In cities, we tend to ignore the strangers passing right by us — but our pets are inadvertently starting to change that.

Dog parks — designated spaces where pooches can enjoy an off-leash romp under the supervision of their owners — are about more than canine fun. They’re also a place for pup owners to connect. And as the fastest growing type of park among major cities in the United States, dog parks could play an increasingly important role in community interaction.

A 2014 study from the University of Waterloo explored how dog parks offer a space for pet owners to build community. Journalist’s Resource offers an overview of some of the study’s key findings:

  • At dog parks, pets serve as avatars, allowing owners to meet people and navigate space through their pets. The authors liken the environment to online gaming communities, whose members share a virtual space and participate in conversations and role-playing via their avatars.

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  • The demographics of park visitors do not seem to matter in forming relationships. Human interactions appear to be based on how each owner’s dog behaves toward other dogs and people. Negative perceptions of a dog’s breed or behavior often extend toward owners, limiting those owners’ opportunities to build relationships with other dog-park visitors.

Say what?! Dog parks are prompting strangers to actually talk to one another in person, regardless of demographic differences?

Despite this important feat, dog parks aren’t perfect for everyone. First off, there are people (read: me) who don’t own dogs. Second, dog park plans are sometimes met with opposition from residents who raise legitimate concerns about noise, health and safety risks, or other factors.

But it’s hard to argue with wholesome scenes of dogs bounding through the park, leash-less, frolicking to their hearts’ content. Perhaps we should take a cue from Pugsley’s book and attempt to make our communities a little more friendly.

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