The friends your dog makes

NICK BARNETT
Last updated 12:50 03/04/2014

We dog owners have heard all about "socialisation" - how important it is to introduce our dogs to people, other dogs, and new situations. The idea is to build the dog's resilience, calmness and confidence.

PlaytimeSo we take our dogs out - not just on quiet, empty streets, but into parks and on to beaches and walking tracks, the better to meet other dogs and people.

But one of the joys of the whole culture of dog-walking is the joy of the familiar, not just the new. That joy your dog experiences (and you yourself join in) of encountering a dog and its walker that it has met before.

Sometimes the joy is vivid. Like the day a couple of weeks ago when my partner Tom and I took the dogs to the yearly dog get-together at a forest park not too far from us.

We unloaded and leashed up our dogs and set off from the car park to the meeting point. The air was full of barks and chat, and no doubt a hundred scents. As we joined the throng of dogs and owners, Phoebe and Connor seemed stunned by the onslaught on their sense organs. For them, one new dog is an intriguing possibility; two dogs bring the potential for confusion and nerves; but a teeming, panting crowd means that too much is happening to deal with all at once. Our dogs seem to shut part of themselves down - the part that is usually alert to every stimulus - in order to get through the experience without too much stress. (I do the same thing myself, at any airport baggage claim. Call it a sanity defence mechanism.)

By the time our dogs caught their breath, they'd  already lost a lot of their edginess and become part of the crowd.

Then came Scamp.

Scamp is a loose, hump-happy pompom of black and white fur who our dogs knew from our local small-dogs social group. He spotted Phoebe and Connor from far off and fought his way over to us, crazed with joy at seeing his old Dachshund friends again and dragging his owner with him. He leaped and flipped and humped. And our usually cool sausage-dogs reciprocated.

We were witnessing the dogs feeling the pleasure of seeing a familiar face - or smelling a familiar butt - in a big crowd.

Contrast this to last night. Tom and I were walking our dogs around local streets that our dogs knew well. They know every house in the neighbourhood that has ever had a dog, every driveway where they've ever seen a cat. But it had been a while since they'd last walked on this particular route, so they needed to catch up on the gossip, i.e. sniff every post and bollard to get an update on its recent social history. (Lamp-posts are the Twitter of the dog world.)

Then we spotted a couple of people walking a small dog on the other side of the road. Their dog had stopped and was staring at our two. An introduction seemed called for, so we crossed the road and watched a calm, brief, cursory encounter between the three dogs. It turned out they'd met him before on our rounds. There was no excitement, just a quick bum-check and oh-yes-I-know-you, you-deserve-a-couple-of-wags, is-that-the-time, must-go-and-check-out-another-urine-marinated-fencepost.

We've been walking our dogs, taking them to playgroup, joining in Meetup walks, for four years. Now, almost everywhere we go, there are people we've met before whom we can smile at or stop and chat with. We know each dog's name, breed, age and health status (the three things that are established on the first meeting between any two dog owners), and usually the dog remembers us. All this is one reason I love having dogs.

But I also love watching friendships build among the dogs themselves - to see them take each other in stride, touch snouts and have a playful bounce together (or not), spot each other across the park and hurtle in for a reunion. I'm as happy to see that as I am to see them meet a dog for the first time. And I can't deny that sharing a grin with another dog owner is a source of happiness too.

TorusAnd apropos of nothing much, other than today's dog-related theme and my admiration for you in reading this far, I have a competition. Leave a comment here and talk about your dog's friendships, a Meetup group or similar that you can recommend, or anything else that's on your mind, and I'll put your name in the draw to win one of two Torus water bowls worth $59.95 each, courtesy of Pet.co.nz.

And watch out for tomorrow's dog-themed Furry Friday!

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