Puppy Love: How a Dog Can Change Your Life

Meeting at the park with other dog-owners can be an experience like no other – a source of deep and abiding relationships between people of all ages and from all walks of life.

Smadar Reisfeld
Smadar Reisfeld
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Smadar Reisfeld
Smadar Reisfeld

Every evening, a mobile phone comes to life and sends out a query: “Seven?” Immediately, a chorus of mobiles starts signaling vibrantly, courting each other passionately, until the final decision is made: a quarter past seven.

What matters isn't the exact time but consensus on it: At the appointed hour the local public garden, known as “the park” to local residents, starts to fill up with dogs of every breed and type.

Hardly any are purebreds. Nearly all are foundlings or have been adopted from animal-rights groups. Large and small, young and old, handsome and ugly ‏(yes, yes, I know, every dog has its own charm), well-groomed and shabby, sociable and shy, domineering and obedient.

In the park, the dogs generally do what dogs are supposed to do: sniff, drool and climb on each other. The human beings gather around one of the benches and also do what they know how to do best: talk. About what? About everything: television and literature, good pizza places, the place of philosophy in our era, male-female relations, children who are growing up and parents who are growing old. They also talk a little about dogs. So, not surprisingly, perhaps, the group has been dubbed the “parkliament.”

An outsider observing the scene might think that it’s a random gathering, functional in its purpose, involving people who have to take their dogs out and are meanwhile killing time. But after belonging to a group like this for a few years, I can say for a fact that these encounters go far beyond that and create a unique human experience that is surprisingly meaningful.

We have been going to the park for the past 10 years, in summer and winter, on weekdays and weekends. The dog we adopted as an act of altruism turned out to be something to capitalize on - an excuse for an experience that has nothing to do with the animal, but with us, and in which we engage not for his benefit but for ours. In fact, there have been times when I have even forgotten the dog at home.

‘We became a group’

It all started when Ayelet ‏(Joy’s “mother”‏) moved into the neighborhood. “I was 26 and single,” she recalls, “and I didn’t know a soul. One evening, when I took out my dog, I noticed some stairs and climbed them. I discovered a charming public garden. There was someone there, around 50 years old, with his two dogs, and we started to talk. After a few more chance meetings I suggested we exchange phone numbers and coordinate the time for taking out the dogs. We started to meet regularly: he and his wife, and afterward a young woman who had recently completed her army service. Sometimes the young woman’s parents also came, and sometimes the couple’s student-daughters. We became a group.

“We met every evening around 10. It was the end of the day, so everyone had something to tell the others about their day. It might be funny, it might be disturbing. There were light-hearted talks and intimate conversations. It was like keeping a diary. We started to become involved in one another’s lives. For me, at the time a single woman in the world of dates, loves and heartbreaks, it was an opportunity to share what I had gone through and get sympathy from people who were very different from me and my friends ‏(who are like me, of course‏). They were attentive and comforting and supplied wise insight. It was a kind of support group.”

The original eight were eventually joined by others, and they, too, now come to the park every evening. They are all working people, most of them taking care of children and/or parents - and they all have other friends. None is a “social animal” for whom the park is just another place to rub shoulders. So the question is: Why? What prompts them to abandon the air conditioning, the TV and their pajamas and come to the park?

As with every meaningful relationship, there is more than one answer to this question. First, the setting. Orna ‏(Lusha’s mother‏), a park regular, says it is an opportunity to encounter nature, which for her disappeared when she moved to an urban environment: “The need to take out the dog forces us to detach from the screens to which we are glued most of the day - the computer and the television - to leave the air conditioning and go outside, where we encounter soil, grass and weather. You can’t take that for granted in urban life. As a girl, I was very close to nature. I went to kindergarten and school through fields, I saw worms and butterflies, I knew the names of flowers. As an adult, my interest in culture overrode my interest in nature, but this small slice of nature still makes me happy.”

Andy Warhol once said that he would rather live in the city, because there are places there that give one the feeling of a village, while in a village there is no place that creates the feeling of a city. Orna agrees. “I sit on a bench in the park, and on one side the landscape is trees, dogs and a hoopoe skittering across the grass, and on the other side there is the marvelous city skyline ‏(the towers of Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan‏). You can enjoy the best of both worlds: nature and culture. Add to that the social aspect, the neighborhood encounter, and you get a suburb that is chock full of life, the complete opposite of the dark, alienated suburbs of David Lynch.”

The others, too, single out the human encounter as the key.

It starts with simple things. Michael ‏(“father” of Julie and Nina‏) was one of the first to join the group.

