I think it might just be the greatest heresy of our times to utter: I really don’t like dogs. I suppose I should qualify that quickly by saying that I probably dislike their selfish, entitled and careless owners more than their precious pooches. There’s a great tribal divide between people who like cats or dogs (and the narrow band who have both) and as the owner (or rather, property) of an elderly tom cat called Morris, you know fine well which side of the divide I occupy.
About a month ago, after a long hiatus, I took up running again. I used to do it pretty assiduously in my early to mid-twenties and then let myself slide into sedentariness. Not quite, I’ve always been a keen walker, but then I also used to go hill-walking as well, and life in a largely flat town is not quite testing my body as much as running can, so I’ve taken it back up. I hate running on roads because 1). there’s cars and bikes to contend with 2). the hard surface really isn’t good for your joints in the long run (no pun).
Ideally I want to run somewhere quite wild, with a varying surface and no people or dogs. Unfortunately in Northumberland, no such place exists. Plenty wild places with nicely textured ground, but with that comes droves of the dog brigade. Yes, I accept I’m a misanthrope, I just don’t like being where there are too many people. My latent somewhere-at-the-shallow-end-of-the-spectrum autism doesn’t deal well with having to continually judge whether or not I should say ‘Hi’ to a stranger I pass, because if they look down their nose at / snub me (as they often do) I burn with anger for the rest of my run.
But this is nothing compared to the army of dog owners that seem to be everywhere at any time. Having been brought up in Warkworth, I know there’s a really good mile-long stretch of track that runs behind the dunes at the beach, and if I run along it and then along the breakwater and then back again, it means I’ve been running continuously for 30 minutes. Let me stress here that I am not out to prove anything, running (or jogging) is a personal thing and has nothing to do with competitiveness for me. I like my sports without any element of sport in them, there are just too many show-offs in the world as it is. (As an aside, have you noticed in recent years how everyone seems to try to overtake everyone else in the street, or walking up stairs? Where did that come from, is walking now an Olympic sport – you can see some people clearly struggling to walk so fast, but they seem out to prove something?)
Anyway, if I go out along this track, it’s guaranteed I’ll encounter dogs. I’ll admit that most dogs seem better trained now than when I first started going out running. Back then it was an almost monthly occurrence that you got chased or attacked by a dog. Still, none of the dogs I see are on leads, and I just don’t trust them at all – no amount of protestations from the owner that ‘Fido wouldn’t hurt a fly’ will convince me. I passed a couple once who must have been professional dog walkers, because they had a pack of Dalmatians and Huskies – easily enough to pull a sled with Cruella de Vil on-board. One said to the other in audibly hushed tones ‘Watch out, there’s a slow runner coming’. That little judgemental pre-modifier was a nice touch, I thought. (Another aside, when did we all become such self-righteous health fascists as a nation? It’s not enough to exercise, you have to do it to a certain competitive standard, and with the right gear etc…?)
I hate stopping once I’ve started running – it’s hard to get the momentum back, but it’s also impossible to get past some dogs that all of a sudden decide to stop at a scent directly in front of you. Of course there’s the dog shit which is still a veritable pandemic – despite the doggy bags that you often see strewn in the fences and way-sides. Dare to mention to a dog walker that they are littering and you’ll get an angry response that they are picking the shit up on the way back. Weeks later, the same bag is still there… My mother is a guerrilla warrior against dog fouling – when an owner let’s their dog defile the path outside my mother’s house, she writes something choice in huge chalk letters on the path to make her feelings known.
Naturally there are responsible owners and bad owners but the main problem is there are simply far too many of both. As a nation we seem to have bypassed all common sense when it comes to dogs, a collective hysteria about canines. We seem to have used them as some sort of shorthand or semaphore for individuality and self-expression. I recall when pubs and restaurants and shops banned dogs, you’d see them tethered outside. Nowadays, they often seem more welcome than non-dog owning people in these establishments. Go to any pub in a popular area and dogs will outnumber people, with the staff simpering over them with treats (seldom washing their hands afterwards). Here’s an example – my mother and I recently went in a pub/restaurant in Alnwick and found there was only one table left, we sat down and almost immediately a dog appeared from underneath the table next door. It upset my mother, and while it was not badly behaved, it reeked to high heaven. There was no way we could have gone on to eat food, so we asked if we could change table to a place across the room that had just been vacated. The staff did not seem happy. Tough.
There’s the assumption that all people love dogs – that even non-dog-owners are moved into a frenzy of genuflection at their very presence. I hate being pressured into giving them any attention by their on-looking owners, often as they rub frothy slobber against my jeans.
My mother was mauled by a dog as a girl (I’ve been bitten twice, though not seriously – only once did one puncture my skin) and she has a pathological phobia of all dogs as a result. People think she’s overreacting when she’s sometimes reduced to a tearful wreck after a dog has playfully jumped up at her. Even if the dog means no harm, the owner should never let it get that far. I know this blog won’t win me any friends, but it’s about time we had a dissenting voice in this tsunami of adoration for dogs. Places like beaches are not the personal fiefdom of dog-walkers, nor are they toilets for their pets.