THE MISGUIDED DOG MITZVAH
I live in Hippieville. Most of the time, I like life here, because I enjoy living in close proximity to lots of art galleries, microbreweries, pedestrian-friendly roads, local food, and independent video stores. I have chosen Hippieville because it is infinitely more interesting than the sprawling blandness of Charlotte, NC, where I grew up, and, unlike my Charlotte relatives, I don't have to worry about the police hassling me over my car's pro-Obama bumper sticker. However, there are a few things about my adopted hometown that annoy the bejeezus out of me; namely, the prevailing and weirdly blase attitude about letting dogs wander the streets unattended.
Last night, Jeremy and I were out walking in our neighborhood, and we encountered an adorable, flop-eared dog that decided to follow us down the street. It's a fact of life that dogs escape their yards from time to time, so we didn't think too much about it until 20 minutes later, when we were nearly home and the dog was still following us. I insisted we look at the dog's tags and try to call the owner, since the dog showed every sign of following us all the way to our doorstep. Twilight was coming on, and our neighborhood includes a particularly winding cut-through that should probably be renamed Squashed Cat Drag. We may be in a neighborhood, but it's an urban, mixed business/residential neighborhood with busy thoroughfares where people like to speed. Jeremy, dutiful husband and dog-lover that he is, pulled out his cell phone.
When no one answered, we decided to backtrack and see if the dog would follow us to the address on its tag. We were almost there when the dog spotted a rabbit, bolted down the street like Lucifer himself was at its heels, and crashed into some bushes, out of sight.
Still, we were close enough to the address on the tag that we figured we could let the dog's owner know her pet was a few dozen yards down the block in her neighbor's bushes. When the owner came out into the yard and we explained the situation, I was expecting an, "Oh, thanks. She gets out sometimes," or something along those lines.
"Oh, it's fine." The dog's owner shrugged. "She's very aware of the road. She walks up and down there all the time. She would have come back on her own eventually."
A disclaimer before I continue: When I was 17, my dog and I almost got eaten by a pair of Rottweilers. We were walking along a quiet residential street on a Sunday afternoon, when I heard toenails clicking on the pavement behind me. I looked back to see the other dogs watching us from the top of the hill. I quickened my pace, but by the time my dog and I reached the bottom of the hill, the two Rottweilers had begun silently circling us like chocolate-brown sharks. My dog flipped out. I flipped out. Meanwhile, the Rottweilers tightened their circle. I had reached the point of hysterically screaming, "Help! Help! No, get away! Bad dog! Help!" when a monstrously proportioned red pickup truck screeched to a stop beside me. The driver whistled. The Rottweilers instantly broke off and leaped into the bed of the truck. The driver took one look at my tear-stained face and my traumatized dog and stomped on the gas without so much as a "sorry."
So I'm a little biased about the issue of unattended dogs.
Now, in all honesty, this dog did seem very friendly, intelligent, and non-confrontational when we walked by other houses with yapping or baying dogs. Unlike the Rottweilers, she was clearly not going to take it upon herself to start stalking pedestrians with the intention of crunching their bones and sucking out the marrow.
However, let's not overlook the central fact that a dog is a dog. This means she is incredibly likely to a) bolt after cats, rabbits, or other prey animals with total disregard to her surroundings, counteracting her supposed street smarts; b) encounter another dog that smells wrong or rubs her the wrong way and decide to throw down, as dogs sometimes do; c) come across a kid or someone who is afraid of dogs and very naturally chase that kid when he or she runs away; d) cross paths with a rabid raccoon or skunk; or e) follow someone who thinks she would be the perfect addition to that dog-fighting ring he's been putting together in his spare time.
There's a big push in my town to keep dogs chain-free, which I completely agree with. It's irresponsible to keep your dog tethered in the hot sun and cruel to use choke-chains as a matter of course. But it's no less irresponsible to let your dog wander the streets alone, where she can easily get hurt or hurt someone else. Even the nicest dogs can have a bad day or encounter a situation where they feel threatened and react aggressively. One July when I was a kid, our sweet, docile Old English sheepdog took a chunk out of my friend Gary's arm because he had gotten overheated and Gary was a stranger to him. Animal control came out to talk to us after the incident, and the agent we spoke to told us that dog attacks go up in the summer months because dogs tend to be more uncomfortable and irritable in the heat.
Am I overreacting? Probably. Applying my bourgeois presumptions to situations where they aren't welcome or appropriate? Possibly. But I'm tired of walking five feet from my house and encountering strange, unaccompanied canines. You may know that your dog is nice, but I don't know her from the Rottweilers, and I can guarantee my pants legs smell faintly of cat.
Dogs may be intelligent and our faithful, loving best friends, but dogs are not human beings. To assume they have the wherewithal to navigate the city streets alone and react appropriately to every situation they encounter does everyone a disservice. By all means, walk your dog. Take her to the dog park that's a mere five blocks away. Give her love and plenty of treats and toys. Let her run free in your fenced back yard or chase rabbits under your supervision. Frankly, it's your dog, and if you're confident enough in her ability to avoid the common pitfalls of an urban environment, fine. But the next time your wayward dog follows someone home and that person tries to make sure she gets back to you safely, save your philosophical pontification on your dog's freedom to wander. Just say, "thanks," and leave it at that.