An open letter to dog owners

This post has been brought to you by the behavior of a very large dog at the post office today.


Dear Dog Owners of America:

Please train your dogs.

To those of you who actually do, I say, thank you! I appreciate your effort, and your dogs are probably lovely creatures. Unfortunately, you are in the minority, and the other dog-owners and their pets are making you look bad.

It used to be that whenever the Great Pet Debate came up — dogs vs. cats — I found myself wondering, why don’t I like dogs more? After all, the qualities ascribed to them sound great. I liked Platonic Dogs very well, but Actual Dogs much less, and I didn’t know why.

Then I realized that was because the majority of the Actual Dogs I meet are badly behaved.

They bark. They bite. They chew on stuff. They jump on anything and anyone they can get near. No, their “enthusiasm” is not adorable. In small dogs, it’s annoying; in large dogs, it can be outright dangerous. You know what’s adorable? A dog who knows how to express his enthusiasm in a socially acceptable fashion. Which is to say, a dog who is trained.

And no, a dog who brings the ball back when you’re playing fetch and sits (sometimes) on command is not “trained.” If you have to drag your dog down off the counter of the post office, your dog is badly trained and badly behaved. If he barks for a minute straight every time the doorbell rings, he is badly trained and badly behaved. If you have to bribe him with treats to get peace and quiet during dinner, he is badly trained and badly behaved. If he draws blood through my clothing because he tried to jump on me and his claws went raking down my thigh, he is badly trained and badly behaved.

A well-trained dog is one who knows how to behave like a civilized member of society.

I have met far too few of them in my life.

So please. For the love of god. Train your dog. Teach him when it is and is not okay to bark. Teach him to show enthusiasm with tail-wagging and jumping in place, not on people. Do not reward his bad behavior by giving him commands and then, when he ignores them, rewarding him with whatever it was he wanted. You owe it to your dog to be consistent, to give him a framework within which he can operate and be happy. And the rest of us would appreciate it very much.

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38 Responses to “An open letter to dog owners”

  1. martianmooncrab

    and please keep them on leashes in public, and pick up their business too!

    • Marie Brennan

      Someone theorized to me recently that leash laws have contributed to the problem, because people rely on the leashes to keep their dogs in check, rather than teaching the dogs to behave without them. I imagine the net effect of those laws has been good (fewer dogs running completely amok), but I can see how it might make the average dog more of a problem child, by making the owner lazy.

      • mastadge

        As the owner of a well-behaved dog and a member of a family with many poorly-behaved dogs, I don’t think that leash law theory is terribly sound. An ill-behaved dog on a leash is a horror for a dog-walker — dogs need training to behave on a leash, too.

        • Marie Brennan

          True — but the leash provides a minimal safety net, and I do think some people rely too heavily on it, in ways they couldn’t get away with otherwise. So they end up with badly-behaved dogs on a tether, which is still not a solution.

          I wish more owners were like you.

          • green_knight

            Having been around plenty of farm dogs, I can safely say that people who don’t feel they need to train their dogs don’t feel a need to train their dogs. It’s like saying that seat belts make people take more risks when driving: you might get the odd outlier for whom that is true, but overall safety improves greatly.

        • brooksmoses

          From what I have seen, it seems like this varies notably with size of dog. An ill-behaved cat-sized dog on an extensible leash — and there are a few of such dogs around here — seems to be a fairly minor impediment to a dog-walker.

      • green_knight

        Thinking about the last comment I made: the existence of indoor crates which mean that you don’t have to deal with consequences of your dog’s lack of manners unless you feel like it is probably a much greater contributor.

        • Marie Brennan

          I dunno — the families I’ve known who have indoor crates pretty much only use them at night or when they’re leaving the house for a while, to keep the dog from wandering around loose. They don’t use them as a way of not dealing with the dog when they’re present and awake.

