Taking the dog for a walk is a sure-fire way to find plenty of people to talk to


We were standing on the corner, Andy and I, deep in conversation and waiting for the light to change when I noticed a pleasant-looking man eyeing us from a few feet away, a look of amusement on his face.

I smiled.

"Nice dog," he said.

I thanked him, then turned again to Andy.

"I just realized I forgot your ball," I said. "What should we do? Do you want to go to the park without it, or should we go home and get it?"

At the word "ball," Andy snapped to attention, muscles tense, eyes alert. The message was clear: "Throw it! Throw it!"

"I just told you, I don't have it," I said. "Let's go back and get it, OK?"

We turned toward home, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the man's look of amusement turn to concern, as he hustled to put some distance between us.

He thought I was crazy, I'm sure.

Researchers at the Human-Animal Program at the University of California, Davis, won't comment on my sanity, but they say that among dog-walkers, I'm quite normal.

In most cases, the two-legged animal on one end of the leash spends a lot of time talking to the four-legged beastie on the other. Not only that, the presence of a dog is a sure conversation-starter between the dog walker and other people along the way.

"We've been working with the socializing affect of a dog," said Lynette Hart, director of the Human-Animal Program. "People always say they talk to their animal, and it is also true that if a person has a dog, people are more likely to speak with them. We thought it would be interesting to see what they say."

Graduate student John Rogers set up the study in a mobile-home park, a secure environment where the walkers -- half with dogs and half without -- would run into people they knew, and who knew them. The walkers carried tape recorders, and the conversations were later analyzed.

Not only were 80 percent of the dog walkers' conversations about the dogs, but the passers-by spent a great deal of their time talking about the dogs, too.

"The interesting thing is that even when the walkers didn't have their dogs with them, there was still a great deal of conversation about the dog," Ms. Hart said. "Passers-by who knew them perceived them as a team."

She said that for many people, especially those with a less-than-secure social-support network, a dog makes a contribution to both mental and physical well-being. Studies show that people who have regular, routine exercise are less at risk for hip stress fractures, according to Ms. Hart. And if you have a dog, it's easier to get out for a walk.

"The dog is so happy to be with you, and you can count on the companionship," she adds. "On top of that, it's a bridge to put you in contact with other people. It gives you something to talk about.

"If someone has a shaky support system, a dog can be a buffer, helping to keep that person on an even keel. When people have a really strong social network, the animal can make life richer. For those people it's an enhancement, as opposed to being their salvation."

And what an enhancement it is. I know in my own life that walking a dog or two helps to make a house a home, and the neighborhood your own. I have friends who have lived in their zTC houses for years and barely know the people on either side of them. They come home from work, buzz into their garages, eat dinner and turn on the television.

I'm not allowed to live that kind of life. The dogs want to go, so we do. Tagging along at the end of the leash I hear neighborhood gossip, discuss flowers and vegetables, house paint and crime. I endure both winter and allergy season, and am rewarded by the glorious pink sunset on a summer evening, and by the rare sight of the three wild parrots that neighbors say have lived in our area for years.

I take Andy on the long walks, and Toni on the short ones. They go visiting together and are welcome in the living rooms and back yards of many a neighbor. The dogs have helped me to feel as if I've grown up in a neighborhood I've only known for two years.

Sometimes I walk with other dog walkers, and sometimes not, but I am never alone. There's always someone to talk to.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278

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