Vital signs

If hanging out in bars with wasted strangers no longer seems a viable strategy for scoping out your next potential relationship, and Internet dating feels entirely too frightening, take heart: A surprising and altogether different sort of social scene awaits. On Amboy Road in west Asheville, there’s a place where the wind blows through the trees, the river gurgles, and the animals run wild and free.

Asheville is a haven for animal lovers. Throughout the year, locals and tourists alike can be seen walking their black Labs, poodles, pit bulls, beagles, Australian shepherds and Pomeranians. Beyond the city limits, the surrounding mountains and forests make the area a canine paradise rife with places to hike, swim and make new friends. And in a city that invites dogs to be a part of storefronts and even bar scenes, why shouldn’t there be a place where they can just cut loose?

Funny thing is, we humans seem to be equally in need of a liberating space where we can be ourselves and come together to make new connections of all sorts. And happily, the dog park at French Broad River Park serves both purposes rather nicely. With its fenced-in play area and the river near at hand, this is a facility that’s at once utilitarian and romantic.

What better place to seek out new dating prospects? The dog corral attracts any number of different pets — and their owners. And since all sorts of folks love dogs, you’ll find a wide variety of sexual orientations, religions, careers and financial situations represented.

The 38-acre park also boasts a greenway, picnic areas, fishing piers, a playground, a walking/biking track, restrooms and concessions — not to mention facilities for baseball, basketball, volleyball, lawn bowling and roller hockey.

Besides, being at the dog park is an automatic icebreaker: Talking about an animal you truly love is a perfect doorway to discovering other passions. Who knew that man’s best friend could dismantle the walls of inhibition every bit as effectively as a bottle of tequila?

Scoping out a person’s pet can also yield important clues to their personality. Does their dog growl or try to intimidate you? Is the animal needy or whiney? Does the owner yell at their dog or speak kindly to it? What does all this suggest about the person’s nurturing skills?

The dog park isn’t just for first encounters, either. Once you’ve found that special someone, it can be a place you return to time and time again, savoring the memories of newborn romance. And wonder of wonders, the park is also free, providing a cheap, healthy alternative to dinner and a movie.

Last but not least, when the evening is over, you don’t have to worry about taking time out to walk the dog. An extended round of frolicking outdoors is sure to put the furry beast straight to sleep — allowing time for your own wild beast to emerge as you grab hold of your love and head off to bed.

Too often, concerns about money, unrealistic physical standards, and emotional dishonesty seem to dominate the dating game. But there is another way. And while barking, ball-chasing, butt-smelling and drooling may not seem like turn-ons to some, at least these behaviors are flat-out honest. People don’t generally lie to their pets. And who among us can’t stand to learn from our canine companions when it comes to such essentials as intuition and instinct?

Things are pretty free and easy at the dog park, though you’d do well to remember these few basic rules: Don’t bring a dog that’s aggressive toward other dogs, and don’t bring your dog unless it’s OK for them to get dirty, tired — and maybe even humped. But who could blame them for enjoying all that?

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