Daniel in the Dog’s Den, Part II

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

I’m still running from the dogs. On September 6, I published an article in The New York Sun on how city dogs intrude on human space – and impose themselves on strangers in the street, like me. Now, owners are chasing me as well. It turns out that bemoaning the harassment New Yorkers face from those four legged beasts in our already crowded city and expressing a longing for the days when dogs were treated as animals and not humans put me on the wrong side of some very angry people.

“Grrrr” was the response from one reader. “Way off leash” warned another. One told me that I would receive a “s—tload of hate mail.” (Should that be a pooper-scooper full?) Gary Kaskel of the “United Action for Animals” wrote: “I have a tip for you, Dan. You need a dog. Maybe it would settle your misanthropic intolerance.”

Reader Martin Barnett said he will “still buy the NY Sun even if I now begin using the culture page to pick up the stuff.”

All this for writing that “the New York pet obsession verges on the absurd.” Apparently none of those dog lovers – I’m not sure that they’d even be happy with the relationship implied by the word “owner” – feel any sympathy for the poor pedestrian.

Not all responses from dog owners were hostile, however. Fellow sufferers – mostly fellow New Yorkers apparently – saw me almost as a knight-errant, championing a feeling they had but hadn’t voiced. Normally I write about the trivialities of life – world wars, the state of affairs in the Middle East, the fraying of the Anglo-American alliance. Those articles did not draw a response as warm as the dog one. “Not to belittle the weight of your punditry on world affairs, but this is – without a doubt – the most important piece you have written,” one reader e-mailed.

Others – mostly out-of-towners – were more surprised by the topic. “What triggered this diatribe about dogs suddenly? Don’t get me wrong – I can’t stand them either,” one asked. Live in Manhattan for a while, and you’ll understand, I replied.

There were some friendly responses from dog owners too. One wrote: “I loved it. So much fun – even more so since, you guessed it, I’m a dog guy. And he’s a Rhodesian Ridgeback!” Gracious, especially considering I had written that “It is an unattractive form of selfdeception to tell someone else of your Rhodesian Ridgeback that ‘he is not dangerous.’ Nature designed his looks to send a signal that he is.”

Other dog owners tried converting me to the dog side. Some emailed in pictures, expressing hope that the “cuteness” would change my mind. It didn’t. Cuteness remains a term I reserve for babies. One reader mentioned a school – yes a school – for dogs in the city and challenged me to visit the dogs there. Somewhat intrigued, I visited “Biscuits and Bath.”

There I caught the approximately 40 dogs at nap time. The dogs spend their day – while their owners are out working – running around, being groomed and bathed, eating, and resting, a trainer told me. The “school” turned out to be about as academic as a “babysitting” service. In my first article I had joked about the paradise of a Hindu reincarnation for dogs. Here it was, right on Columbus Avenue between 82nd and 83rd Street.

Unfortunately for me, nap time turned out to be different for dogs than humans. I found the dogs barking and jumping up and down in their glass cages, clearly demanding attention from the attendants. “They’re never left unattended” a representative told me. I was left feeling much like Daniel in the Lion’s Den, or rather Daniel in the dog’s pen – with quite the headache to boot.

Speaking to one representative, Patricia, on the phone – safely away from the school – I was told that the school also has a customer care line to keep in touch with “parents.” They’re told how the “child”– yes, we’re still talking about dogs – is feeling.

Whatever happened to “master” and “owner”? Patricia told me that many “parents do consider dogs as part of the family, as kids.” From what some parents (of actual, human,

children) tell me, it almost seems that the dog “children” get better treatment, and the “parents” have a closer relationship with the teacher, than in most human schools.

As for my pet issues – restraining dogs from harassing pedestrians – Patricia told me that they do offer special training, including on curbing aggression and leash walking if the “parents request it.”They also work with parents too, because “to train the dog you also have to train the parent.” My suggestion that teaching dogs manners should be made a mandatory part of the school curriculum wasn’t embraced.

Did my day with the dogs change my attitude toward man’s supposed best friend at all?

Well, as I walked home from the dog school I had to jump into the road to avoid a lady with three terriers who were dancing across the width of the sidewalk. She offered no apologies and pretended not to notice. That evening I visited a friend and was licked on the leg by a poodle in the elevator.The owner didn’t even look at me. Another growler. He just emitted a distinctly canine sound and yanked the dog by the leash closer to him.

So, no, some things didn’t change. Now, thanks to my visit to the dog school, I may have hit upon a solution – other than growling back or advocating the banning of dogs from public paths: Training.

Training not only for the dogs, but training for the owners, parents, or whichever person is being dragged around by the mutt, as well. The real problem with dogs in the city might not be that dogs are being treated like humans, but that humans are being treated like dogs.

The good news is that there is a show on the National Geographic channel, the “Dog Whisperer,” that promises to do pretty much exactly that. A spokesman for the channel said that the aim of host Cesar Milan is to “rehabilitate dogs and train owners” and teach them how to live in harmony with each other – and, crucially, their neighbors.

The problem in “the majority of cases is that the dog owns the house,” the spokesman said.The show teaches owners – he said “owner” not “parent” – how to “lead the pack.” Owners, for example, must learn to “walk the dog. The dog shouldn’t walk you.” Dogs should walk beside or behind their owner, never in front.

“Amazing transformations” can be seen on the show – when owners have that “aha” moment and realize their mistakes – and, the spokesman promised me, the show also “speaks to people watching.” Excellent.

So what will I do next time I’m harassed by a dog leading a seemingly oblivious owner along on a leash? Rather than growling back I’ll politely tell the owner about the third season of a show that premiers on October 23 at 9 p.m.

Mr. Freedman is editor of the online edition of The New York Sun and blogs at www.itshinesforall.com.

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