Dog gone it: Canines and street culture

For lots of reasons many urban dwellers own pets. If you own an animal of the canine variety, and unless you enjoy your residence full of dog urine and excrement, or living with an unhealthy pet, that possibly terrorizes you and your place, then sooner or later, you will need to take your pet outside and maybe even walk it. But this decision (better read obligation) sets in to motion a number of situations and contingencies, particularly if you live in a big city, and most of this touches on selected nuances of street culture.

If you don’t own a dog, you may want to stop reading this post now. I would not have been able to write a blog post of this nature fourteen years ago before our family got Luca, a lab golden mix. Now, I have a better idea of what it is like to live with and care for a dog in an urban environment.

People’s relationships with their dogs and people on the street is worth not just acknowledging, but actually talking about. Dogs often mediate the interactions you encounter or have on the street with other dog owners and walkers (both professionals and owners), delivery folks, joggers, and pedestrians. These serendipitous exchanges occur when you walk down a street with your dog, when you go to a dog park, or take your pet on a run. Your dog (and others you encounter) may be very well behaved or may be super aggressive only when it comes into contact with some people, but not others. It’s hard to tell as you approach someone if your pet has sensed something you haven’t and he will either be smitten or start growling. With the exception of a heightened ability to smell, dogs are like people in many ways.

Dogs are also and often extensions of their owner’s sense of style, class, gender norms, general values, and attitudes. For example, I would not be caught dead walking a Chihuahua or a toy poodle or a poodle for that matter on the street. Likewise neither would I enjoy walking a great Dane or an attack dog. It’s just not my style. When we lived in New York City, and this may have been a function of both apartment living and the Upper West Side, we encountered all manner of ways that people walked (or carried their dogs). Some walked their canine on a leash, others carried their small little dogs in their gigantic purses, and others would push them in a baby stroller. Many people see their dogs as extensions of their families, while others as fashion accessories. On the other hand, some gang members may own a Pitt bull, Rottweiler or English bulldog and the act of walking down the street with a reputed to be aggressive dog makes people fear them. So much so that some jurisdictions have banned these dogs from being owned by anyone. The type of dog you own says something about you.

Walking a dog is not a simple matter. During this activity you can encounter an array of situations and consequently decisions that you must make: will you let your dog sniff another dog’s butt, hump them or allow them to be humped, does it play well with other dogs in a dog park or dog run, is it friendly around kids? etc. etc.

I’ve had lots of great experiences walking our dog on the street and letting him play in the dog park. I’ve also had my share of really dumb interactions with both people who own dogs and those who don’t. Not only dogs, but their owners can be whack jobs too, so it’s important to be cautious when you are out of your abode with your pooch.

Over time Luca became increasingly chill, adopting a live and let live kind of attitude. Although he was a big dog, he was also regal, sweet, and good looking. Luca inspired strangers to want to pet him. The people who knew better not to pet dogs they didn’t know, would occasionally ask me if they could pet him, and I would almost always oblige. After determining that it was safe, I‘d let the man, woman, or child pet him. I had a working ritual: make Luca sit, have the person crouch down, at the dog’s eye level, and once I knew Luca had that innocent look, I would let the person pet him.

Indeed, Luca was like a therapy dog to some strangers. People would become smitten and kinder as they reached down to pet him saying all sorts of endearing things: “you’re such a gooood boy,” “look at you, you’re so beautiful!” etc. After petting him, they looked more relaxed and left with a huge grin on their faces. I had difficulty with children who ran at full gallop towards him wanting desperately to pet him. In these cases, I acted as a shield between the child and Luca. But I did wonder where the parents were. The with-it parents would encourage the child to ask me first if they could pet Luca, but other parents were either distracted or didn’t realize that dogs can be scared and that when they get scared might respond aggressively. When I politely interceded, the parents would give me this look as if Luca was a monster.

