The ultimate social integration prop: dog or kid?

Article about social integration with a dog in the Netherlands.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, August 2010

Thom, the human part of the equation

Integrating to Dutch society

For those of you unacquainted with the word, ‘inburgering’ means ‘ integration’ in Dutch. Personally, it took me a while to integrate after I’d first arrived from the UK. My first ‘house’ was an apartment in Amsterdam, where it took me two years to find out my neighbour’s first name. Fast-forward a few years, and here I am, living in the semi-countryside on the outskirts of the Hague. After three or four years, my relationships with my Dutch neighbours still did not extend much beyond a distant greeting. Until 2008, that is, when I got the dog.

All of a sudden, I got smiled at ALL the time. People got really curious when they heard me speak English to him, and they loved to stop and chat about training methods, body language, the best dog food, or how sweet he was. It took me no time to get to know the regular dog aficionados in the village. Now I can’t go through the village without stopping for a chat.

Fast forward another year (to September 2009), and here comes Thom, our baby boy. Wouldn’t you know it, the connecting phenomenon works with him too! In two years, I have developed more Dutch social contacts than I had in the six previous dogless and childless ones.

A social experiment

So I got to wondering: which of my two boys, the human or the hairy one, got me to integrate the most?

Men: Men don’t tend to be that interested in the baby when am out on a walk. That’s despite the kid’s best attempts at charming them. I am not kidding, he is the KING waver-smiler. Sometimes I feel I am pushing the Queen around. The dog on the other hand, has gotten me into countless conversations with men in the area. Mainly because he has the knack of placing himself square on the path of on-coming bikes, but OK, whatever starts a conversation.

Women: Surprisingly enough, I think that my dog gets me more social interactions with women than my kid does. Perhaps people feel more inhibited with a baby than with a dog, fearing they might invade a child’s personal space. So they keep it at face-pulling, broad smiles and waving, but no real conversation with the kid’s mum. With the dog, on the other hand, women will often stop to ask me about him, or tell me how sweet he is. I’ve made a fair few really nice human connections that way, as I keep bumping into the the same ladies again and again. After a couple times, we end up chatting about everything but dog.

Animals: There is this super intelligent parrot in the neighbourhood, and he is absolutely in love with my kid. I am guessing the parrot appreciates the challenge of imitating the unearthly sounds of a ten-month old. He has a much more reserved attitude to the dog, and this despite my dog’s polite, but obsessed, sit-stay (my dog is infatuated with this parrot. I have to literally drag him away). The parrot will dance about for the dog’s attention for a bit, then lose interest. As for the rest of the animal kingdom, there’s no love lost between them and my kid/dog team. So on this count, based on the population sample of exactly one parrot, I guess it’s kid 1, dog 0.

Kids: Kids in the village absolutely adore my dog, even the ones that are normally scared of dogs. That’s because I love to break the tension by showing off his tricks (finding my car keys in the tall grass is always a winner). Children really go crazy when I let them participate. Show the same kids my baby and his latest incredible achievement, say, he walks, and they’ll just give him a cursory glance.

Elderly people: OK, that’s a tough one, because my baby is a right OAP magnet. When I am with the kid, I have to consciously walk really fast past the local retirement home to avoid a riot. But then again, my dog is extremely sweet to old people and they just lap it up. He is very gentle, and does this nudging thing with his nose. So I think that’s kid 1, dog 1 on this one.

And the winner is…

So, quick recap: the dog wins with men, women and kids. The baby only really wins with animals. They’re pretty much on a par with elderly people. So, off to get yourself a dog to connect with Dutch society?  I’ d hold off a minute…

Not all fun and games

Of course, having a dog doesn’t just have advantages. My dog is also a bit of a social isolator:

  • I feel guilty on a day-trip if he’s not with us, it’s a right palaver to organise holidays
  • He hates being alone so I often ask friends to come here, or I feel a bit bad leaving him behind
  • We can’t organise a baby’s birthday party in our home
  • My mother-in-law hates dogs, so it makes it really difficult to see them.
  • I can’t always take him to friends if they have dogs that are not dog-friendly, and…
  • He pees on my neighbour’s daisies.

So, I guess there’s two sides to everything, and I guess a dog, like a child, will put your existing social circle under stress, and will help you create new connections.
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