Does your town’s dog culture has you dodging poop bombs in the park and hiding behind cars to avoid rude dogs and their people?
Maybe it’s time to move. Or at least try to grow a good dog culture where you live.
Finding Good Dog Culture
But if your current town’s dog culture has you tearing your hair out, how can you tell if a new neighborhood you’re considering has a good dog culture?
Here are my speculative and absolutely unproven ideas about what to look for.
Diverse Political Opinions
Okay, this is going to take some work. But everything I’ve seen and know about how humans form political opinions seems to fit.
It comes down to “group polarization.” Basically, studies find that when people hang around other people like themselves, their views become more extreme.
Places with lots of liberal people tend to become more extremely liberal. Places with lots of conservative people tend to become more extremely conservative.
What does that have to do with dog culture?
I believe that extremely left leaning communities and extremely right leaning communities both cause problematic dog culture.
Because in this country filled with rhetoric about liberty and freedom, the extreme of political conservatism is libertarianism.
And the extreme of political liberalism is… also libertarianism.
In an extremely conservative area you may meet dog owners who resent anyone telling them what to do with their dog, like spaying her or leaving him home instead of driving him around loose in the back of a pick up truck.
In an extremely liberal area you may meet dog owners who feel leashes are an unjust impingement on their dog’s freedom. And who pardon every one of their dog’s behaviors with the words, “He’s a rescue who came from a really bad situation.”
As if mercy is enough when a dog also needs training and socialization to help him feel more comfortable in a world he never learned to thrive in.
Neither extreme creates a good dog culture.
So if you want a good dog culture, look for communities that have diverse opinions. Because extremes aren’t good for our human culture. They’re also not good for dog culture.
Strong Social Ties
Baltimore used to be famous for its white marble steps in front of townhouses. Every week, you’d see women scrubbing their steps. And you wouldn’t dare leave your steps dirty if your neighbors on both sides cleaned theirs.
Humans like to look good to other humans. It’s true for all of us.
And while social pressure can be a tool of oppression when it goes too far, it’s also helpful.
People bow to subtle pressure to fit in. It works for smoking, lawn maintenance, and child rearing.
It’s also true for creating a good dog culture.
Communities with very little dog waste left behind usually have a mix of signs reminding people to clean up along with just enough judgmental neighbors to make you feel like a jerk for not scooping.
How important is social pressure in encouraging people to do the right thing?
Social pressure can encourage adoption, spay and neuter, poop clean up, obeying leash laws, and more.
So if you can find those neighborhoods showing subtle signs that social pressure works—perhaps window boxes on every house, consistent levels of lawn care, and no stray dog poop, you might have found a place with good dog culture.
Relationship-Based Dog Trainers
I think you can learn a lot about a community by looking at its library.
Ithaca, while having many wonderful features, didn’t have excellent dog culture especially in the library’s dog training section.
They still had many copies of books by old trainers using cruel and outdated methods. And a ton of DVDs by a certain charismatic trainer with his own tv show who hasn’t quite caught up with behavioral science.
But there were signs of change.
I started seeing some excellent books on how dogs learn. Each one had a book-plate inside showing it had been donated by friends and family of someone who had worked at the Cornell Vet School.
And I started hearing about more relationship-based trainers who were well versed in behavioral science and made concern for dogs and their humans the centerpiece of their training.
If I were looking to move to a new place with an excellent dog culture, I’d definitely look for a town with several good trainers.
And preferably, no bad ones.
How To Grow A Good Dog Culture
Okay, let’s assume you’re living somewhere where dog culture isn’t terrible but isn’t great. And you’re not planning to conduct a cross-country search to find a new place with mixed political opinions, the right amount of positive social pressure, and good trainers.
Are there ways you can nudge the dog culture in your home town to improve?
Sure. Because cultures change all the time.
Are you old enough to remember when every restaurant in the United States allowed smoking? How about when your favorite tv stars wrote cigarette commercials right into their comedy shows?
Are you a mom who worked for pay while raising a family whose own mom worked for free raising you?
Heck, do you remember when people thought big hair and mullets were a good look?
So yes, change is possible. And I think you can grow a good dog culture—if you’re patient.
These are a few things I’d try to grow a good dog culture.
Heap Coals, Not Scorn
There’s a biblical proverb that talks about feeding your enemy if she’s hungry and giving her water if she’s thirsty (Proverbs 25:22). If you do so, you are “heaping coals on their head” and God will reward you.