“Until then,” he says, “we had lived in the neighborhood for nine years without knowing anyone else. We didn’t even meet with friends who live in the area, because everyone is busy with his own affairs: work, family, [other] friends. It was through the dog park that we started to get to know the neighbors and became closer with our friends. The neighborhood became a friendly, pleasant place. It starts from having someone to leave the house key with in case of need, and continues with the fact that when our washing machine broke down one of the park people invited us to do our laundry in his home.”

There are currently 12 people in the group, though not everyone comes every evening, so the meetings contract and expand randomly to encompass seven, three or maybe 10 people. The randomness creates an element of surprise: A different number shows up every time and you get a different combination of people, so each meeting has a unique character. There are men and women, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, young and older people. One evening the group might consist of an architect, a kindergarten teacher, a lawyer, a dietitian and a doctoral student in cinema and television. Another evening all of the above might meet but without the architect and the dietitian, who are replaced by a medical student, a computer person and an actor. So every evening has its own specific content.

Naturally, not every encounter constitutes a learned, interdisciplinary seminar. Sometimes it’s more like a jolly get-together. The light-heartedness and the humor are an important part of the role the park plays for the group’s participants.

‘Free to be me’

“It’s almost therapeutic,” Pazit ‏(Cookie’s mother‏) laughs. “You laugh a lot, cut loose, escape the day’s worries. It used to be an annoying business to take the dog out. Since I met the group, it’s a kind of daily vacation.”

“You don’t need to dress up specially or put on makeup,” says Gilat ‏(mother of Julie and Nina‏). “It’s all very relaxed. You take the dog, the cellular phone, the poop bag and off you go. Even barefoot. As an actress with an image that I’m supposed to preserve, it’s good for me to know that there is a place I can come to as I am, without pretense. Everyone comes as ‘pure’ as can be - and that creates good dynamics. I was invited to the fanciest and most luxurious places to celebrate my 50th birthday, but the event that moved me the most was here. The group was small and the young people in it met at someone’s place in the afternoon and made pizza, which they brought to the park in the evening with a table and a tablecloth. It was delightful: not glitzy, not formal and very sincere.”

The unconditional acceptance and the “freedom to be me” also appeal to G., who is now 26, but was 16 when he joined the group: “I was a kid with no self-confidence and with terrible social anxiety. The psychologist I was seeing suggested that I adopt a dog and he was able to persuade my parents. That was one of the best things that happened to me in my life. Alex was a wonderful friend. Whenever I went to school, or to any place where there were people, I felt like I was going into battle. When I got home, exhausted, Alex would welcome me with great excitement. He would run around and jump on me, and then curl up in my lap. I patted him for hours, placed my head next to his and sometimes ‏(well, a lot of times‏) I talked to him. You can’t imagine how much warmth and comfort I drew from that connection.

“Then I met the park people. I took Alex out late in the evening, and one time I saw a few people with dogs. Alex started to romp with the dogs right away, and I stood next to the people, but to the side, and looked at the tips of their shoes. Once in a while someone from the group would ask me a question to draw me into the conversation. I answered quickly, to get it over with - and withdrew back into myself. But I kept coming, because there was something pleasant and nonjudgmental about the group, and I had to take the dog out anyway...

“Sometimes I took a deep breath and started to talk while the conversation was already going on, so no one would hear me. They were tolerant and the air was free, so I grew bolder. It was crucially important to me that the encounters took place every day. Because even if there was a bad evening, if I felt I had said something dumb or a problematic interaction had taken place - nothing really fell apart. They were all there the next evening again, supposedly for the dogs, and no one fled and disappeared. It was calming, and in that sense very familial.”

The group’s wide range of ages was also a contributing factor to the feeling of family. Adds G.: “We all sat in the park and ... [occasionally] talked about the dogs. Sometimes one of the older people or one of the girls would suggest that I go bicycling with them along the Yarkon [River], without the dogs. It was a noncompetitive atmosphere and I felt I was being accepted without having to prove myself.”

“Where else can you meet people whose age ranges from 6 to 60?” says Daniel ‏(Yoel’s father‏). “The intergenerational encounter creates a refreshing mix and allows for mutual inspiration. The older people offer a type of perspective, you could say, and also support, and the younger ones bring a world we have already forgotten.

“I am employed in high-tech and work long hours with great concentration. The work is tremendously demanding intellectually and the concentration is infinite. My brain works at full capacity ... For me, the dog park is an opportunity to let go and ‘clear my head,’ as the saying goes. When I get home after a strenuous day at work, the meeting in the park with the group is wonderful. Thanks to technology ‏(first SMS and now WhatsUp‏), the encounter can be coordinated so that I am able to be there, which is important for me.

