Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Canadians are feeling lonely and isolated, as Statistics Canada reported in November. As we know, the pandemic exposed many issues that were already brewing—from precarious work conditions to racial disparities to health-care access to increased loneliness.
Indeed, the “weak ties” that we develop with others as we go about our lives are essential to combat loneliness, an indicator often used to measure social cohesion.
But coming across opportunities to connect with people who aren’t like us can feel more challenging than ever.
In an increasingly polarized society, how do we even start talking to strangers?
Dogs help us drop our inhibitions
Unexpectedly (to me, at least), our canine friends might have some clues for us.
“Puppies are a total icebreaker with strangers,” said Kristyn Adams, a Calgarian who adopted Echo, a mixed-breed dog, in May 2020.
“We don’t have to hold back with our interactions with dogs the same way we keep our distance with humans. You can get right in there with the puppies and then have nice chats with their owners as you exchange pandemic-puppy notes.”
The ‘weak ties’ that we develop with others as we go about our lives are essential to combat loneliness.
Adams’s experience is not just anecdotal.
Research suggests that dog parks are conducive to meaningful interactions among strangers—interactions that may lead to the development of friendships, and even an increased sense of neighbourhood safety.
The role the dogs play in our social dynamics is key, as visiting a park doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll interact with people we don’t know—but dogs won’t let the opportunity to sniff a new friend pass them by.
More adventurous than their owners, dogs can act as a “social lubricant” and facilitate conversations among humans, who, by exchanging dog-training tips or recommending vets, are also laying the building blocks of a stronger community.
Moreover, unlike other public spaces such as playgrounds or sports fields, everyone is welcome at the dog park—even those without a dog.
“It is not weird to go to a dog park if you don’t have a dog,” said Munsi Parker-Munroe, a Calgarian who frequents Connaught Park with his two dogs, Quentin Tiberius, a Jack Russell Terrier, and Trixie Dix, a rescue Chihuahua.
“You might want to get your kids accustomed to the idea of dogs before you adopt one. You might have a dog that’s recently passed. You might not live in a dog-friendly building. You might have had a bad day and want to chill with some dogs.”
You get to meet a lot of very different people who have exactly one thing in common.
The challenge of creating dog parks
Deprived from regular outings with friends and water-cooler conversations at work, many Calgarians have been flocking to our city’s parks in the last two years to get fresh air and social interaction while adhering to health restrictions.
“The pandemic increased demand and use of all our outdoor public spaces, from playgrounds to pathways [to] off-leash areas,” said Ron Buchan, parks community strategist at the City of Calgary.
“As bad as the pandemic is, we found that safe public outdoor spaces and activities become vital to keep Calgarians busy, active and improve their mental health.”
“For a city of our size and population, we have a huge number of off-leash areas,” said Buchan, emphasizing that we have four times more of these spaces than Edmonton. However, he noted, “our biggest challenge is finding the appropriate space, especially in communities that are built out.”
According to Buchan, the primary concerns of neighbours are traffic, parking, noise and dog behaviour. And ensuring the compatibility of off-leash areas with existing uses is essential.
I spent years working on community-building projects, then I got a dog and found everything I was trying to build at the dog park.
“We know off-leash areas are huge community hubs. When we do our engagement we want people to know that this is a place for people to go to,” he said. But that’s just “an added bonus... we also want to make sure that residents who don’t use the dog park aren’t affected.”
Part of the challenge is that the official designation of off-leash dog parks is driven by advocacy groups or the number of licensed dogs in an area, Buchan explains, which means the city has to wait until there are residents already living in a community to start looking for an adequate site for a dog park, and conduct ad-hoc engagement.
“The one challenge that we have is finding city-owned land that’s not being used for another purpose,” he said, explaining that off-leash areas don’t necessarily mix well with other uses, such as playgrounds, playfields or natural protected areas.
“It’s difficult for us to find a space after [a neighbourhood] is developed,” he said.
The city is working on the initial stages of a plan that would expedite the designation of off-leash areas from the get-go, and help balance public demand and city capacity.
Since not everyone in a community can adopt a dog, it seems fair to consider the needs and preferences of different residents before allowing for an off-leash area in an established community. But as loneliness rates rise, in some cases, the benefits of dog parks might outweigh the difficulties.
“I spent years working on community building projects, then I got a dog and found everything I was trying to build at the dog park,” Kirti Bhadresa said on Twitter, after I asked where people of different backgrounds can meaningfully interact with each other as equals.
“Strangers chat, you can walk with people you don’t know, and lots of different people have dogs. I love it.”
Only recently I realized that these are the same people that have signs on their lawn that I don’t necessarily agree with.
A rare place of common ground
While any well-designed public open space can help us enjoy the outdoors and support our connection to existing friends, the chances we have a spontaneous conversation with a stranger are minimal. The dog park is different.
“You get to meet a lot of very different people who have exactly one thing in common,” Parker-Munroe said. “So you can start a conversation with literally anybody there.”
Similarly, Adams has noticed her regular visits to the dog park have allowed her to have otherwise unlikely interactions, as these days, she says, it can be difficult to connect with others whose views on some controversial topics may differ from our own.
“I’ve been seeing regularly a couple who have two very nice rescue dogs, and only recently I realized that these are the same people that have signs on their lawn that I don’t necessarily agree with.”
Adams believes that because dogs don’t actually speak, owners have to talk to each other to ensure everyone is comfortable with the dogs’ interactions, while at other public spaces such as playgrounds, parents usually watch from a distance and keep to themselves.
“At the playground we don’t talk to other people, it’s just not a thing,” she said. “Parents, I don’t think, really interact the same way that dog owners do.”
I know a few people that I will hang out with outside of that context now.
Having had a similar experience at playgrounds, Bhadresa says dog parks are “the magic place” where we're free to be ourselves.
These interactions can strengthen ties among people of diverse backgrounds. So far, this has been the case for both Parker-Munroe and Adams, both of whom adopted their pups in 2020.
“I know a few people that I will hang out with outside of that context now,” Parker-Munroe said, noting that his group of friends has usually been comprised by people who, like him, work non-traditional hours—but visiting the dog park has helped him expand his social circle.
As for Adams, it was through Echo that she was able to develop a closer relationship with her next-door neighbours.
“We moved in shortly prior to the pandemic, so we hadn’t had a chance to build up a super good relationship with them,” she said.
Thanks to their dogs, now they go on walks with their dogs regularly, and even set up pooch play-dates at each other’s backyards.
“It’s been incredibly beneficial—I cannot overstate that,” she said.
Ximena González is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Tyee and Jacobin.