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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  1. Viselé Ariane
    Posted 13 September 2010 at 03:22 | Permalink

    So, as I have always thought, before educating a dog, you have to educate its owners! Our dog is without a dog our buddy, our four-legged companion, to whom we give a lot of love and who returns it, BUT IT IS ONLY A DOG !!! Even if we adore him, HE IS JUST A DOG!!!
    For his own good, as well as our own, so that our relationship with him is beautiful, full of tender moments and complicity, let’s be good educators, and above all, let’s respect the humans surrounding us.

    The entire world is not supposed to love your big teddy bear. Let’s never impose a dog in a place where he is not entirely welcome, where he can scare, or even just inconvenience.

    I have an enormous dog (Anatolian shepherd), and gently and with empathy, without ever forcing things, a lot of people have come to our home very scared of dogs, but with time have told me: I am scared of dogs, but with yours, I am comfortable. Given his size, it’s extraordinary.

    Once again, thank you for this article.


  2. Posted 13 September 2010 at 10:56 | Permalink

    Thank you for this rich comment. I don’t know where to begin in my agreement. Let’s take some passages that I found particularly worthwhile:

    1/ I so agree with your statement: “Not everyone has to love dogs”. We shouldn’t impose them where they will put people ill at ease.

    2/ I also agree wholeheartedly with this point: “Not everyone is supposed to love our teddy bear”. Some people just don’t like dogs, or big dogs, or labradors, or whatever. Having a dog and taking it to human places with us is not a right, it’s a privilege.

    3/ The dog is just a dog. By this, I would agree in the sense that one cannot expect the dog to know what is acceptable in human society intrinsically. We have to teach him, and we are ultimately responsible for him and the effect he has on our environment.

    I have to say, though, I am a little naughty on one aspect: I bring my dog pretty much wherever I go. I do double-, no, triple-check constantly whether he could be the slightest of inconvenience and the minute I notice, we leave.

  3. Posted 26 September 2010 at 13:51 | Permalink

    I found this article quite a revelation. I have a mild dog phobia, rooted in an encounter with a dog when I was a young child. I can be quite rational about it, while at the same time I have no control over it. If I see a dog and its owner walking towards me on the side walk, I instinctively cross to the other side of the street. It makes me instantly nervous anytime a dog approaches me, even ones which are tiny and presumably “harmless”. And yes, I was once chased by a dog while rollerblading in the off-leash Vondelpark, which was a frightening experience.

    I now realize that I am not alone. And I see a lot of what you call bad “dog etiquette”. Recently I was visiting a new acquaintance in Limburg who has two dogs, one of which is large, boisterous, very energetic creature, and the thing kept nosing me in a rather intrusive way, which I didn’t enjoy. The owner asked: don’t you like dogs? I politely replied simply that I wasn’t accustomed to them.

    I wish more dog owners shared your ideas. There is a sandy “uitlaatstrook” less than 75 meters from my house, one of a number the Stadsdeel maintains in my neighborhood, densely populated Oud-West, yet still I constantly encounter dog turds on the sidewalk in front of my house, which I find absolutely revolting. I’ve seen dog owners letting their dogs poop next to the curb literally meters from an uitlaatstrook.

    I can really appreciate a well-trained Labrador and perhaps if I lived in the country I would have a dog.

  4. Posted 27 September 2010 at 12:20 | Permalink

    Thank you very much for your comment, Colin. I appreciate you speaking up. Rest assured that you are far from alone.

    I am also mildly dog phobic, because my dog is, so the sight of yet another out of control ‘harmless’ dog bolting towards us and jumping all over my dog (who hates it) always sets my teeth on edge. Especially when I know that most of the time, the owner won’t even bother apologising for their dog’s behaviour.

    I am afraid I am one of the guilty ones about letting your dog eliminate on the pavement, but I ALWAYS pick up after him. Like most dog trainers, I myself was too lazy training him to eliminate on demand (which is possible). It is also very tricky to add to the list of places where they are not allowed to eliminate, for fear they will just think that eliminating outside altogether is not OK. I too get aggravated when people leave their dog’s waste on the pavement (or even on children’s playgrounds!).

