The idea for this blog came from one of our office-space tenants who has networked at dog parks for the past few years and has established some great business contact that way. This past week, he invited a number of those dog park contacts (most of which work downtown) into one of our large meeting rooms and treated them to lunch to talk about setting up a formal networking group.

If you take some time out of your office space and spend a few hours observing “the off-leash,” you will learn a great deal about how dogs play and behave in a pack. But more importantly, you will learn about how their owners behave when they let their pets off the leash. You will notice that most owners come to the dog park, unleash their pet and immediately turn to their mobile phones or chat with other dog owners. The trick to a good dog park visit is to keep moving. Why? Because dogs like to be near people. If the owners stand in a cluster, it creates a concentrated area of too many dogs in too small a space, which can often end poorly. By walking in a large, slow circle inside the dog park, things will run more smoothly – which means fewer fights will break out, not to mention you’ll get some exercise along with your pet.

So what does the dog park experience have to do with your small business? For some people, taking their dogs to the dog park is a normal, mundane task that they think nothing about. For savvy business people, it’s another opportunity to build connections that can ultimately impact (directly or indirectly) the success of their business or brand. The number of people frequenting the dog park and the amount of dog parks in general are growing rapidly across North America. Over the last five years, the number of dog parks across the U.S. and Canada has risen by more than 20%.

As the trend of visiting dog parks continues, it can provide business owners with a tremendous opportunity to establish connections with people who live and work near them. This means that there are a great deal of potential customers for your product or service could be waiting for you at the dog park! In addition, individuals at the dog park usually bring very few items with them, meaning they are less distracted, more approachable and more open to conversation. So just how do you, as a small business owner, go about building relationships at the dog park?

We have a few strategies for networking at the dog park:

It does not need to be the closest dog park to where you live, but it should be within a reasonable distance from your home – and you should have a reason for choosing that park. The dog park you select should reflect your target audience. Finding it will require some research in order to find the right place to help you effectively grow your business. If your target audience is high-net-worth individuals, you will want to select a dog park in a more affluent area. If your target market is professionals, you need also find out what times they are more likely to visit the park.

Once you have found the right dog park with the right audience at the right time of day, you need to learn how to have the conversation without being obvious that you are really there for business purposes. This shouldn’t be too hard, since you already have something in common – your dogs. The best way to approach any fellow dog park-goer is to ask them about their dog. Everyone loves to talk about their dog at a dog park.

Now that you have established this initial connection and have met them a few times at the dog park, you will want to try to dig a little deeper with some more personal questions about them and what they do. Ask them how often they come to the park and what times are the best times to visit that park. The next time you see them, remind them that your dogs have played together before. As you get to know them, you should be able to determine if they are a viable new contact for your business or may be an influencer who can help your business. You also want to know this about other people who come to the dog park. The first person you make a connection with will help you to get to know others who frequent that park.

Your first or second conversation should have gotten the chatting about your dogs and where you both live out of the way. Now it is time to make your pitch. The name of the game here is to very casually drop a mention where you work and what you do. The last thing you want to do is to scare them off, thinking you are trying to sell them something. The next time you see them, you can offer your business card and ask for theirs or their email or facebook connection. When you do this, make sure to add the name of the person’s dog and the breed, so that you remember when it’s time to follow up. Remember, they may not be your target customer, but they may have networking potential for opening more doors.

Basically, as a small business owners and professionals, you should not keep yourself on a leash when it comes to networking. Every opportunity to meet new people is a business networking opportunity. Besides, the time spent playing fetch in the park with your dog could double as time spent building relationships. The people that you meet may potentially help you grow your business. The more relationships build, the better your business can be.