Dogs combat human loneliness: German research last year comparing older dog owners, cat owners and people without pets found that only the dog people reported reduced feelings of social isolation. It is partly the dog’s company (our brains release the bonding hormone oxytocin when we’re around them) but it’s also about all those walks, bringing you into contact with cheery, like-minded souls, pockets stuffed with poo bags and fetid liver-based treats.
It’s true and I hate it. My life as a dog owner has been dogged (sorry) by unavoidable social interactions. Our first park, six or seven years ago, featured an aggressively social group of walkers who marched round together discussing planning applications and parking outrages. There was even an annual picnic, for pity’s sake. On my next walk route, I was drawn into initially pleasant conversation with a fellow whippet owner, before discovering she was floridly racist and having to spend three years trying to dodge her. I thought I had found silent-walk nirvana with my current itinerary – around the dump and along the narrowest, muddiest paths of the nature reserve in the dark – but a garrulous man with a fat staffie has decided I need daily updates on his New Year fitness regime. Much like at primary school drop offs, your dog unerringly makes friends with the dog of the person you least want to talk to, lingering or speeding up unhelpfully so you’re forced to drop into step with them. It’s even harder to dodge a dog bore than a colleague who shares your commute.
I tallied seven social interactions on today’s walk: three hellos and four chats (it’s cold, our dogs are idiots, watch out for the grumpy husky, and, unusually, a compliment on my coat). I realise that sounds perfectly pleasant, and I know it’s good for me: research on “weak-ties” and stranger interactions consistently shows these contacts enhance mood. But what I crave on our morning walk is an hour alone with the birdsong, the murderous honking of the local geese and the sluggish churn of my thoughts. I should have got a cat.