A Dog is a Man's Best Friend...Or Is It?
By Jennifer Lipman
You wouldn’t let a child do it. Few self-respecting parents would allow their progeny to jump up at a stranger, slobber all over them or demand appreciation even as a person swerves to avoid them. Nor would they respond to someone’s obvious apprehension around toddlers with the comment: ‘I promise, he won’t bite’.
Yet dog owners do this all the time: allowing their pet to invade someone’s personal space, failing to understand that no means no, refusing to acknowledge that anyone could be anything but enamoured with their barking, growling, mud-smeared brute.
It goes without saying that it’s a crass comparison; owning a dog is hardly the same as having a child. But in both cases it’s about taking responsibility for another being, and respecting other people’s preferences. Unfortunately, many dog owners resolutely fail to get this.
As someone who is ‘not a dog person’ – for that, read ‘utterly terrified’ – I’m fed up. Go to any of Britain’s parks or public places and you’ll find an army of canines, dominating the pathways, blocking the route of those out for a run, or simply ruining a good picnic.
To an extent, they have every right. I’m not such a pawty-pooper as to expect people to keep their four legged friends indoors all the time. I might cower if a pug comes near, but if I’m out in the park I accept that you’re as entitled to be there as anyone else – although a little sensitivity wouldn’t go amiss; do you really have to play fetch right where I’m sunbathing? And don’t even get me started on dogs on trains or buses!
But what is it about dog owners that makes them assume I want to have anything to do with Fluffy or Rufus? Why, when I shy away from their pooch (especially if said beast is unleashed and baring its teeth), do they tell me I’m wrong, and, actually, I’ll still adore their one? It’s a habit peculiar to dog owners; cat owners might wax lyrical about their tabby’s talents, but it’s usually limited to bragging on Facebook. Nobody forces another person to agree how wonderful their goldfish or hamster is.
Why do these people glare at me if I seek to avoid their dog – surely this is better than my expecting them to go elsewhere? – or when I visibly tremble at barking and chasing? Why do they take it so personally, as if I’ve gone up to them and insulted their life choices, as opposed to being – in common with many people – simply afraid of dogs.
The plural matters. It’s not your dog, it’s all dogs. I won’t be swayed by your pet, just as a vegetarian won’t be swayed by your granny’s special Shepherd’s Pie recipe. This is not a new phobia, designed specifically to offend you on your morning stroll. It’s a deep-seated terror that I’ve had since childhood and that no amount of ‘but mine is different’ has helped me to overcome.
It’s not that I don’t think your dog is adorable. I’m perfectly happy to look at photos of dogs (especially in fancy dress), or watch cartoons about them. My favourite book as a child was 101 Dalmatians and I loved the Beethoven films, while from the age of four I couldn’t be separated from my soft toy puppy (I’m sure there’s a Freudian explanation somewhere). I feel compassion for these creatures; I take no pleasure in seeing them ill-treated. Nevertheless, the real ones frighten me – and inviting me to pet your pet isn’t going to change that.
Like many phobias, it’s irrational. So yes, I know Oscar is a benign poodle not a T-Rex and probably won’t hurt me. But arguing that a plane is statistically unlikely to crash won’t sway someone with a fear of flying; similarly a logical discussion won’t dent my abject horror of an unleashed – or leashed – snarling beast. The panic that sweeps over me in the wake of a close encounter of the canine kind is severe, and horribly real to me.
Despite all this, I do believe we can coexist; leave me to my peace and quiet, and I’ll leave you to yours. And if your dog runs up to me to say hello, and you see me quivering; understand that now is not the time to convince me of the error of my fear.
I know you dog people are tutting right now, if you’re still reading. I know you’ll never get not being a dog person. But as a final thought, why don’t you imagine something you’re really scared of. A clown, say, or a dinosaur, or a spider the size of a laptop? That’s how I feel about your pooch. Man’s supposed best friend is certainly not mine.