Thursday, 14 April 2011

Dog Rage

A couple of days ago I was the target of a verbal attack, by two complete strangers, regarding the management of my dog. I found it surprising and entirely unexpected, and even a bit hurtful. I pride myself on being a “responsible” dog owner. However, the event made me think about how elastic the term “responsible” is and how difficult it is to ensure that everyone, dog owners and non-dog owners alike, are happy at every encounter with each other, in particular in a large city like London.

Here dog ownership is extremely popular, at the same time as the relative “responsibility” of owners varies widely. As a Londoner, whether a dog owning one or not, one has to expect frequent encounters with dogs, as well as be prepared for a wide range of temperaments displayed by the dogs, and ability and willingness by owners to deal with these temperaments. It is an unfortunate fact of life in the modern metropolis, that one is likely to come across dogs that behave aggressively, or that are a nuisance in some other way, and owners that are incapable or reluctant to do anything about it. I am therefore not entirely unsympathetic to the views of my two surprise adversaries the other day. Yet, shouting at someone in the park is rarely a good way to achieve anything at all.

I was returning from a Pets as Therapy session with the smaller of my two greyhounds, Cassie. I guess the fact that I had just spent an hour with Cassie being patted by several dementia and Alzheimer patients, made the contrast between my and other people’s perception of my dog starker. On my way home I passed through a small park, where I let Cassie of the lead for a sniff around. There was a man with a small furry dog on a lead ahead of us. Cassie ambled around, and as we got closer to the man and the dog, at about ten meters’ distance, she apparently decided to approach. She lollopped over at a moderate pace, with her head held up, her ears flapping, and her tail swinging gently. That is, with what seemed to me some interest, but no firm intention, no aggression and entire relaxation.

I was about to inform the man that she was friendly towards other dogs, not to worry, but as the man spotted Cassie he swiftly scooped his little dog up in his arms and started shouting at me. He was clearly very angry and said that I had to keep my dog on a leash, indeed that there was a £75 fine if I failed to do so. In fact, there is no such regulation in this particular park. I replied to this effect. Being suddenly unsure of myself, I checked, and the sign at the entrance merely states that you must leash your dog if instructed by an authorized officer.

At this point, Cassie, having been denied an encounter with another dog, and faced with a screaming stranger, simply stared at them in surprise for a few seconds, and then turned away and ambled on her way. She isn’t that bothered about other dogs, or strangers, for that matter, anyway.

However, now a younger man, apparently just walking along through the park, joined in the shouting. He also insisted that there was a requirement to leash my dog, that in fact my dog was too big to be off the leash anyway, and that if he had encountered my dog with his child he would also have been intimidated, as I could clearly not control my dog.

I was really taken aback. I had not expected this tirade at all. I didn’t really know what to say. I hadn’t even tried to control my dog, as I had not seen any need for it at all. Of course at this point I had called her to me and she came after me, but then went a little way ahead on our usual route, and then stopped for a sniff. This was evidence of my lack of control to the younger chap, who together with the older man, continued shouting as he walked away. He kept referring to Cassie as “he”, and all I could think of saying was “She’s a she, actually”. As we approached the end of the park, I called Cassie to me again and put her on the lead and we went home, me feeling really quite upset and her in her usual bumbling way, expecting a lunchtime treat.

The incident had me thinking all day. Of course, I understand that what to me is a very small greyhound, a little friendly girl that lollops thought the world minding her own inscrutable business, through other eyes appears as a large, black dog with big teeth. Perhaps the owner of the small dog also feared that as a greyhound she would be predatory towards smaller animals, which isn’t an unfeasibly assumption. In addition, there have been so may reports and rumours in London, as in so may other cities, of dangerous dogs and their marauding. We all do have to be alert to the possibility of meeting an aggressive dog.

However, it seems to me, that educating oneself about dog behaviour is the best strategy given these circumstances. I have rehearsed in my mind so many times after the event how I should have explained this to the irate gentlemen in the park. Obviously, both were intimidated by a large(ish) dog, and neither knew how to correctly identify an aggressive or non-aggressive approach. Yet it is a fact of life, and to me, a blessing, that we in London can still enjoy so many beautiful parks together with our dogs unleashed. From my perspective, it allows us to exercise and stimulate them adequately, despite living in one of the world’s largest cities. (Indeed, if more people exercised their dogs enough, there would be less bad doggy behaviour around, but more on that elsewhere).

Dogs are thus part of London life, and you simply have to learn how to deal with them. If you fear for yourself, your dog and your children, you would do well to educate yourself to correctly recognize dog behaviour and how to deal with it. Certainly, grabbing and lifting a small dog away while shouting, is not the best strategy if faced with a predatory dog, even though it may be a natural reaction. In addition, size is not an indicator of the danger a dog poses to its surroundings. If this is your thinking, you are lulled into a false sense of security. I don’t have to rehearse the arguments here.

At the same time I understand the two gentlemen’s point of view to a certain extent. I certainly do not believe that there is such a thing as a dog that is never aggressive and never bites. All dogs are animals and should be treated with respect. I also see that I can’t assume that everyone, even other dog owners, are fluent in dog-speak and can see that my baby Cassie doesn’t pose a threat to anyone. Indeed, as Eddie, my bigger greyhound boy, does sometime growl and nip at other dogs, I do keep him back (even if he is also off-leash) when approaching smaller dogs. I will do the same with Cassie in the future, to avoid any misunderstandings. I’d rather avoid being shouted at by strangers.