Dog walking in Surrey

They're the people who have met, made friends and even fallen in love while out walking their four-legged friends. KATHERINE KNOWLES heads out into Surrey's parks to meet the county's thriving dog walking community

One lazy Sunday - the one when it didn't rain - I borrowed my friend's new puppy, Poppy, and took her for a potter down by the river at Hampton. That's when I heard the rumour. Two people who met walking their dogs there just a few months ago had apparently become engaged.

Where did they meet? How had the relationship blossomed? What were the details? Nobody seemed to know. So I set off around the green spaces of Surrey, on a ludicrous but curiously engaging quest to find out. "Well, you do hear all sorts of things," says John Glanville, from Kingston, walking a small community of dogs through Richmond Park. "You just get chatting. It opens your life to all kinds of new experiences too. It was through talking to someone in the park that I changed my life, really... "I used to walk my son's dog - a lab - and I'd go every day. She was such a good dog; she used to sleep on a rug at the bottom of my bed. So when she died, I was devastated. For a week or two, I just got up and went out on the dog walk anyway. I didn't know what to do. "Then, one day, I got chatting to a woman down by the pond. She had two dogs and she asked me if I fancied walking them from time to time. So I did, and people noticed, and then someone else asked me if I could fill in for her, and now I'm a dog walker! "I just think the world of dogs. Dog walkers all love dogs, so we all have something in common. I'd say we're a breed of our own. We're a community. So though I've never met anyone who fell in love with someone they met dog walking, I can't say I'm surprised." A true community This community feel is evident in every park that we visit. Poppy and I easily meet all kinds of people happy to chat, or simply nod and smile as they overtake us on the path. People walk in little groups, twos or threes, talking, or quietly thinking their own thoughts in companionable silence. Groups merge and change as owners gallop after misbehaving dogs or stand calling hopefully into the middle distance: "Scruffy! Where are you? Come here now!" In the smaller parks, the community is closer, necessarily compacted, but even in Richmond Park, strangers stop to pass the time of day. "It's a lovely way to meet people," says Debbie Mackay, who lives with her husband, two sons and cocker spaniel Phoebe in Kingston Vale. "They don't have any inhibitions talking to you when you have a dog - you can always ask about the dog. "I met a fascinating woman here who was an antiques collector. When she got too ill to walk her dog, I took it with me. That went on for about six months, until she died. There were a lot of dog walkers at her funeral - she meant a lot to people, just by meeting them in the morning for a little chat. "It was a bit strange to see the people out of context, without their dogs. They're my park friends, really. I know them by their dogs." This is a phenomenon I can testify to myself; at a party, I met a woman who seemed very familiar to me. When I mentioned it, she looked terribly embarrassed; "I run a drop-in gynaecology clinic," she told me. "Do you think it could be from there?" We were both relieved when we remembered that Poppy and I met her and her corgi Buzy in Beverly Park... "You might meet the odd celebrity too - Lynda La Plante and Jacqueline Wilson walk their dogs locally," Debbie adds. "And, of course, Davina McCall met her husband when she was out walking her dog." The quest continues Fascinating as it is learning about famous dog walkers, the only celebrities I'm interested in meeting are my Puppy Love couple. Is the story true, or is it merely an urban relationship myth? Has she met them on the circuit?

"I'm sorry, I haven't come across them," says Debbie. "But people do make good strong relationships so it might well be true." A case in point is Judith Austen, a doctor from New Malden, who met one of her closest friends through dog walking.

