I used to lead a discussion group that had as its motto, “Don’t believe everything you think.” I like this saying, and sometimes I try to apply it to my own thinking. A while ago, dogs crossed my mind, and I thought I’d challenge my thinking about dogs, then see what comes of it.
My starting thoughts: Dogs and dog owners are a mixed bag. Pets are controversial. Misbehaving dogs need to be confined or put down. It’s legitimate to restrict dogs’ access to certain places. Almost anyone can “need” a support animal. Resources devoted to pets are out of line with resources devoted to humans in need.
First I’ll review my dog background. I never had a four-legged pet as a kid. Neighbors had dogs; we lived in a neighborhood with big back yards, and people either kept them inside or let them run in their backyards. Through college and years of apartment living, dogs were not a part of our life.
Eventually, my husband and I bought a house in a neighborhood with backyards, but much smaller backyards than in my childhood. This is when dogs first became problematic for me. Neighbors on either side had dogs. The small dog to the north was fine. The small dog to the south was not. Each morning, that owner let her dog out the front door to poop, and, miraculously, it never pooped on her lawn. About half the time, it pooped on our lawn, and half on its other neighbor’s lawn.
At some point, we knocked on the neighbor’s door and asked her directly, but politely, to either pick up after her dog, or send it out her back door. “Sure, no problem,” but nothing changed. Later, a boyfriend moved in and brought a much bigger dog. Fortunately, he didn’t send it out the front door. Now, both dogs pooped in their back yard. But no one ever picked it up, hence we had a new problem: odor and rats.
Within a year, our neighbor to the north had taken our neighbor to the south to court over dogs. The trigger was noise. The boyfriend’s dog stayed outside at night and barked at the least little flutter of air or noise. Then one weekend, the southern neighbors went away overnight. The large dog was tied up outside on a very short leash. It could see its food and water, but couldn’t get to it. It howled, and whined, and strained, and howled some more. Result: charge of animal cruelty and owners taken to court. I was called to testify against the southern neighbor. Not something I want to do again, but dog issues declined.
We lived in other city places with no real dog problems for the next 20 years before spending ten years in the country. Country living was interesting on many levels. but I’ll limit myself to discussing dogs today. Our neighborhood had an agreement that dogs had enough room to roam without leaving home. Lots were mostly not fenced, so owners had to actually train their dogs to teach them their boundaries. With a little nudging, owners did so, and dogs were not a major problem. We didn’t own a dog there, but friends brought theirs to visit and we enjoyed them.
Then tragedy struck. A dog that lived a few miles away got out of its yard and began roaming far and wide. It found our neighbor’s llama. The llama had often escaped, so the neighbor had it tied to a stake with a long leash allowing it plenty of room to graze. The out-of-area dog found the llama that couldn’t escape and began terrorizing it. We all heard the commotion and ran to rescue the llama. When the dog was chased off, it ran to the llama owner’s front yard, chased their kitten until it was corned, then killed it right in front of her young children. We helped corner the dog. It had a tag with the owner’s name; the llama owner called the sheriff; the deputy called the dog’s owner; a conference was held with all parties. The dog was put down because its owner could not guarantee that he could secure it to prevent any future problems. Again, not an experience I want to repeat.
Away from home, I was jumped by a dog on a hiking trail; its owner apologized, saying it was just “so friendly.” On a shore trip on a short cruise, a dog ran me down on a boardwalk, leaving me with a sprained ankle that sidelined me for the rest of the trip
We are now back in the city. We first lived in a small condo building with no dog policy. Owners were simply expected to keep their dogs from disturbing other owners or other pets. Generally, this worked. Until it didn’t. I was up late one night, writing. I could hear the dog next door. It was whining. Then it would bark a bit. Then silence. Whine. Bark. Silence. This went on and on. At some point, I realized that no human was around to take care of the dog. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually seen a human near that apartment in a while, so I called the unit’s owner. He came as soon as he could, rescued the dog, and learned that the tenant was in the hospital; no one had been tasked with dog sitting. That tenant never returned, the unit was renovated, and the next renter had other problems, but no pets.
I’ve now had five years back in the city where I’ve been witness to the dramatic increase in city dogs. They are everywhere. Landlords are under pressure to make their buildings pet friendly. But not all dog owners seem to feel any pressure at all to live by human friendly policies. I see dogs off leash at every city park. School yards are treated as off-leash parks in every neighborhood. Building managers have to scoop poop each morning to keep public sidewalks walkable for human residents. Service and support dogs must be accommodated, and laws prescribe language that a business owner must use to inquire if dogs who’ve passed the “service animals only” signs are, in fact, service animals.
In fact, there are many responsible dog owners. They use leashes where they’re required; they train their dogs not to sniff every crotch they encounter; they obey rules. But, sigh.
Now, I’m in a retirement home; at times, the topic of dogs comes up for discussion. I’m told that research shows that people with dogs live longer, that people in nursing homes or assisted living do better with pets, that people with dog allergies can just close their doors and stay in their rooms. I can find myself feeling defensive because I’m not enthused about dogs. Dogs are good: people who don’t want them everywhere are – are what? Am I a bad person, ill-informed, unfair to dog lovers, irrational, unreasonable. Wow. I don’t know. I don’t hate dogs. I don’t hate dog owners in general. But I really have had some bad experiences with dogs.
Perhaps I misjudge the debate. Perhaps the dog people don’t think what I’m thinking they think. It never hurts to clarify people’s actual positions rather than making assumptions. Ultimately, whether or not our retirement home welcomes more dogs might depend on aging baby boomers: will they shun us if we don’t welcome more pets in more places?
I want to circle back to the discussion group I led years ago. One of my goals with the group was to see if we could nudge anyone to consider changing their mind. Did this happen? No. Rarely did anyone say, “Gee, I’d never thought about it that way. You might have a point there.” Still, discussions rarely heated up. Until dogs, that is.
I don’t remember how we framed the question the night of the dog discussion, but my concerns never came up! Our usually gregarious group quickly sorted itself into two camps: “pets are ethical” vs “pets are unethical.” I had not anticipated this! Much to my surprise, many of the pet owners would only consider a rescue pet as ethical. These people believed that domesticating and breeding any animals to serve as pets was cruel and unusual punishment. They kept only rescue animals as pets knowing that they would be euthanized otherwise.
Others believed that if pets were well cared for it was ethical to keep them. Then we ventured into thoughts about breeding dogs. The “rescue” people were horrified by designer breeding, but several members of the group owned animals bred for specific traits and defended their right to choose a dog that fit their desires. We found some limited agreement on work dogs such as border collies that corral sheep.
Then we ended the evening by going outside to pet both designer dogs and rescue dogs who were happy to see their owners and happy to receive hugs from anyone. It was a most interesting evening. I learned that a discussion about warm-fuzzies could quickly turn cold and prickly, but that with some reserve of good will there is a path back from the brink of conflict.