“I always dreamed of a neighborhood pub, like in England, where you go after work and hang out with whomever happens to be there that day. The people in the park are different from my co-workers and also different from my close friends, and the diversity is magical. We meet, hear the latest personal news and chat. About everything: politics and literature, TV and science, relations between men and women. We also talk about dogs a little. And we laugh a lot. There’s something unique about these meetings, which on the one hand take place between strangers who happen to be in the same public space at the same time, and on the other hand occur every day. The balance between being strangers and being close creates a dynamic that could not exist anywhere else.

“One evening, someone new came to the park with her dog. She already knew one of the women in the group, so she was able to join easily and without embarrassment. The talk followed the usual pattern: What’s the name of your dog? How old is she? Does she prefer books or shoes? Like that. After 10 minutes, Orna and I were already talking about everything except dogs. At one point, someone mentioned Major General Elazar Stern’s remarks that day against draft evasion, and an argument started. I said it was really annoying that our children lose three years of their lives, but others evade the draft with all kinds of pretexts.

“Orna said it was impossible to force everyone to do army service. I said: Obviously, only the suckers. She said not everyone is suited for the army and I said it was most suitable for my son: He has a natural propensity to salute, and the kind of work doled out by the master sergeant matches the color of his eyes. Orna said that the army framework can be devastating. I said the army can also be constructive, shaping, steeling. I also mentioned examples. Suddenly she said: I don’t know how to say this. It’s not easy for me ... My son committed suicide in the army.

“I was absolutely stunned. It’s not hard to guess what I felt like at that moment: coarse, insensitive, an idiot. I said I didn’t know [what to say], and she said it was all right, there was no way I could have known. She didn’t burst our crying or anything like that, just laid out the facts of her life for me very simply, and it was jolting. We went on talking a little more. I think it was about the army ‘steamroller,’ the herd mentality, the exceptions, normality and Israeliness. Then we went our separate ways.

“We met again in the park the next day - hey, you have to take the dog out - and a regular conversation developed. But the event of the previous day hung in the air and created a sensitive but also very open atmosphere. We went on meeting in the dog park in the days that followed, and the fact that this happened on a daily basis made it possible for that dramatic encounter to ‘blend’ into all the other meetings, and afforded an opportunity for repairing the situation. Orna’s friend, who had been there during the encounter, said she appreciated my reaction. The fact that I simply apologized, she said, and did not start sweating like crazy or stammering or jabbering helped the atmosphere stay normal, and that is what’s most important to Orna, she said: normality. Many times people behave artificially when they are around her, and that is awkward. That feedback was very important to me.

“None of this would have happened if we hadn’t been total strangers at the start. In other circumstances - in a work forum or in a regular social framework - someone would have prepared me in advance and told me about the son. As a result, I would have been on my guard all the time and chosen my words carefully, which would have made the relations between us cautious and artificial. Because I didn’t know anything and said the wrong thing, something very real came out which afterward created a basis for closeness. On the other hand, the closeness was made possible because of the continuity. If we had been total strangers who met just once, let’s say on a train or a plane, the confession would have been preserved like a solitary capsule and could not have developed into a genuine dialogue that is close and normal.”

Research effort

Like the man who didn’t know he was writing prose until he was told, it turns out that we too, the park people, possess distinctive sociological essences whose behavior has been studied and defined in academic terms. Prof. Izhak Schnell, from the Department of Geography and Human Environment at Tel Aviv University, is head of the unit for the study of urban environments. In the wake of research he did on dog parks in Israel, he explains to me what is going on in my park in terms of social-cultural geography.

“There are more than 60 dog parks in Israel - places that have been categorized and set aside by the local authorities for dogs and their owners. Under the law, these are the only places in which dogs are allowed to run about without a leash. Obviously, though, there are many more unofficial dog parks. Forty-three of the official dog parks are in Tel Aviv, which is understandable, given the fact that 24,000 dogs live in the city. That is a huge number. It makes the dogs a full-fledged minority group whose needs have to be taken into account along with their influence on the fabric of life in the city. It also makes the dog’s owners a group which has its own special needs. So, we set out ? Maanit Ichilov, an M.A. research student, and I - to find out what happens to the owners in the dog parks.”

After checking out dozens of such parks across the country, Ichilov decided to focus on three: Meir Park in Tel Aviv, a park in Herzliya, and Sacher Park in Jerusalem. Each of them is visited by dozens of dog owners every day. Ichilov observed them, gave people questionnaires to fill out and interviewed them.

