Love in All The Wrong Places

You try the bars. You try the laundromat, even though you have a washer/dryer at your house. You hope to bump into true love at the supermarket, maybe in the produce department as you nonchalantly decide between iceberg and romaine lettuce.

Perhaps you're looking for love in all the wrong places. According to recent scientific studies, walking your dog increases your chances of meeting other people. That's one more reason (besides keeping your pets happy and your carpets clean) to take your dog on morning and evening walks.

"Dogs act as 'social ice breakers' and help people strike up friendly conversation with each other," says Dr. June McNicholas, senior researcher at the University of Warwick, in Great Britain. "We are probably much more sociable than society allows us. It is difficult for us to strike up conversation with a complete stranger – all sorts of ulterior motives may be suspected. But being with a dog or other pet gives a safe, non-threatening, neutral topic to start a conversation."

Or, as author and romantic columnist Michael Webb says, "It's the greatest trick in the book!" Webb, who has authored the best-selling The RoMANtic's Guide: Hundreds of Creative Tips for a Lifetime of Love, says using a dog to meet people is becoming more common.

Dog owners also have set up "play dates" for their pets as a non-threatening way to meet people. Two people may feel more comfortable arranging play time for their canines, assuming the dogs get along, because it's not an actual "date" with all that implies – it's more relaxed and natural.

Pet play dates can also take the sting out of rejection. "The 'play date' is a disguise," he explains. "It's easier to be rejected or turned down for suggesting a date for your pets rather than you."

McNicholas showed that most people who walk their dogs can't help but meet other people. As proof, she conducted two studies to test the "social catalyst" affect of dogs. Both studies used guide dogs because they are trained to ignore passersby; McNicholas wanted approaches to be instigated by people and not dogs. In both studies, many more people felt comfortable approaching and speaking to someone with a dog, even if that person was made more intimidating (the handler would be dressed very sharply or scruffily, and the dog wore a studded collar and a frayed rope for a leash).

What If Fido Hates Mr./Ms. Right?

Other independent surveys confirm that owning a dog can be a social asset. One survey concluded that almost 60 percent of people met others through their pets. But don't rush out to get a puppy just yet – this is a commitment that can be as deep as any you form with another person. Like any relationship, you should get a pet because you're ready, not to use as a "babe" or "guy" magnet.

Pets can also doom a relationship. If your pet and potential soul mate don't get along, most people suggest jettisoning the human. After all, your pet was providing unconditional love before that special person came along. He'll still be loving you if the relationship goes south.

To explain the importance of the "love me, love my pet" phenomenon, Webb repeats a true story: "A guy went to his girlfriend's house with a set of stars that hang down from the ceiling. Each star had a different saying on it, expressing how he felt about her. One star, however, hung lower than the rest, about a foot from the floor and eye-level with her cat." That star expressed affection for her cat (and provided a toy to play with) because the man knew that if her cat didn't approve of him, the relationship wasn't going anywhere. Getting along with a love interest's pet is so important, Webb says, that if they're allergic, "they'd better get medication."

"That pet is family," he says.