"I've been walking on Wimbledon Common with Amber, my border terrier, for 11 years so I've known the people who dog walk here for a long time," she says. "In fact, I became great friends with a retired anaesthetist, Brenda Sanderson, who is 92 and still walks her labrador, Chloe, every day! We'll go for a cup of tea and a game of Scrabble after our walk, discuss the Today programme and put the world to rights. She's very inspiring. She played tennis until she was 80 and she does The Times crossword every day! "One day a week, my daughter's mother-in-law and I team up. We always end up at the Windmill caf�. We started doing it before the wedding to get to know each other. I think our families think we talk about them. Actually, we hardly ever do!" But it's not all free friendship in the parks of Surrey; some unspoken rules are commonly adhered to. Bridget Buckle, an accountant from Coombe, explains more as she scans the horizon of Beverly Park for black labrador, Tia. "People with labs usually walk and talk with other people with labs," she says. "If I saw someone with a terrier, I probably wouldn't talk to them. Still, there's no shortage of people to talk to; there are a lot of labs about. I said to a fellow lab owner once: 'They're common dogs, aren't they?' And she gave me a look and said: 'Popular, dear, not common!' "You definitely notice the people who walk regularly, even if you don't talk to them, and you start to worry if they're not around for a few days. Where my friend lives, there's a message tree in the park where dog walkers can leave notes for each other, or pin up cards saying that their dog has died and they're too sad to come to the park any more." Dog people are different It seems like a good idea to me, so I print out a handful of notices and pin them around, hopeful that my couple might get in touch. "I wouldn't be surprised if two dog people got together," says Bridget. "It's more surprising to me when a dog person and a non-dog person get together. Dog people are different from everyone else. I remember coming here with my daughters when they were small. People would come up to me and say: 'What a lovely dog!' Nobody ever looked in the pram!" Angela Bulbeck, hairdresser and owner of The Park Salon in Kingston, agrees. "I walk Archie in Manor Park, and when I'm out, people always say, 'How's Archie?' not 'How's the kids?', though we get to know about everyone's families too. We know about each other's parents and kids, what we all did for Christmas, if we're hungover that morning... "Archie was a rescue dog and he'd never seen grass before. He was scared of it at first, but when he got used to it, he turned back into a gun dog - he's a cocker spaniel - and he was off. Eventually, my husband went home, made a coffee and brought it back for us while we waited for him to return! "It's lovely to talk to people as you go around, and I like having a bit of time to myself in the morning to think about the day ahead." It's a much-echoed sentiment: the pleasure of being out in the fresh air, the knowledge that sticking to a daily exercise plan is as good for the owner as it is for the dog, the joy of watching the seasons, the feeling of connecting to the world, and stepping back from the bustle of life for an hour to breathe, think and collect. "It's time for me," Debbie explains. "Dog walking is something that needs to be done. If I didn't have a dog and I said I needed an hour of 'me-time' every day, the family would think I'd gone mad! The time would get crowded out, but because I have to walk Phoebe, I just do." Joy at last! But what of our engaged dog walkers? I wasn't holding out much hope for my notices, and Poppy, exhausted by the extra walks, was insisting I carry her. I'd pretty much given up on finding out the truth when a few days later the phone rang. "I think you wanted to talk to me. But it's all a bit embarrassing. I was engaged to a dog walker, but it hasn't worked out." I tell her how sorry I am, and ask, in the nicest possible way, what happened. "We both had labs - I thought we had a lot in common. Turns out good with dogs and good with girls are not necessarily the same thing," she sighs. "Now I'm going to have to change parks." Returning a sleeping Poppy to her owner I tell her that I've enjoyed my dog walking experience. It's great exercise, I enthuse, a wonderful way to meet people... "You're missing the point entirely," she admonishes, giving Poppy a scratch. "It isn't just a way of forcing you to exercise or to get out of the house. It's a dog walk. It's all about the dog!"

The dog facts

The Latin name for dogs is Canis Lupus Familiaris. These domesticated wolves have been Man's Best Friend for some 15,000 years. There are more than 800 recognised breeds of dog. Dogs have 220 million smell sensors in their noses, compared to a human's measly five million. Saint Rocco is the patron saint of dogs. He caught the plague and went into isolation in a forest, where a dog brought him food and licked his sores. Miraculously, he was healed and went on to dedicate his life to charity and piety - and taking the dog for long walks, feeding it fillet steak and giving it tummy rubs on demand, we hope...

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Dog Noises... English dogs go "woof woof," but how would you talk to a foreign dog? Here's our handy guide:

"Wang Wang" - Chinese "Guk Guk" - Indonesian "Ham Ham" - Romanian "Ouah Ouah" - French "Bau Bau" - Italian "Gav Gav" - Greek "Hav Hav" - Russian

And one with a happy ending... "I met my husband dog walking," says Caroline Johnson, a retired civil servant from Esher. "We knew each other from church, too, but we actually got talking through walking the dogs. And now we've been married for 27 years! "When I was a girl, taking the dog for a walk was a good way to meet boys. You'd sneak off and your parents would never find out. People don't think dog walking is a hot bed of intrigue, but you see all sorts. It's like a soap opera! "One woman told us all about her lover who was a waiter at some tapas bar in town. Well, she stopped coming and a few weeks later there was this middle-aged man walking her dog. It turns out he was her husband and she'd left him and the dog and gone off to Spain!"

 Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2008

They're the people who have met, made friends and even fallen in love while out walking their four-legged friends. KATHERINE KNOWLES heads out into Surrey's parks to meet the county's thriving dog walking community

Photos by Stuart Douglas