Walking a dog in a quiet suburban neighborhood is a good way to commune with your neighbors, and it’s a great way to squeeze in your daily exercise. But walking a dog in my Washington neighborhood of young single people is an altogether different animal.
Obviously, there are a lot more cars to watch out for. There’s the occasional rat that scampers across the sidewalk and always triggers leash-pulling excitement. There are hyper-aggressive squirrels without the normal fear of humans. There are laws about poop—and they are enforced not only by the police, but also by your neighbors—so my part of town features a whole subculture of people walking around with blue plastic bags designed specifically for cleaning up after our pets.
But the most interesting part of dog ownership in the city is the distinctive camaraderie that develops among the owners. I live on a street where there are very few children and a lot of dogs that are treated like children, and we self-proclaimed puppy-parents stop and chat and let our dogs play the way I imagine real parents stop to let their children play in the rest of the country.
We advise one another on house-training and chewing and barking. We compare notes about the best doggy day cares and veterinarians. We complain about (and judge) the crazy, negligent dog parents at the too-small dog park. We also talk about our vacations and our parents and our jobs.
But we don’t know each other’s names. I see these people several times a week, more often than I see many close friends, and yet I know them only by the names of their dogs.
We run into each other all the time around town. I see Max-the-Cairn-terrier’s mommy at the grocery store almost every week, and we stop to chat, even though our dogs aren’t with us. About a month ago, I saw the dads of Jackson and Buddy, two golden retrievers, out at a restaurant with friends, and we waved. Bruno-the-pug’s dad stopped recently to ask me how I kept my dog from humping everything in the house. The last time I saw her, Daisy-the-Yorkie’s mom was on her way to a costume party dressed as Marie Antoinette. Last week, I was behind Lucky’s dad in line at the pharmacy, and he pretended not to know me.
Under normal circumstances, if I bump into an acquaintance who clearly can’t remember my name, I just reintroduce myself. The problem among neighborhood dog-walkers is that by now we’re too close for that. I have known these people for almost two years. At some point we must have exchanged names, but they are long forgotten. We know each other’s front doors and schedules and who just had an anniversary and whose roommate is driving them nuts. We borrow blue bags from each other. It’s too late to exchange names.
I’ve also noticed a telling sidelight on this phenomenon: I do know the names of all my dogless neighbors. Vanessa, a college professor, adores my Havanese, Mr. Darcy, and keeps an eye out for when we might be ready for a walk. Linda, a tap-dance instructor, loves the neighborhood dogs and always speaks to me by name. Sharon nurtures her tiny garden and enjoys watching the birds on the feeder, so she’s often there when we pass, and we stop to say hello. Liam lives a few doors down, and when he’s outside smoking in the evening after dinner he likes to visit with Mr. Darcy. None of these people have dogs, so they get normal human names.
I have to admit that treatment of dogs as children is hardly confined to my current, urban environment. Since becoming an empty-nester, my mother has taken to calling her two Havanese “the Furry Girls,” to distinguish Phoebe and Chloe from the non-furry girls, my sister and me. Even so, I’d like to think no one refers to her as the Furry Mom.
Of course, it’s common for parents—mothers, in particular—to be known by their children. So it makes a certain amount of sense that dog owners in a mostly child-free neighborhood would recognize dog-parenthood in each other before any other identifying trait. Mr. Darcy is a good dog, and I am proud to be known as his mom. Still, I won’t be unhappy someday to drop my Mr. Darcy moniker and be known by the name of a real child.