I love dogs. But can we stop pretending they should get to go everywhere with us?
Hey, you! Yes, you over there, with the teacup poodle hidden in your purse. Yes, I know she's in there, because last time I checked, Kate Spade didn't bark. Please come here. There's something you need to hear.
And don't look so smug, Mister Dog Hater Who Keeps Shooting Dirty Looks at the Perfectly Legitimate Service Dog. Sit down a spell. There's plenty of room, far away from the animal, for your own much-needed dose of empathy and common sense.
Actually, while we're at it? I think we all need to have a little chat about dogs, public spaces, and the nexus between the two before there are any more vicious fights. (And I'm not talking about the dogs.)
Over the past couple of years, I've noticed a decided uptick in the number of pooches accompanying people outside of the home: Maltese in the mall, Rotties in restaurants, and Labs on planes. Surely you've noticed it too.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, under the right circumstances, human-dog interaction can be hugely beneficial to both species. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist and the author of several books, including New York Times beststellers Inside of a Dog and Being a Dog, makes a good case.
"Dogs have been living with humans for thousands of years," she says. "(Like humans), dogs are social animals, and need to be around other people or dogs — or both — depending on the dog. To leave them alone all day is to neglect this.
"Having dogs with their owners is a great idea for the dogs. Owners (and many other people) love it too."
Horowitz hits on an important point: Canis lupus familiaris represents humans' first, wildly successful foray into genetic engineering. Today's domesticated dogs are the descendants of wild canids selectively bred over millennia to provide people with work and companionship. Recent research supports the physical, psychological, and emotional benefits many humans gain from the presence of dogs. At the same time, dogs need us, too.
"Many working dogs I've met seem highly fulfilled by having what we call 'work,' but what I think of really as an organization of their life," Horowitz says. "Dogs, since domestication, have been relieved of the pressures of predation, finding food, finding shelter, and so forth — but what are they to do? Many pet dogs wind up being entirely under-stimulated because they have nothing to do."
It can thus be argued that the human-dog relationship is a deeply symbiotic one, and is well celebrated by having our dogs with us all the time, everywhere we go.
Not so fast. The fact is, not everyone likes dogs. Many humans have an aversion to or fear of dogs. For them, forced proximity to other people's pets can be deeply distressing. And for those with allergies to canines? A close encounter of the doggy kind can cause severe physical discomfort ... even grave illness.
"Not everyone wants to meet a dog," Horowitz says, "and people who bring their dogs out must be sensitive to that: If a stranger has no choice but to interact with your dog, that's a poor choice of place to bring the dog."
Similarly, not all dogs like strange people, other dogs, or even certain places.
"There are plenty of places a dog might not want to go with you," says Horowitz. "Depending on the dog, that might be someplace loud, distracting, new."
There are other considerations. For all the reasons animal companions can be a boon in the workplace, they can also be a major distraction. Some perfectly normal canine quirks of behavior are unacceptable in some human settings. (Anyone who's ever been unwillingly herded by an off-leash shepherd dog or had his leg humped by an amorous terrier can attest to this.)
Last but not least, there are places where it is simply illegal to bring an animal of any sort, such as restaurants and groceries stores. According to individual states' interpretations of these federal laws, all dogs except highly trained dogs (and the occasional miniature horse) in service to Americans with disabilities may be excluded from both public and private property at the discretion of owners and operators.
Now, on the subject of legitimate service animals: Even the most curmudgeonly of dog-haters would agree that people with disabilities need their working dogs to assist them through a world not adapted to special needs; to perform basic functions of living ... sometimes even just to stay alive. Other folks benefit greatly from lesser-trained companions called "emotional support animals"; however, at present, these "ESA"s do not enjoy the same federal protections against public exclusion afforded by law to full service dogs and horses. Across the country, different states and municipalities are considering individual regulations for ESAs, but for the time being, national law does not recognize the right of any citizen to claim unrestricted access to public spaces for such an animal. Fortunately, most people with legitimate ESAs have chosen companions with temperaments and training to be sociable and undisruptive in public, and these helpful pooches rarely cause conflict between humans.
The trouble begins when people outside the gray area occupied by ESAs — people who just like their pets and want to take them everywhere — start co-opting the same privilege by "registering" their pets on bogus, unregulated websites and putting their untrained animals into similarly unregulated service vests. These dogs, without the temperament and painstaking training of legitimate support animals, are often the cause of public conflict, even causing many businesses to reform policy altogether. This hurts everyone.
So there we have it. Courtesy, common sense, and the law all dictate we stop thinking selfishly and start treating others — human and canine alike — with empathy, respect, and a simple dose of common sense.
So pull the dog out of the purse, and give a little room to the guy with the real service dog.