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Wagging the Dog

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By: Dan Laxer – Montreal Times

“Has the whole gone crazy? Am I the only one who gives a $#*! about the rules?”

Rules are made to be broken, right? I mean, sure, the rules are there to keep us in line, to maintain order, and to make sure society doesn’t tumble into anarchy. We even have laws to enforce the rules, and law enforcers to enforce the laws that enforce the rules.

And for those times when those officials aren’t around, there are those self-righteous, self-appointed citizens on patrol who take it upon themselves to ferret out the scofflaws and tell them that they have contravened a breach of the peace.

Such was the case in a local park the other day, where I’d been with my kids and their schoolmates after school. One of the other fathers came over to say hello, with his big dog on a leash. “Tell me,” he says, “is there anything wrong with having my dog in the park?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “There might be some by-law or something. Why?”

“Well, because some obnoxious guy told me I’m not allowed to have my dog in the park. I asked him what bothered him so much about my dog, and he said ‘there’s a sign’.”

“What bothered him more,” I asked, “the dog or the sign?”

As we were laughing, another daddy came along, not a little indignant. He was a much younger daddy. And you know how younger parents are: idealistic, paving their kids’ futures with good intentions of ridding the world of canned tuna and violent cartoons, reducing speed limits, vocally and vociferously anti-vaccine. You know, all the stuff that reality beats out of you by the time your kids hit grade three. He was small, like a scrappy schnauzer who thinks nothing of barking at a Doberman.

“Are you talking about me?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I answered, shrugging my shoulders. “Who are you?”

“Well, it’s just that I heard you talking about dogs and signs, and I thought you were taking about me. I’m the one who objected to the dog.”

“Okay,” I said. “Again, I don’t know who you are, so I don’t know how I’m supposed to know that you were the one who objected to the dog. I was just having a laugh with a friend.”

And then he launched into an ostensibly well-rehearsed rant about the rules, the sign, the dangers of dogs, bla bla bla. I wasn’t really interested. But clearly I’d gotten his goat.

“That’s fine,” he called after my dog-owning friend, who was walking away. “I’ll just ask the police what the rules are!” What was the dog owner supposed to do, turn back with his tail between his legs and say “Oh, no! Not the police! Please! Anything but that! My dog and I will go quietly.”

I mean, he wasn’t wrong; the dog rules are similar from borough to borough: you have to have your dog on a leash of no more than 6 feet long, you have to pick up after your dog, and you are certainly not allowed to have your dog in a children’s playground. And, yes, there is a sign attesting to that restriction. “Hey,” my young, intrepid dog hunter said to me (because clearly no one else was listening), “I don’t have a problem with dogs. I just don’t want them near my kid.”

When I was growing up there were no dog parks. There were just parks. And you could walk, play, run, and even ride your bike in the park. You could walk your dog through the park, either on or off the leash. Nothing bad ever happened (we didn’t know about dingoes back then). And if anyone had been bitten we didn’t know about it. On the other hand, if someone had gone ahead and bitten a dog, that would have been news, but I digress.

Cynophobia, or fear of dogs, is one of the most common phobias. It is more prevalent in women, and pops up at a young age, usually around playground age. It is acquired either through personal experience, like being bitten or otherwise attacked, through seeing someone else get attacked, or simply through hearing about an incident. And then of course there’s the rampant defecation that makes playing in a park akin to running through a minefield.

Dog-fearing grownups inadvertently pass their fear onto their children, and then further nurture that fear through an acquired commonality, reinforcing the idea that dogs are to be feared.

I’ve heard from other parents who don’t want dogs near their kids. They belong in dog runs, they say, those stinking, fly-infested pens to which dogs and their owners are relegated, ostracized, segregated from the rest of the population. One mom told me that when she was four a dog jumped on her in a park. She knows now that the dog was being playful and friendly, and in the end it didn’t bite her. But it traumatized her, seemingly for life. Some dogs are just too frisky, she argued. So we make laws, rules, and signs that validate that irrational fear of dogs.

Is it possible that municipal by-laws needlessly perpetuate that fear through acquiescence? And to what extent is the media complicit in the fear-mongreling, with their constant stories of pitbull attacks? We argue over the pros and cons of the death penalty, but think nothing of executing a dog, even after a first offence. We say that the dog must be “destroyed,” as if it were a machine rather than a sentient being. Or we rationalize the execution away by classifying certain breeds as dangerous, not to say psychopathic. Have we really made the world a safer place for our kids? Or is that idea just a little, um, far-fetched?

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