Walkin’ the dog

Erin McKee investigates the popular social lubricant known as “walkies.”

If you’re looking for an excuse to chat with strangers about something other than the weather, try walking a dog. Social cues seem to change when there are animals about: passers-by may smile or strike up conversations if one of them has a dog in tow.

“The problem with owning a cat,” a friend of mine recently told me, “is that I never meet anyone. I should get a dog.”

I decided look into the social effects of dog-walking.

In winter, when not shuttling back and forth from work and school, people tend to cocoon themselves in their homes and apartments, so the first hurdle, I imagine, is simply getting outside. Become a regular fixture of any public space and you’ll start to recognise people, and though you may not stop to chat up all those familiar faces from your favourite coffee shop, perhaps you’d have a change of heart along a walking trail.

“Having a dog is a motivating factor to stay active in all kinds of weather,” says my father, who has had dogs nearly all his life.

Would he go out for regular walks without our dog?

“Probably not. It’s a good excuse to get out of the house.”

“It’s a social scene,” he adds. “Most of the people who regularly walk their dogs [on the trail] are people who consider the dog part of their family.”

Though I’ve heard rumours of the Quidi Vidi dog park being a hot spot for hooking up, I ventured over to check it out one blustery afternoon and it was virtually empty. A single hyperactive puppy bounced around inside, accompanied by his two owners.

“It’s usually full of people on a nice day,” says Izzy’s owner. “There are a lot of regulars. Every time we come, they’re like “oh, hey!” and they call each dog by name… [though] I don’t even know if they remember mine.”

In true fashion, after I left the dog park, I realised I too had forgotten to ask for anyone’s name—aside from the dogs’.

Over on Water Street, Steve (I remembered his name!) agrees that people tend to open up when they see a dog. His Newfoundland dog Noah can often be spotted lounging against the Nonia building while Steve plays guitar.

“The kids just love him,” Steve says.

And he attracts the tourists too. Busking together for about two years—here and on the streets of Quebec—Steve has noticed a big change in how people react to him since he started bringing the dog along: people are much, much friendlier.

“He’s actually my girlfriend’s dog,” he says. “Some people say it’s too hot to have a dog on the street all day, but if it’s not too hot for me then it’s not too hot for him. He’s happy.

“He’ll whine if he’s left home alone all day.”

Walking—with or without an animal by your side—gives time to think.

“It’s a time for reflection,” says my father, who walks with Oscar several times a day. Transitional spaces provided by routine activities—even the zen-like repetition of dishwashing—can quiet your mind and allow you to work things out in your head.

“I like… just zoning out,” says Olivia, another person out walking her dog.

Sometimes the love can get out of hand.

“There’s a sub-species of trail walkers who are always ready to take care of lost dogs,” Joan—I think that was her name—tells me. “I often come round a corner to be greeted by people fussing over [Siggy] and asking, ‘Is he yours? We thought he was lost.’

“At this point,” she says, “I usually offer him up for adoption, but so far I’ve had no takers.”

While dogs may usher a little kindness in your direction, there are no guarantees any of it will rub off on you.

Back at my parents’ house, everyone remembers a Valentine’s Day when the doorbell rang and on our doorstep was a little girl holding some candy hearts and a Little Mermaid valentine.

It was signed “to Oscar, love Emily,” and she’d drawn a bone next to his name, just in case there was any confusion as to whom the candy was for.