“We found that people are very attached to their dog park,” Ichilov says, “and attribute great importance to it. Only 14 percent of the dog owners think that visiting the park is meant to serve the needs of the dog alone. All the rest are aware of and, to one degree or another, admit to the importance the visit has for them, too. Some of them talk about the dog park as a place there they can relax and ‘clear their head,’ as the expression goes. Some are happy at the opportunity to have fun with the dog, but most attach importance to the social interaction that is generated in the park.”

What sort of social reactions did you find?

Ichilov: “To begin with, people do not come to meet other people. Those ties are generally formed incidentally, with the dog as the catalyst. The dog makes it more likely that strangers will start talking to each other, at first about the subject they have in common - their dogs - and afterward about other subjects as well, and by this means draw closer. We found a large diversity of social interactions, from passive contact ‏(people who stand off to the side, watch and listen‏) to superficial acquaintances and true friendships.”

Schnell: “The fact that these people initially have nothing in common except for owning dogs and having a geographical proximity that leads them to the same park makes them an unusual community in our society. Most of the communities to which we belong are ‘communities of interest’ - groups that have been created on the basis of a narrow interest, which is the focal point of the relations: a community of parents of adopted children, a community of people who like soul music, a community of elderly people and so on. Nowadays there are also many virtual communities of interest.

“In the dog parks a community in the old sense is formed, one based on a common geographical location and is made up of different people of different ages who have a variety of fields of interest. The dogs are a common denominator, but they are more of a catalyst and initial driving force. In any event, in both the traditional and narrow modern sense, the social interactions and community affiliation afford the members an emotional connection and the possibility of increasing one’s social capital.”

What is “social capital”?

“Social capital is a resource that is created in the wake of the existence of social ties, and the term refers to the benefit that the individual and the community derive from those ties. Social capital is created in formal frameworks ‏(extracurricular activity groups, parents’ committees, etc.‏) and informal ones ‏(dog parks, for example‏). In the past, researchers treated social capital as an economic resource, which makes possible the increase of material gains. Now, though, it is also thought to produce gains of a noneconomic character.”

There are several types of social capital, in accordance with the gain each makes possible. One of the gains is based on the trust and the commitment that is created between people, leading to mutual help. In the case of the dog parks, that help generally has to do with the dog. For example, an owner might be away and others will take out the dog for him, or a dog might get lost and everyone goes to look for him. When the group is cohesive, the social capital also assumes forms unrelated to dogs. Ichilov met one person who found himself in financial straits and a few of the dog owners came to his aid, each contributing according to his ability. A second type of social capital stems from new channels of information, which are created as a result of the social ties. People gain access to new and diverse information. In the case of the park it could be a recommendation by a veterinarian or a new book, knowledge of job opportunities and so on.

The ‘third place’

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to describe a social environment that is differentiated from the home ‏(the “first place”‏) and the place of work ‏(the “second place”‏). Examples of a “third place” are the English pub, the bar of the French bistro where people stop in the morning on the way to work, and the German beer hall. All of them constitute a place of meeting for acquaintances and for occasional strangers, who go there in order to forget their everyday troubles and conduct light, amusing conversations. Schnell and Ichilov examined the degree to which dog parks function as a third place and found that in some cases they are a classic example of that environment.

According to Oldenburg, what makes a particular venue a “third place”?

Schnell: “Oldenburg listed several traits of a ‘third place.’ First, it exists on ‘neutral ground.’ It is a place that does not belong to any of the participants, to which people can come and leave whenever they want. There are no guests or hosts, there is no invitation and no protocol of hospitality ? there is a feeling of being ‘at home.’ The place is available for visitors whenever they wish [to go there]. It is usually a neighborhood site and is active at times of the day that are not working hours.”

Such places have a low profile. They have a simple atmosphere, and are not overly elegant or famous. Their simplicity generates a domestic feeling and also characterizes the attire of the participants, who are freed from the need to take trouble over their appearance. This simplicity also supports the principle of equality, another of the features cited by Oldenburg. This stems from the fact that the third place is one that “accepts”: It is available to everyone and does not set criteria for those who want to become a member. An individual is accepted to the third place on the basis of his personality and his desire to be there, irrespective of social class, profession, origins or family situation.

“In one of the parks I met a young woman with Asperger syndrome who told me how comfortable she feels in the group,” Ichilov says. “’All you need to feel part of the group is to have a dog,’ she noted. She also told me about someone who suffers from slight retardation who had also found his place in the group. In Jerusalem I met a religious man who came to Sacher Park in a taxi with a dog he had recently adopted. He lives in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and didn’t have a clue about how to raise a dog. The dog owners took an interest in him and advised him about collars and behavior-related issues. They mobilized to help him. Channels of communication opened up between people who in other circumstances would not have met.”

