Social Networking for Dogs

Online or on the ground, 21st-century technology provides options
By Peter Bronski, September 2009

 

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. 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!
 
Had I indeed found my personal Holy Grail of online-meets-real dog parks? With the Colorado Dog Friends Adventure Group, it’s still too early to tell. But I do know this: My enthusiasm for the real dog park has waned somewhat, and my enthusiasm for online dog parks faded before it even began. With Meetup groups, on the other hand, I see real potential, and my enthusiasm remains strong. Here, I don’t have to pretend to be Altai and I don’t have to hope that the real dog park will have a good mix of agreeable people and dogs on any given day. Rather, I can simply be myself and connect with people who share my perspective and interests, and with dogs who—much more so than Emma and Eleanor far off in the Swiss Alps—will be kindred spirits with Altai, satisfying his need for socialization far closer to home.
 
We still go to our local dog park, though less often than we used to. And Altai still gets excited when we go. He gets even more excited, I think, when he sees me reach for my backpack and hiking boots. To Altai, the only thing better than socializing off-leash with other dogs is doing so while hiking in the mountains. At the end of the day, however, I don’t think it matters much to him whether the socialization came through our local park or the arrangement of an Internet Meetup group. What really matters is that there’s a real, live dog there to greet him when it happens.

 

Peter Bronski writes for 5280: Denver's Mile-High Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Sea Kayaker and Wild Blue Yonder, among many others. When they're not confined to a boat on the river, his dog Altai runs circles around him in the mountains.