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. My idyllic perception of their relationship, however, lasted only until I noticed that Emma and Eleanor had more than 7,000 puppy pals, and that my … um … Altai’s messages to them went unreturned. Was Altai just another notch in their dog collars? Were they padding their numbers with my pup? Altai (or, more accurately, I) felt so … used. I quickly realized that this world of virtual friends is a tenuous one. Altai stirs with excitement each time we go to the real dog park, but often goes to sleep when I sit at my computer and log on to Dogster on his behalf.
I’ll admit that there is a certain convenience to the online dog park. For one, it doesn’t have a real pond with real mud where Altai can get wet and dirty and smelly and require a bath. In that way, Dogster and sites like it are utterly convenient. There’s also a pragmatic aspect, and for me, that’s the real hook. Altai is a Jindo, a South Korean breed. It’s not often that I come across other Jindo owners at my local dog park. But online, I can find entire groups of them, places where I can go to reflect on the breed and share advice and stories. To that end, I enrolled Altai in three online groups, each with as many as 50 or more members: Jindo Lovers Circle, Cutest Jindo Pups and Just Jindos.
The benefit of Jindo networking, though, doesn’t overshadow the fact that with the convenience of online dog parks, we also sacrifice relationships. They lose value—relationships built online and kept at an electronic distance remain superficial, and they quickly fade, along with the novelty of it all. It’s much like using Facebook to contact an old high school friend you haven’t spoken to in 10 years. You’re pleasantly cordial in the initial interchange, and exchange a brief flurry of emails, but then the communication drops off. Online dog parks, I decided, were no place for Altai.
Real dog parks have their own limitations, too. A random collection of people and dogs brought together by a basic need for exercise and socialization, they’re often haphazard and arbitrary. It’s like trying to meet your soul mate at a bar—sure, it could happen, but the odds are long. But what if we could harness the targeted networking potential of the Internet to find people and dogs with interests similar to our own, and then actually get together to forge the kind of relationships that can only grow from face-to-face interaction?
Well, we can. They’re called Meetup groups and there are more than 2,000 of them across the country. Each is self-organizing and locally focused. When I searched Meetup.com for dog-centric groups in Colorado, it turned up 26 different clusters within a 30-mile radius of my home. Some were unbelievably specific, down to the town you live in and your dog’s breed. Others made me feel as though I’d found the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
There was the Denver Yappy Hour Club, a robust bunch with nearly 800 members who want to socialize with one another and their dogs, and maybe drink a few pints of beer while they’re at it. They meet at bars with dog-friendly outdoor patios during the summer; come winter, they switch to a BYOB format at area doggie day care centers.
More recently, I discovered a newly formed local group, the Colorado Dog Friends Adventure Group. With 68 members, it’s still relatively small, but its focus is right up my alley: hiking, biking, snowshoeing and climbing with your dog in Colorado’s mountains. Those are the kinds of activities Altai and I do together anyway. How great that we could do them with other dogs and people who share our passion!