A striking feature of a so-called third place is “the regulars” who constitute the social core. They create the character of the place and give newcomers the feeling that they are welcome and wanted. Most of the people who come alone join them and become part of the relaxed atmosphere. The greater the frequency of the visits, the more a feeling of belonging to the place develops, while warm, intimate relationships develop among the people. Seemingly, the encounter at the third place is held for a specific purpose ‏(drinking beer, exchanging books, walking the dog‏), but the true “activity” is the conversation, and it facilitates the acquaintanceship and the formation of personal ties.

Oldenburg argued that people need a third place, but noted that such venues were becoming extinct in the suburbs of America, in part because of flawed urban planning which did not provide space for them.

“The situation in Israel isn’t great, either,” Schnell says. “Some of the parks look like they were set up hastily. Israel is a place where these parks have a great potential for success, because in contrast to America, people here still walk and don’t go everywhere by car. There is sometimes public opposition to dog parks, on the grounds that the money and spaces should be invested in people, not in dogs. But these parks are definitely also an ‘investment’ in people: the owners of the dogs.”

Did you find differences between the parks you examined in terms of their being “third places”?

“The park that most meets the characteristics of a third place is the one in Herzliya, and the least is the one in Jerusalem. Most of the people who come to the Herzliya site engage in interpersonal contact. In fact, a quite cohesive group has been created there, which celebrates the dogs’ birthdays, maintains mutual-help relations and has even set up a bulletin board of its own in the park with photographs of the dogs and announcements to the members of the group. In the park we looked at in Tel Aviv we also found that people had forged many ties, and I have seen people there move benches in order to sit with one another and talk. In Jerusalem almost no ties are formed. People do not sit together and they barely talk.”

Why is that?

“It might have something to do with the different character of hill people and sea people. But I think that the park’s surroundings and planning also have something to do with it. First of all, the Jerusalem park is the only one that is not a neighborhood venue. Few people get there by foot and the visits are not made on a daily basis, as they are in the other parks. It’s clear that the absence of a consecutiveness of encounters affects the ability to forge ties. Second, the benches are made of metal and not wood, as in the other parks, and are located in an area where there is no shade. These conditions do not invite people to sit together, not in the hot summer and certainly not in the Jerusalem winter. A simple thing like a comfortable place to sit can have a great impact on social interaction.”

True friendships

Generally speaking, my own private park fits the characteristics of a “third place”: The location is neutral, there is a free atmosphere that allows people to shed inhibitions and there is human diversity and tolerance. The larger the group grows, the more it comes to resemble that model. When the group was young and small, the ties were more intimate. Deeper relations were formed that existed beyond the confines of the park. True friendships sprang up, which even led to a joint trip abroad. But that’s a subject for a different article, one that would refute the argument, sometimes heard, that friendships are not forged above the age of 30.

The small group and the ongoing daily contact generated involvement that abuts many points in the life cycle. We accompanied girls who grew to maturity, did army service and went on a post-army trip abroad, and we accompanied their parents who went through the same stages - but from the other side. We were partners to a story of courtship, marriage, pregnancy and birth. We became happy about one another’s lives.

So, when Ayelet ‏(the park’s legendary founder‏) married the man who a few years earlier was only the subject of conversation in the park - an object of hesitation and interpretations, of joy and irritation - we came to the wedding not filled with the sense of doing an oppressive duty, but with sincere happiness. It was a small wedding in a particularly fine place. We hugged the parents, we danced, and when we went home we remembered to take doggy bags for the dogs that had brought us this far. One of the guests, who lives in New York, asked who we were, and when we told her we were park people she was amazed that the bride and groom had shown the nobility of spirit to invite us.

“They are dressed so beautifully,” she murmured, “in comparison to the homeless in Central Park.” A small tear ran down her cheek at the sight of our “poor people’s happiness.”

How to explain to her than it’s not the opportunity to eat and be happy that makes us happy, but the friendship and fraternity that are created by the daily round.

And thanks to Bizi, Lusha, Julie, Nina, Joy, Luk, Gush, Lola, Michaela, John, Golda, Lizzie, Laika, Cookie, Alex and Tushiya.

Researcher Maanit Ichilov. Credit: Nir Kafri
Canine and human encounters at a local park. Credit: Nir Kafri
Prof. Izhak Schnell.Credit: Nir Kafri



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