When I was growing up in Seattle in the 1970s, we had an Old English sheepdog named Daphne Brandywine. (She was named after the gothic writer Daphne Du Maurier, and a river in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.) Theoretically, Daphne spent much of her life in our backyard, but because it was fenced in on only three sides, she wandered around the neighborhood quite a bit, chasing cats and birds and digging holes in adjacent lawns. Every once in a while, a friend would tell me, “Hey, I ran into Daphne the other day,” as if Daphne were some mutual acquaintance she had encountered in the grocery store.

Daphne always reminded me of Ribsy, the beloved mutt in Beverly Cleary’s classic children’s novels set in 1960s Portland. In books like Henry Huggins and Henry and Ribsy, the city is a dog’s playground and a place where a four-legged hound gets into all manner of trouble: sneaking into football stadiums, stealing lunches, and sending policemen on wild goose chases. Today, Ribsy, the statue, is immortalized in the Grant Park sculpture garden, which overlooks the park’s popular off-leash area.

Romping in dog parks is as close as many city dogs come to true freedom of movement. Packs of animals leap joyously into the air; ears flattened, they chase after a squirrel. And yet, today’s off-leash areas are in fact no place for free-spirited canines eager to mix it up with a motley (urban) crew. Like many Portland dog parks, the Grant Park facility is subject to strict regulations, including limited morning and evening hours, to minimize conflicts with other park users such as kids and soccer players. Dog parks may also reveal more about our own needs than those of our best friends. Observe the omnipresent Homo sapiens, who monitor their unleashed pets, trade stories about Anna and Timothy’s latest antics, and, yes, ask fellow dog owners on dates. “In a time when it’s harder to meet people,” Schneider notes, “dogs are a social lubricant.”  

Acting as matchmaker may not be such an onerous role for a dog to play. But the benefits of these proliferating canine spaces—and the attitudes that govern them—are ambiguous. Today, dogs receive better medical care, are better protected from the elements, and are less likely to be hit by cars than their 20th-century counterparts, says Serpell. At the same time, he adds, “dogs are much more restricted today. They are required to be at the beck and call of their owners. That’s the downside.”