each other," Miller said. "We also volunteer our homes to take care of each other's dogs when people are away."

Sometimes those friendships have deepened. Marriages and romances have resulted from animals at play.

"We have a puppy park romance going on now," Miller said. "The owners of a golden retriever and a mixed breed have become a couple."

The bottom line, though, remains the health and well-being of the pets.

"The socialization of the dogs is important," Hardy said. "They become friendlier, happier animals here."

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