Dogs as ambassadors: the impact of generalisation

Article about civil duty and dog ownership.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, September 2010

Canine ambassadors

I have a passionate belief: each of our dogs is an ambassador for the entire canine species. Every time my dog causes an inconvenience somewhere, I know that dogs in general will be a little less welcome there. The “inconveniences” can take quite extreme forms: from getting in the way to a vicious attack.

In the past few years of living in dog-tolerant Holland, I have wondered if there was such a thing as an over-lenient society. Since moving here, I have witnessed countless instances of dog owners showing absolutely no respect to non-owners’ feelings.

Here’s my two cents on dog etiquette in the Netherlands.

False alarms: why there is no such thing as a small boo-boo

Generalisation is a learning strategy in mammals (including dogs and humans) which hard-wires us towards “false alarms”. We feel threatened by a harmless situation because we have once been in danger in a similar context. The ill-adaptive aspect of it is that we may have been in that situation countless times with no incident before, and only one incident is enough to make us wary. I could call it the “Once bitten, twice shy” principle.

Essentially, we are disproportionately more sensitive to negative encounters than positive ones. Sorry, Dalai Lama, epicurians and New Age philosophers, it’s just biology. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense. The consequences of an unpleasant encounter have the potential to be immediately fatal, whereas a missed opportunity for pleasure does not.

To compound it all, generalisation is not just about danger, but about any negative emotion. We potentially generalise any experience causing a negative emotion, be it as subtle as frustration, embarrassment, or inconvenience.

How does this apply to humans and nuisance dogs?

Say you own a “dogs-welcome” restaurant, and one day, a dog relieves itself in your premises. The week after, another of your canine patrons incessantly barks, disturbing your customers. I’ll bet you’re re-thinking your tolerance policy at this stage.

Sure 2 incidents out of 100 would predict that recurrence is unlikely, wouldn’t it? As you know from above, unfortunately, statistics don’t count when it comes to generalisation. It’s a “One strike and you’re out” business. Every single negative encounter between your dog and society has an impact, as it is not being outweighed by countless positive encounters.

Your dog could save five babies from drowning, regularly help the blind to cross the street, and run the soup kitchen in his spare time, he still wouldn’t be welcome if he relieved itself in restaurants. It takes a lot of goods to make up for a small bad.

Dog phobias

Dog phobias arise through generalisation too. Imagine someone who got seriously threatened, or even bitten, by a dog running loose at the park. Next time they’re approached by a boisterous, but harmless dog, they will likely be petrified. It is very likely that the fear will be intensified at each “‘enthusiastic” dog encounter. Fear breeds fear, or for our endocrinologist friends, repeated epinephrine arousal brings the sympathetic system to an increasingly low threshold of fight/freeze/flight response. Eventually, one’s (reasonable) fear of large loose boisterous growling dogs, could extend to pretty much all unleashed dogs. The phobia is dysfunctional, granted ( it does not serve the victim any purpose as YOUR dog is harmless), but the stress is very real. So who are we, dog owners, to subject someone to this?

Exception management and selfish purpose

Seems like managing for the exception? Granted, not everyone is downright phobic of dogs, but I can easily say that about 30% of the public is wary of dogs (including dog owners), and closer to 90% are wary of large, unsupervised dogs. I am sure that close to 100%  are wary of large, unsupervised and boisterous dogs. I would even argue that the latter is extremely functional: how do we know we are not in danger if you are nowhere to be seen? How do we know that your dog is under perfect control and would come back when called?

Aside from altruism and basic human decency, there is also a selfish motive for having well-behaved dogs: if most of us had them, more walking domains would become accessible to off-leash dogs again, instead of today’s pitifully restricted off-leash green areas in and around The Hague.

The golden rules of polite off-leash walking

Regardless of whether you’re an expat in the Hague (like myself), or a local in New York, I recommend the following rules of etiquette if your dog is offleash:

  • Do not allow your dog to chase children, cyclists, joggers, roller-bladers, etc. Basically, do not allow your dog to chase unfamiliar people.
  • Do not allow your dog to jump on another park user, even if he’s “just being friendly” and “young and overenthusiastic”. Tell that to the dry cleaner or the severely phobic.
  • Do not let your dog growl or lunge at another park user, be it a dog or a human. Contact a behaviour therapist to address the problem instead of living with it. Plenty can be done.
  • Call your dog back to you if you see a leashed dog. The leashed dog could be sick, in heat, shy or aggressive. Ask first, meet-and-greet next.
  • Call your dog back to you if you see young children. Establish first whether the kids are scared of dogs, and only with the parents’ permission would you let him (calmly) meet-and-greet the kids. If your dog is boisterous or reactive, do not allow him near unfamiliar children. The ‘aaaaw’ factor just isn’t worth being sued if things go wrong. Also, the slightest well-intentioned, but rough encounter could give the child a life-long fear.
  • Do not allow your dog to bolt towards  unfamiliar dogs. A polite dog greeting is done sideways and slowly. Should your dog not have good doggie manners, his pushy behaviour should not ruin the fun for other, calmer dogs.
  • Do not allow your dog to steal food from other park users. If he’s a thief and there’s food around (like picnic areas), he must be leashed. A colleague of mine came back to the office in tears after a dog stole her lunch and the owner didn’t even apologise.
  • Do not allow your dog to get in the way of fast park users like cyclists, joggers, roller-bladers or cars. Not only is he endangering himself, but the other path users could take a nasty fall too.
  • Always scoop up your dog’s waste, even if this is not compulsory in places.
  • Train your dog to come to you reliably, regardless of distractions. There are countless positive training methods that ‘proof’ each level of distraction. It IS possible even if your dog is a squirrel, or food maniac.
  • Do not allow your dog to disturb wildlife or vegetation.
  • Do not allow your dog to be a nuisance barker. If he is disturbing the peace with his barking, the barking is no longer functional and you should contact a behaviour therapist. It is a very routine problem with countless solutions.
  • Do not allow your dog to dig holes where this would be unsightly or hazardous.

Any comments?

Have you had encounters with ill-behaved dogs?

Do you want more freedom for your dogs, and for people to be less paranoid about it all?

As ever, I value your opinion in the form of a comment. Whether you agree or disagree with me, or if you want to add a new point to the discussion.
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