The other day I walked into my gym and saw a dog. A half-dozen people were crowding around him, cooing and petting. He was a big dog, a lean and muscular Doberman with, I later learned, the sort of hair-trigger bark you’d prize if you wanted to protect a big stash of gold bullion.
“This is Y.,” the dog’s owner said. No explanation was offered for the pooch’s presence, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to have a dog in a place usually reserved for human beings. Huh, I thought.
The dog came up to me, because in my experience that’s what dogs do when you don’t want them to come up to you. They get up real close, touching you, licking you, theatrically begging you to respond. The dog pushed his long face toward my hand, the canine equivalent of a high five. And so—in the same way it’s rude to leave a high-fiver hanging, especially if the high-fiver has big teeth and a strong jaw—I was expected to pet him. I ran my hand across his head half-heartedly. I guess I was fairly sure he wouldn’t snap and bite me, but stranger things have happened—for instance, dogs snapping and biting people all the time.
Anyway, happily, I survived.
But wait a second. Come on! Why was this dog here? And why was no one perturbed that this dog was here? When this beast was barking at passersby through the window as we were all working out, why did no one go, Hey, just throwing this out there, should we maybe not have this distracting, possibly dangerous animal by the free weights?
No one was asking because no one could ask. Sometime in the last decade, dogs achieved dominion over urban America. They are everywhere now, allowed in places that used to belong exclusively to humans, and sometimes only to human adults: the office, restaurants, museums, buses, trains, malls, supermarkets, barber shops, banks, post offices. Even at the park and other places where dogs belong, they’ve been given free rein. Dogs are frequently allowed to wander off leash, to run toward you and around you, to run across the baseball field or basketball court, to get up in your grill. Even worse than the dogs are the owners, who seem never to consider whether there may be people in the gym/office/restaurant/museum who do not care to be in close proximity to their dogs. After all, what kind of monster would have a problem with a poor innocent widdle doggie? It’s a dog’s world. We just live in it. And it’s awful. Bad dogs!
Not everyone agrees with me on this issue. Some people—or maybe even most people, since dogs, like zombies, have an insidious way of turning opponents into allies—love that dogs abound. If you adore dogs but aren’t able to keep one, the world is now your dog park, with pooches everywhere to pet and nuzzle and otherwise brighten your day.
I am not a dog person. (Could you tell?) It’s not that I actively despise mutts; I just don’t have much time for them, in the same way I don’t have time for crossword puzzles or Maroon 5. Now imagine if, everywhere you went, whatever you did, Maroon 5 was always playing and everyone pretended it was totally normal—that this permanent new situation was not in any way offensive, distracting, dirty, and potentially dangerous.
OK, bad example.
But here’s my problem: There’s now a cultural assumption that everyone must love dogs. Dog owners are rarely forced to reckon with the idea that there are people who aren’t enthralled by their furry friends, and that taking their dogs everywhere might not be completely pleasant for these folks.
Example: If you’re in the office and someone has brought her dog in for the day—because, fun!—the dog is sure to come around you, get between your legs, rub against your thigh, take a nap on your feet, or do some other annoying thing.
If the dog’s owner notices these antics, I can promise you she won’t apologize for the imposition. Nor will she ask you if you mind her dog doing what he’s doing. Nor will she pull on its leash, because there won’t be a leash, this being an office, where dogs are as welcome as Wi-Fi and free coffee.
Instead, if the owner says anything, it will be on the order of, “Don’t worry, he loves people!” Oh, OK then! I guess I’ll just take your word for it, and forget for the moment that 1,000 Americans a day go to emergency rooms because of dog bites. More Americans seek medical attention for dog bites than for choking or falls. You’re more likely to have to go to a doctor for a bite than to call the fire department for a home fire. Like it or not, American dog owner, your pet is a hazard.
But let’s leave aside the possibility that I’m scared (maybe legitimately!) of your dog, since you’ve assured me your dog loves people, and there’s no chance you could be wrong. What if I’m allergic? Or what if I just plain hate your dog? What if I think he’s dirty, since after all he did just put his nose in another dog’s butt? And what if I just want to go through my workday without being slobbered on by an animal?
I know this sounds curmudgeonly. You want to shake me and tell me to snap out of it, to get over myself and just love dogs already. But that’s because you like dogs and don’t see anything but good in them. For you, a dog is like ice cream. What churl doesn’t like ice cream? Well, I’m that churl—I’m canine intolerant.
To give you a sense of how I feel when I’m accosted by your dog, let’s replace that animal with my 2½-year-old son. Now, I love my son, but on any objective scale of socially acceptable behavior, he is the worst. He’s loud. He’s inconsiderate of people’s personal space—if he’s left free he won’t watch where he’s walking and will run into you, either on purpose or accidentally. He’s jumpy and fidgety in confined spaces; in an airplane it is physically impossible to restrain him from kicking the seat in front of him. He scratches himself often, sometimes picks his nose, sometimes offers to pick yours. He will constantly say inappropriate things. The other day at Target, he noticed a little person and commented, for pretty much everyone to hear, “That lady is short!” On top of all this, he may be packing a diaper full of urine and feces.
Weirdly, irrationally, despite all this, I feel the same way about my son as your do about your dog: I love him unconditionally and just don’t understand why even strangers wouldn’t want him around all the time. Indeed, I think almost everything he does, even the inappropriate things, is the cutest behavior ever exhibited in human history.
And yet, still, I rein him in. I realize that, although he’s impossibly cute, it’s possible he might aggravate some people. For this reason, whenever I go into public spaces with my toddler, I treat him as if I were handling nuclear waste or a dangerous animal. I keep him confined. I shush him. If he does anything out of turn—screams, touches people—I make a show of telling him to quit it and I apologize profusely. And, finally, there are some places that are completely off-limits to my son: nice restaurants, contemplative adult spaces like grown-up museums and coffee shops, the gym, and the office. Especially the office.
Yes, there are parents who don’t act this way, awful parents who let their terrible kids run free. The rest of us hate those people because they give all parents a bad name. But I’ll submit there are many more such dog owners than there are overindulgent parents. Most parents I know are mortified by the thought that their children might be causing anguish for others. This is evident in the world around you: It’s why your co-workers rarely bring their toddlers to work. It’s why 2-year-olds don’t approach you in the park and lick your leg or ask you whether you need to visit the potty. It’s why, when a child is being unruly in a supermarket or restaurant, you’ll usually see his parents strive to get him to knock it off.
But dog owners? They seem to suffer few qualms about their animals’ behavior. That’s why there are so many dogs running around at the park, jumping up on the bench beside you while you’re trying to read a book, the owner never asking if it’s OK with you. That’s why, when you’re at a café, the dog at the neighboring table feels free to curl up under your seat. That’s why there’s a dog at your office right at this moment and you’re having to pretend that he’s just the cutest.
Well, no more, my fellow doggie skeptics. Let’s take back the peace we’re owed. The next time your young, happy co-worker brings in his dog for the day, tell him the office is not a canine playpen. It’s time to take that dog home.