Proper and regular socialization is an important aspect of life for any pup. My dog, Altai, is no different. He’s a Korean Jindo, and a highly energetic, loving and sociable one at that. He’s a lover and a licker, and put simply, he needs to get out and see other dogs. As a self-employed writer who works from home, I can certainly sympathize with his desire to leave the house and mingle with the outside world. If we didn’t, who would blame Altai—or me—for coming down with bad cases of cabin fever?
For both of us, avoiding that ailment has usually meant a trip to our local Boulder, Colo., dog park. A fenced-in OLA adjacent to the East Boulder Community Center, most of it is dirt and rocks. There’s some grass around the perimeter and in the far corners, a tree or two; on one side is a lake where dogs swim, wade in to cool off, or chase tennis balls and sticks.
I have to admit that to the casual observer, it doesn’t look like much. But to Altai, it’s solid gold. It’s one of the few places where he can get the kind of unrestrained dog-to-dog, muzzle-to-muzzle (or head-to-tail) interaction that he craves and needs. It’s a place where I too can get much-needed face-to-face interaction with my fellow dog lovers.
In this way, my local dog park is much like Any Dog Park, USA. Though each definitely has its own vibe, its own dog culture, they all share some fundamental commonalities. They are busiest in the mornings, during lunch, and after work. We make friends there (and only see them there—friendships compartmentalized into the dog-park corner of our lives). And our dogs have their own friends, too, familiar faces they recognize and with whom they preferentially play. For Altai, there’s Thatcher, and Chloe, and Z, and a handful of others.
Altai knows the phrase “dog park,” and he seems to know when we’re headed there. His innate sense of direction tells him when we’re getting close, and he instantly perks up—standing alert in the back seat, excitedly looking out the window, waiting for the park to come into view. Then we arrive, and it’s all I can do to contain him until I’ve removed his leash and released him to run free with his canine companions.
But in this 21st-century technological world, I’ve discovered that real dog parks aren’t the only places where Altai can socialize. With my help, he can do it online, too. As social networking sites like Facebook, Friendster and MySpace have soared in popularity, so have canine social networking sites. Take Dogster, for example. Launched in January 2004, it has rapidly grown to include more than 459,000 dogs, each with his or her own profile and network of “puppy pals,” in Dogster lingo. I wondered, though. Would Altai’s membership in an online dog park really be for his benefit, or was it for my own entertainment? It seemed a stretch to expect Altai to experience some sort of virtual socialization. Didn’t the benefits of this arrangement accrue to people, then, and not to dogs? To me, and not to Altai?
Still, I was curious. I couldn’t resist creating a free profile for Altai, complete with biographical info, personality traits, and likes and dislikes. I felt like I was building an elaborate personal ad for him, as though he’d soon begin dating female pups who’d fallen in love with his enchanting profile. I wondered how I would feel if Altai became more popular than me, if he amassed more puppy pals on Dogster than I had friends on Facebook. Would I resent him for his superior social status? Would he and I compete for dominance in the Internet’s social stratum?
Once I uploaded Altai’s profile, the puppy-pal requests came in surprisingly fast. One of the first was from Speckles, a Collie/Labrador Retriever mix from Canada; in an odd aside, her profile noted that she was deceased. Some of the messages were written in the dogs’ voices—cute, maybe, but not my style. Then there were Emma and Eleanor, a pair of Entlebucher Mountain Dogs who lived in the Swiss Alps. Here, I thought, were two dogs who would instantly connect with Altai. He was a mountain dog in Colorado’s Rockies. They were mountain dogs in the Swiss Alps. Kindred spirits, the three of them.