Our dog has also nipped at other dogs and people and this has been a disconcerting (i.e., resource intensive) experience for us. For example, once a yappy pug was taking nips at Luca and I guess he got tired of it and bit him back. The owner, who I imagine was pretty new to dog ownership, thought that our dog was unnecessarily aggressive, and wanted to call the police, then worried if he had all the appropriate shots, etc.. Another time, I was sitting on a bench in front of a bakery, with my head down, hand on leash, texting on my phone, and not paying attention to the people who were walking by, while my wife went inside. Suddenly Luca leapt, barked, and attempted to bite a person who was coming close to me, while I doubled down on my grip on his leash. He was protecting me while I was distracted.

People are not the only unpredictable creatures. Many dogs were also crazy. On several occasions while I was minding my own business and walking Luca, I’ve had dogs unexpectedly run at full speed across a vehicular laden street to attack my dog. I’ve had dogs jump off a porch, run across a front lawn, and attempt to hop off an embankment to attack Luca. All this while dog owners are distracted or didn’t give a darn. Dog parks and dog runs can be especially difficult places to negotiate. For the most part we had great experiences with our dog and the ones that roam the dog parks. He went there, played nice with others, and then we left. However once I took him there at midday when initially there was only another person, both of our dogs, and me. The individual and I struck up a pleasant conversation while we were sitting on the bench while our dogs played nicely. Then, all of a sudden she picked up her dog, and held it close to her body. I wondered what was going on. I quickly turned my head in the direction that she was staring, and in one split second, two mastiffs and their owner, just entered the park within seconds one of them had his jaw firmly clenched on our dog’s ear, with another circling and barking ready for the kill. With my dog yelping, I leapt to my feet, started yelling profanities at the dog and owner who was dressed in camo fatigues. Almost immediately, I started kicking the circling dog in the ribs, and the one that had Luca’s ear. Meanwhile a crowd was forming around the dog park, equally shouting profanities at the dog owner, while he was unsuccessfully attempting to pry the mouth of his dog off Luca’s ear. I was worried that if I pulled my dog I might either have a part of my body ripped off or my dog’s ear too. Within five minutes, the incident was over and I quickly left with Luca with a large gash in his ear. To this day, this incident frequently replays itself in my head, and I suspect that Luca did too.

In general, having a dog in an apartment can be challenging. It’s not the occasional barking, but using the elevator and the closer contact with residents may put you and your dog in uncomfortable situations. Due to “building rules,” we were only allowed to use the freight elevator to bring our dog up and down. In the meantime, one of the three elevators in the building was continuously broken, and many of the residents were not so understanding of the situation. At other times, when people thought we did not know the rules but were told by the doorman that we could use the non-freight elevator or the freight elevator was broken, some residents would get upset with us and remind us about the rules. Alternatively and occasionally there was an aggressive dog that someone had on the elevator at the same time we had ours who attempted to bite him. Likewise it was a real pain or embarrassing when our dog peed in the foyer, or suffered from diarrhea which happened every three months because he ate all manner of discarded detritus on the sidewalk if we weren’t careful, and we had to take him out at least six times a day including at 3 am.

Walking a dog in an urban environment also brings up the question of where is s/he going to pee and shit and where are you going to deposit that kind of refuse. If it’s a big city like New York, then tossing it in a public trash does not present much of a challenge, but if you are in a city with few of these types of receptacles you may be tempted to throw it into someone’s supercan behind their house or down an alley. Fun fact. Many people don’t like dog shit dumped in their supercans. And I can identify with that. If it is during a hot summer, right after the bin has been picked up, then there is a high chance that the excrement is going to increase the possibility that the bin will smell and attract more rodents than usual.

In the end, although dogs can be “man’s best friend,” they are also part of street culture, and extensions of one’s personal style and relationship with the street. I don’t expect every dog owner to have the same experiences I had with ours, but talking with others about their dogs, particularly in big cities, I’ve noted a considerable amount of similarities. Our dog changed in many small ways how I perceive the street, my understanding of people’s relationships with their canines, and my interactions with other people’s pets.

Dedicated to the memory of Luca (April 8, 2006-May 4, 2020), trusted friend, emotional support dog, and part of our family crew