It’s guaranteed that anyone owning a dog will tell you all the ways their pet has made their life better. Yes, they’re cute; yes, they help you keep fit; yes, they are your best friend; and yes, we have indeed seen that photo of your dog, probably twice.
But there’s another way our dogs are helping us cope, especially through the past year and a half, and it’s the fact that they’re keeping many of us socially connected.
When I moved to Australia almost four years ago to be with my Australian partner, my biggest worry was how to make new friends.
When you’re 20-something, in a new city, new country halfway across the world from home, with no existing friends or family besides the ones of your partner, making friends is a lot harder than it seems.
While I liked many things about my new home, after a year had gone by I still felt pretty socially isolated. If only there was a dating app but to make friends instead, I remember thinking.
Everyone seemed to have their own circles sorted already, and it felt socially terrifying to chat to random people on the street or even at a local cafe.
In 2019 we decided to get a dog. Before the lockdown-induced adoption boom, rescuing a mixed-breed dog wasn’t impossible, and we got the second dog that we applied for.
Taika was a mix indeed, with a black kelpie head and a white-dotted body, a somewhat funny-looking dog and when we’d walk on the street, I quickly noticed people breaking into a subtle smile when Taika passed them.
Dogs are amazing at adapting, and Taika fitted into our lives and home effortlessly. It seemed like anywhere we went — a local park, a hike, a campground, a city she had never been in — she seemed right at home, like she’d been there before.
If only I could be more like her, I thought.
But soon after getting Taika, I felt that I “accidentally” started meeting people.
Fleeting ordinary catch-ups at the dog park, or Taika having a big play with a dog at the beach, turned into walks, picnics, exchanged numbers and WhatsApp groups. Soon the dogs weren’t the only reason we were hanging out. First we were “dog friends”, then just friends.
Last year’s lockdowns really escalated this process, and turns out I wasn’t the only one.
Kate Johnson got a staffy puppy just before the lockdowns last year as she and her partner moved to Melbourne, and she suddenly found herself with no existing social circles and feeling lonely when her partner was at work.
Kuji, her dog, turned out to be just what she needed when Kate got stood down from her event organiser job in April due to lockdowns.
“There was really nothing to do but walk the dog. I found myself at the dog park two to three hours per day. As the days rolled into months the same faces were there at the same times and we all craved some human connection,” she says.
One day Kuji recognised a dog from the park walking past Kate’s house, and she struck up a conversation with the owner.
“We realised we live so close to each other that we should take the dogs for walks together. The dog owner is now one of my best friends.”
A University of Western Australia study found that having a dog was in the top three reasons of meeting new people when moving to a new city or suburb. Dog owners were 60 per cent more likely to meet new people than people with no dogs.
Breaking into a community can feel really hard without something to break the ice, and Kate has found Kuji to be exactly that: the easy, stress-free conversation starter.
“My local cafe recognises and knows my name due to multiple chats about the dog with the staff. Having a dog makes people more likely to acknowledge you.”
Kate says having Kuji and finding a community around her has made a big difference to her mental health.
“Having a dog during lockdown has saved me from depression. Due to losing my job I often woke up wondering why I should bother getting out of bed at all, but then Kuji would bounce onto the bed asking for a walk. She became my reason and motivation,” she says.
Another barrier in getting to know new people can be social anxiety.
Charlotte Irons got her puggle, a beagle crossed with a pug, the day before Victoria’s first lockdown in 2020.
Having experienced social anxiety all her life, she says Sonny quickly started to help her out.
“Before getting a dog I didn’t feel really connected to my community. But then suddenly having something to talk about and connect with others about -it lead to other topics and finding common ground with my neighbours.”
“Next year I will be moving to a new town where I’m building a house. I think that having Sonny has given me me the confidence to do this and know that it will be OK to move somewhere new. I will have a friend in Sonny to keep me company but to also help me meet some new people.”
And not all encounters turn into friendships, but they don’t need to. Someone recognising Taika, smiling or asking something about her, somehow makes me feel noticed, and that can often be enough to feel like you belong into a neighbourhood, a community.
“It doesn’t even have to be a big conversation, sometimes it’s just a nice smile or a friendly reaction of what we were doing, a commonality of our lives. An acknowledgement that we are dog people,” says Charlotte.
When I think about the friends I have now, people who I feel like I have know for ages, I quickly realise that Taika is the thread that connects them all, like all of the relationships somehow connect to her.
Taika is still timid, and warms up to new people and dogs slowly. I sometimes laugh that she’s like just like me. But once she makes a friend, she’ll wag her tail and recognise a familiar face from blocks away. It’s during these moments that I wonder if she, a rescue pup with six homes before me, realises that it’s me who’ll always be indebted to her.