The first time I saw my black lab, Lucy, was on a computer monitor. She was listed under the Victoria SPCA's adoptable dogs, with a profile reading "diamond in the rough." These turned out to be true words -- particularly the rough part.
So a few months ago, when I shoved Lucy into cyberspace once more, it was really because she was a cyber-dog from day one. Not because I'm one of those weird dog people. Really.
Connecting dog lovers around the world
Lucy is a new member of Dogster.com, a site connecting dogs and dog-enthusiasts around the world. She keeps an online diary, which she maintains with some regularity when work -- I mean tail-chasing and eating -- permits.
She makes online friends, "pup pals," and gets virtual dog bones from Web-surfing dog lovers.
I'll admit, she's not the most popular dog online -- of her three "pals," one is, sadly, deceased, yet still making hundreds of posthumous pup pals. Yes, even dead dogs are more popular than Lucy. Yet I think she enjoys sharing her thoughts with the world, being a cyber-dog and all. And perhaps her owner gets something out of it too.
How it began
When Ted Rheingold started Dogster.com last January, he was counting on the fact that dog lovers will do just about anything to showcase their darlings. "Everyone loves their dog, so they get to use the site to show off their dog, or show off why they love their dogs," he says.
The site (named after the popular Friendster -- an online connection for less furry Web surfers) gives free Web space to dog enthusiasts, who post the tastes, quirks, diaries and photos of their favourite hairy companions. And while they do so, says Rheingold, they create a "giant field of entertainment for everyone else."
Visitors can take a stroll through Dogster's virtual dog park, or search for local real-world companions. Dogster dogs can make "pup pals," connecting with soul mates and playmates from around the world and keeping up with the latest canine gossip via "dogmail."
One year after its launch, Dogster boasts more than 64,000 online pups who have struck up more than 900,000 dog-to-dog friendships via their owners, who keep an online dialogue going on behalf of their dogs. And in characteristic dog-loving fashion, Victoria owners have posted a formidable canine contingent of 44 "wanting" to be pals.
New and fast-growing sites such as Dogster -- virtual dog parks, blog spots and discussion forums -- are helping dogs (and the two- legged critters that love them) to find each other, both online and off. The sites are also valuable places to find adoptions.
Karen Rissling of Victoria, whose dogs Brighton and Cher are profiled on Dogster, loves browsing through the dog profiles and checking to see if any of her dogs' real-world pup pals are profiled online.
She also admits she has been lured in by the "Adopt Me" section, a listing of adoptable Dogster dogs around the world. "One time I was considering adopting this little dog that needed a home," she says. Although Pearl, from Houston, Texas, would have made the third canine member of the family, Rissling says she almost couldn't resist.
"I kept a check on him and he was adopted, but I now stay out of the Adopt Me part of the Web site."
Victoria organizations have also found that this need for an online puppy-fix can help to bring two- and four-legged communities together.
Peggy Stone, assistant-manager of the Victoria SPCA, says their online profiles of adaptable dogs, created four years ago, have made a world of difference for prospective adopters. "For us it's been phenomenal," she says. "Everyone comes in and says 'I was on your Web site and..."
Stone says the service is especially helpful to those living out of town, who can now track the new and notable pups from a distance.
"It's great, because people will look at the picture and they can have an idea about the dogs before they come down."
This January, Carol Broad, a volunteer at the CRD Animal Shelter, founded VictoriaAdoptables.com, an online meeting place for stray or rescued animals and prospective owners.
Broad says the site has been getting steadily busier and, even in its first months, has had many success stories.
One dog, a border collie sent from an Alberta shelter, was sent to two adopted homes, but was sent back as "unmanageable." At the CRD shelter, Zipper was found to have suffered a skull fracture and broken toes, injuries that had not been properly treated. Through the Web site, says Broad, "he was matched with a woman who has given him the love and confidence he so well needed."
Forums and marketing
And for curious owners, local organizations are going online with discussion forums and marketplaces that make sense of the proclivities of the dog world.
Citizen Canine, an advocacy group working for increased access for Victoria dogs, created an online discussion forum to help dog lovers share struggles and triumphs; some compare frustrating apartment-hunting experiences, while others take up training headaches or breed bans. "A Web site and an e-mail listserv was an initial way to start transcending neighborhood geographies, and creating a like-minded cyberspace community of dog folks," says Colin Carson, president of the group.
Because of these cyberspaces, Carson says the group has been able to co-ordinate events, curry interest in guest speakers and provide a virtual meeting place for other dog-loving groups. Now the site gets close to 250, 000 hits every month, and sends e- mails to a 1,200-strong listserv.
Jennifer Ross-Tolton, founder of an online directory for Vancouver dog owners, RaincityDogs.com, says she saw the need for online help for dog owners after adopting a troubled dog from the SPCA. "After being tossed out of dog training classes because the dog was too much trouble, I knew I had to find some serious help."
After nearly seven years online, RaincityDogs now gets 8,000 visitors per month, and has inspired Ross-Tolton to create sister sites in Toronto and Ottawa. Now just a hobby, the sites still help "keep us in kibble," Ross-Tolton says.
The dog days continue
After his first year, Rheingold is amazed at the skyrocketing popularity of Dogster.com. But he says Dogster (and companion site Catster) taps into a powerful force: "the love of your dogs or the love of your cat."
Besides being an online meeting-place, Dogster also works as a kind of "mental vacation" for Web surfers, Rheingold says. Dogs "represent free will...they do whatever the heck they want."
Among the thousands of Dogster dogs, Rheingold is pressed to come up with his favourites. But he eventually settles on two: CornNut, a French bulldog that Rheingold calls "3.5 pounds of wonder," and Olivia, a Chinese crested from Milan, Italy, that Rheingold says is "just Andy Warhol of the dog world."