The writer Paul returns to it in the Christian scriptures (Romans 12:20) and follows it with a verse that tells the reader not to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good.
I won’t judge the theology. But psychologically, it’s good advice.
My experience is that when I scream at a thoughtless dog person because they’re not controlling their rude dog on leash, things just escalate. I’ve never once convinced anyone to see my point of view by yelling at them.
And sarcasm doesn’t work so great either.
How about if you try heaping coals of kindness on the heads of clueless dog people?
Express concern that their reactive dog is afraid and doesn’t have to be. Or that your reactive dog could cause damage because their “friendly” dog isn’t under control.
If your only concern during a bad encounter with rude dog people is to get your dog away to safety, try to follow up later with a nice note (if you know the person and where they live).
Post something on your neighborhood’s Facebook group. And don’t forget that some people still read newspapers.
A kind and thoughtfully worded letter to the editor advocating for responsible dog care might have a bigger impact than you’d expect.
People who know they have dog issues look for answers. Can you help push the answers in a direction that will encourage a better dog culture instead of a worse one?
I wrote above about how some dog books in the Ithaca library contributed to a poor dog culture. But it’s also a good place to build a better dog culture.
When I borrowed dog books from the library, I used the business cards for some excellent local trainers as bookmarks. If I forgot to remove them when I returned the book? Oh well, maybe they’d help someone else.
Most circulation librarians want to hear what kinds of books their patrons want. See if your library has a method for requesting new books and DVDs for their collection. Then start asking for the best dog training books and DVDs you can find.
No one wants to stand alone when it feels like you’re the only person cleaning up after your dog or the only person who cares about your dog’s safety.
But you never are. There’s always someone out there, probably not far away, who agrees with you. And who would be a good ally.
You might find them volunteering at your local shelter or rescue. Or starting a meet-up group for local dog lovers who share your concerns.
Because one person petitioning the parks department for enforcement of leash laws won’t get much attention. But a group of ten people who share your concerns just might.
Be A Good Example
People are impressed by well-trained dogs.
I can’t tell you how many compliments we get when I stop to talk to a stranger and silently signal to Honey to sit or lie down.
And if it leads to them saying, “My dog would never do that,” maybe you can share what you did that might help them.
Oh, full disclosure? I’ve never had anyone who visits our home compliment Honey on her excellent behavior. I have yet to figure out how to keep her from bouncing off the walls in excitement when anyone visits.
But out in public? She’s grand.
Okay, let’s get to my last suggestion for helping to promote a good dog culture.
Talk To People In Ways They Can Hear
One reason that Bernie Sanders appears to get more support from people who consider themselves Republicans than Hillary Clinton does is that he uses one word a lot: fairness.
Social psychologists (and successful Tea Party candidates) know that conservative people want to know that hard work will be rewarded. It’s an issue of fairness.
So fairness is a concept that speaks to both liberals and conservatives even if they apply it in different ways. And it’s a powerful word.
If you can figure out what words speak to people who encourage a bad dog culture, you’ll communicate more clearly than if you only use words that speak to you.
Yep, empathy is grand.
Listen to people you think contribute to a poor dog culture. What are their concerns?
Do they claim their choices are good for their dogs? That they can’t do anything else? That their dog is too damaged?
Echo their words back to them when you share your concerns.
And don’t forget to listen. Because even people you disagree with may have some wisdom you can learn from.
Don’t Feed A Bad Dog Culture
Can you tell that the toxic political atmosphere in this country has influenced my thoughts on dog culture?
But I think some of the things that happen in politics are the same ones that create tensions between different people who love and live with dogs.
The social psychologists would tell you about demonization (assuming that someone who disagrees with you does it because they have bad motives) and sacralization (making one issue so important that it colors your views in all areas).
I think that dogs being often left in hot cars is a sign of bad dog culture.
But demonizing people who do it doesn’t help dogs and doesn’t improve the dog culture. In truth, screaming at someone who does it or smashing their car window in a non-emergency situation confirms to them that you’re insane and they couldn’t possibly be doing anything wrong.
Maybe the first step in creating a good dog culture is recognizing that people live with dogs because they love them. And speaking to that love (or fear of loss) when we’re trying to change things.
Because the enemy of good dog culture isn’t other dog lovers.
If you are as intrigued as I am about how to talk to people you disagree with, listen to Bill Moyers interview social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt.
Your Turn: Have you ever tried to nudge a place’s dog culture in a positive direction? What did you do?