  5. Anabela Atanasio
    Posted 4 November 2010 at 12:05 | Permalink

    My puppy is a friendly dog that tries to greet and play with other dogs found at the dog’s park (The Hague), there are some other friendly dogs around, as well. However, there are quite a few Dutch dog owners who have aggressive and constant barking dogs who feel that they “rule” the park and tell me off if I say that I don’t appreciate seeing the teeth of their dogs (even if smaller) pinning the neck of my puppy to the ground. They respond that is “normal”. With so many rules in Holland for dog owners I would have expected Dutch people to be the first to follow them and control their own pets when charging with aggressive barking towards me or my puppy. Yet, I am the one always having to walk away and take my friendly, well-educated pup away from a fun run in the Park, to avoid him getting hurt. How to report this? How to get these owners to be responsible when my pup gets bitten? Or, this is it, some people are polite and other are not and one just has to live with it, despite all the rules.

    • Posted 4 November 2010 at 12:37 | Permalink

      hear hear, Anabela. I totally share your frustration.

      No, it’s not normal to pin a puppy to the ground and show teeth if you get the feeling that your puppy is uncomfortable. It’s a fine line between rough play and bullying. OK it’s not always easy to tell, but what is easy to tell, is that you are not happy about it. That should be a simple rule: another dog owner is unhappy about my dog’s behaviour, I get my dog back under control.

      I get so wound up when I hear owners of dogs who play rough tell me that it’s “normal”. No, it’s not. They are not showing much courtesy and are essentially bullying us out of a public place.

      I have found it more relaxing, however, to just walk away when I suspect an owner and/or his dog, will be anti-social. Not fair, but way better for my stress levels!

      Once I even saw someone with a huge German Shepherd allow his dog to steal the football of a toddler, and burst it, without so much as an apology to the boy’s parents. His excuse? “What? We’re in a dog park, she should know that!”. Aaaaaah that generosity of spirit…

  6. LD
    Posted 13 February 2011 at 00:17 | Permalink

    I find it very rude and inconsiderate when people let their dogs approach me, out in public. I don’t have anything against dogs, I just don’t want to have to deal with them when I’m out minding my own business, enjoying a walk. I do not object to seeing dogs(even off leash ones) as long as they are well behaved. But too mane clueless owners feel it’s oK to allow their dog to invade my space. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the words “Don’t worry He’s friendly” whenever a dog came barreling towards me and/or jumping up on me, I’d be rich.

    Sometimes I feel it’s frustrating being a “Non Dog person” in a world filled with “Dog lovers”. Popular opinion is not on my side, and sometimes I’m made to feel like a bad guy simply because I show discomfort at somebody’s dog coming over wanting to “play” with me. Like it’s my problem for wanting to be left alone, and I have no business being somewhere where I know there will be dogs(these are not dog parks, but regular hiking trails). But why shouldn’t I have the same rights to enjoy a public area, as anybody else?.

    • Posted 15 February 2011 at 10:06 | Permalink

      Hi Laurent

      It’s not just about extremes
      I am really glad you spoke out. With more people like you (who speak out), more dog owners like me will realise that it’s real: some people don’t want your dog (no matter how friendly) all over them. It’s not just about extremes, people who are scared of dogs, or who hate them. It’s just that not everyone happens to want to cuddle a dog 24/7, especially when, like you say, they’re out minding their own business.

      This is an example of someone who got exasperated into downright hating dogs by the rudeness of dog owners.

      Minding your own business
      It is totally your right not to want your personal space invaded, and your train of thoughts interrupted, and to be forced into a social contact you did not seek.

      I myself always try to be on the look out for people’s body language as my dog starts to approach them. If they don’t have a beaming smile and inviting look, I call my dog back to me with no fuss, way before he’s anywhere near them.

      Social pressure
      I can imagine the social pressure you’re under, which is unfair. You’re somehow the bad guy because you happen to want the rules of common decency to extend to dogs/dog owners. We dog owners forget all too easily that not everyone is a dog nut, but I can’t abide die-hard dog lovers who disparage people who aren’t fans of dogs. Being allowed to walk our dog in a human-frequented area is a privilege, and we have to earn it. Not the other way round.

      “He won’t do anything”
      I really dislike this: “He won’t do anything” or “He’s just playing” or “He’s very friendly”, especially when applying to a bulldozer of a Rottweiller charging towards my kid. I always think: “So what?”. It’s like leaving your distress lights on in the car when you’re parked illegally. Are the police meant to think: “Aaaaah, it’s OK. That guy knows he’s being a bit cheeky so no harm done”.

      Again, thanks a lot for the valuable comment.

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