Are dog walking apps the new Tinder?

Lucy Holden (Natasha Pszenicki)
Lucy Holden (Natasha Pszenicki)

I’ve been thinking, on the back of the loneliness headlines recently, that so much of dating is driven by our newly solitary lives; working from home more of course, but even when we’re out, not taking our eyes off our phones and missing the chance to connect with people even when we’re amongst them.

Swiping through the dating apps often feels like it alleviates heavy loneliness at first. That window into a world of people, even if we never meet them, makes us feel like connecting with someone great could be just around the corner. But when quick, fickle romance goes wrong, that’s when loneliness comes back with a vengeance and modern dating is once again recognised as an unreliable source of human connection.

Sometimes we just need a break from the apps, and I’d decided to take one, partly to test why I was using them. I suspected it was more about loneliness than about wanting a hook-up or the standard regurgitated online chat (obviously). Pausing all of the usual suspects (Hinge, Bumble, Tinder, Feeld), I downloaded another sort of app: a dog-borrowing app.

I was often jealous of the million-plus dog-walkers in the park near my flat and missed my own dog, who now lives with my parents. Maybe meeting dog people – i.e. like-minded people – might be the human connection that I was missing, I thought. I wanted a break from dating. Plus, pet therapy works.

Of course, the weird thing was how quickly (BMD, £40 a year) echoed those of dating apps. But on BMD I was getting no matches – did I look like someone who’d be a good date but might lose your dog, I wondered? That seemed bad. Is this why I’d not had anything long-term in years, I thought? I looked like a dog-loser.

Luckily the zero matches situation changed. A handful fell into my phone a week later, apparently largely because I wasn’t 18 - so at least there were more standards here than Tinder. I set up a park meeting for a week later, then realised I was more nervous to meet Bob and Derek, his scruffy old terrier, than I was to go on any kind of Hinge date. “He sounds nice, hope it goes well,” my mum said. “You know it’s not a date?” I asked. But Bob was a landscape gardener and that’s all she could hear. In her head, this was a dream man. I was more worried about being rejected by an actual dog, but watching Bob walk towards me on WhatsApp (shared location) made me chain-smoke with nerves.

Luckily Derek liked me, and now spends nights at my house or days in my company when needed – the added bonus is knowing Bob too, and getting nice messages asking about my week and feeling one more tie to a big city you’ve just moved to.

In fact, these connections were quickly being offered everywhere – you just had to remove the dating connotations from them and ignore the comments from people suggesting you were into "dogging". That was easiest with a brilliant single mum who lived close by and needed some help with her cockapoo Milly, who suggested we drink wine together once I’d walked Milly because she was basically always in, watching her toddler, and I was looking for new mates.

Lucy Holden has found more connection dog-walking than on dating apps (Lucy Holden)
Lucy Holden has found more connection dog-walking than on dating apps (Lucy Holden)

It was less easy with a couple and their cross-breed number across town. “They’re totally looking for a throuple sitch,” one of my friends. It seems dating has scarred us all – with threesomes being offered left, right and off-centre on the apps by people you assumed were single but turned out to be married and just “open-minded”. However, this couple seemed fine. One of them did yoga, which wasn’t very lewd.

Quickly, I noticed something had changed. Dogs had started to come up to me everywhere and their owners would have to make conversation. A woman called Sally offered me her dog on the street – just to look after, but still. She was also on but now I felt like it had morphed into that retro dating app Happn which buzzed if you walked past someone who also used it and you could collar them at the bus stop for a date?

I went home jubilantly and told my flatmate I’d been offered another dog and that the woman said I could come and ‘work from home’ from her house anytime I needed a hit of dog. The dog would be there. Emma stared at me. “You just met this woman on the street?” she said. “Yeah!” I told her. “And she’s not even going out, she just wants to watch you look after her dog?” “Yeah!” I said. “Mate, that is a whole new type of thing,” she said. “You just got picked up.”

But no. The staffie I'd just met had arthritis and £60 support-boots to prove it. She could only do 20 minute walks and required someone to be with her all the time - a Battersea Cats and Dogs home rescue that needed a lot of love and barked if she was alone. After a trial run, her owner decided I was a good bet and went out for some me-time and meetings while the staffie and I watched Grey's Anatomy in her flat. Then I realised it was helping me too - even just watching TV with a dog was less lonely when you spent a lot of time by yourself and getting out of my own flat was freeing.

I don’t know why I was surprised that just temporarily pausing the dating apps wouldn’t allow me to escape dating completely — the profiles of dogs who loved pubs, or had a load of dietary requirements or sports injuries really echoed Hinge. It appears everything in this world is about matching. At the top of my mind is the question of whether millennials would have become such a hook-up generation if we weren’t also the first ones to experience so much modern loneliness? But either way, at least there's dogging. I mean dogs.