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Socializing myself at the dog park

While I hid behind my AirPods, my confident and happy pooch just barked in the faces of dogs she wanted to play with. I’ve been learning a lot from her.

The author and his dog, Olive, on a camping trip in northern Minnesota last summer.Gabi O'Connor

My dog is a hero. Or she’s my hero, anyway. As soon as Olive was old enough to take to the dog park, I worried she might get shy around other dogs. It was part of a broader fear that my first-ever dog would somehow inherit the same social hang-ups I had as a kid.

Instead, within seconds, Olive was chasing and getting chased by several new friends, all of whom are also my heroes.

It took a couple months of admiring her ease at making friends, however, to realize that I wasn’t just comparing her with my childhood self but also with my current middle-age self. Olive will run up to dogs of interest and confidently bark in their faces. Meanwhile, I just sort of meander around the dog park, listening to podcasts. When I see interesting people there, why don’t I bark in their faces, so to speak? Is Olive really the one who needs to be socialized?

Dogs are much better than humans are at making new friends. They don’t seem to worry much about what other dogs think of them, or even to consider that other dogs are thinking of them at all. Dogs are gloriously unself-conscious. They have no idea what they even look like. (Perfect in every way.)


Dogs don’t pretend to like each other just to be polite, and when they do like each other, they’re just as genuine. No dog has ever sniffed another dog’s butt for 45 seconds sarcastically. Dogs never wag their tails as part of a facade.

When I decided to be as friendly as Olive, only with more respect for personal boundaries, I adopted an AirPod-free policy. Closed ears close you off from the world. They’re the Beware of Dog signs of the face. Besides, the finite nature of dog park interactions tends to keep small talk breezy and brief. There’s hardly any time to worry about whether my tone comes off as a little scolding when I gently correct someone misgendering my dog before one of our dogs runs off.


Dogs don’t have to learn much about one another beyond smell before becoming friends. They certainly never Zillow-stalk one another. Mainly, they just know how they feel when they play together. This is one area where I have possibly been too much like my dog. I occasionally catch myself being incurious about dog park people beyond how our pets interact. Several regulars are still cataloged in my brain as “Luna’s mom” and “Cooper’s dad” after months of regular contact.

Maybe I’ve gotten so used to vetting new people online that I stopped giving people a chance out in the wild. Sometimes, when another dog approaches Olive, its owner will ask, “Is that a friend?”

I wish I saw the world that way too.

Joe Berkowitz is an author whose most recent book is “American Cheese.” He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, their dog, and two cats. Follow him on Twitter @JoeBerkowitz.