          • green_knight

            I’m sure some people use them responsibly. But this is partly triggered by reading somebody’s blog which features *a lot* of ‘and then I put dog in crate’ very casually when going about their day: when feeding the other dogs, when weeding the garden, when working upstairs in the office, when going out, overnight… and maybe it’s giving the wrong impression, but the blogger has also complained about the dog not lieing quietly in the same room when they are working, thus making the crating necessary.
            Which puzzled me, because I am used to dogs, when your attention is elsewhere, doing their own thing – they might play, sleep, wander around, occasionally check in to see what you’re doing and whether you’re up for a walk/some play, and then walk off again. That, to me, is ‘living with a dog’. (And yes, occasionally you go ‘the dog has been very quiet, what are they up to?’)

            And I can see how it will be very, very difficult to maintain a threshhold once you *have* a crate: just what is a situation that warrants crating the dog? Every time you leave the house? Leaving the house for an hour or more? Doing something where you absolutely cannot be disturbed and where you will not have attention left over for your dog should your dog do something destructive in another room?

            But here’s the thing. If somebody crates a dog overnight and crates the dog when they’re going out to work (even if someone walks the dog at lunchtime) then that dog is going to spend sixteen out of twenty-four hours in a place they can just about turn around in.

            And you wonder at meeting badly-socialized dogs?

          • Marie Brennan

            I don’t wonder at it. I’m just annoyed by it. πŸ˜›

    • marycatelli

      When I was working in downtown Harttord, there was a woman who would walk her whippet by one window where I often sat. Off a leash — but it was never more than a foot from her, even though it might be in any direction.

      A very well behaved whippet.

      Anything less than that, leash it.

      • Marie Brennan

        The really good ones will pace alongside their owners, stopping and starting whenever the human does, always in the same position.

        That’s more than you likely need for your average household pet, but it’s still a good thing to aspire to.

  2. dorianegray

    And while you’re at it, for heaven’s sake clean up after your pooch. Leaving crap on the footpath is disgusting.

    • Marie Brennan

      Where I live, there are pretty stringent laws about that kind of thing. But that isn’t true everywhere.

      • dorianegray

        There are laws here, but unfortunately unless the offender is actually caught by a litter warden, they get away with it. And there are not enough litter wardens.

  3. lindenfoxcub

    I’m so with you. I’ve had dogs, and we never put up with BS from them – they were well trained and well behaved. The one knew what rooms he was not allowed to enter in the house, and would stand with the claws touching the edge of the carpet and go no further. He would bark at the doorbell, but only once or twice, and we probably could have trained that out of him if we’d wanted to – but having an alert when someone’s at the door is one of the luxuries of having a dog – safety thing. He was great with kids, and never jumped on them.

    I’ve been attacked by dogs on and off leash, once with the owner standing right there, not calling the dog back, but yelling at me to stop kicking dog/defending myself as the dog snapped at my shins.

    • Marie Brennan

      Reminds me of a friend’s golden retriever, who knew she wasn’t allowed in the kitchen. She would lie down in the doorway with her paws at the verrrrry edge. While you weren’t looking, a paw might slip over. Then she’d inch forward. Eventually you’d notice there was a quarter of a dog in the kitchen, and you’d say her name, and she would scoot back to where she belonged.

      That? Is genuinely cute. πŸ™‚

      A bark or two at the doorbell is fine. (Where I’m living right now, it would be outright helpful, since the doorbell is anemic and difficult to hear from upstairs.) A bark or two to say “I need to go outside” or whatever is also fine. Constant barking to say “I want attention I want attention I want attention”? Is not fine.

      The owner who yelled at you . . . yeah. Such people have their priorities extremely messed up.

      • lindenfoxcub

        I also have a friend who has some kind of cross between a rottweiler and likely a lab. The dog is huge, and was terribly behaved when they got it, because of poor training from the previous owner (dog was inherited from the boyfriend’s mother.) They’ve improved his behavior massively – he’s quite a good dog now for the most part, but he’s also one of those dogs that, while he wants very very badly to please his owners, he’s actually genuinely dumb. He does what he’s told, and fairly quickly, but the moment he gets excited, he forgets. Then when he gets yelled at, you can tell he feels terrible for forgetting.

        At least he doesn’t jump on people anymore though – he’s over the most crucial stuff. It’s mostly walking and he sees a rabbit and runs off after it, nearly tearing my friend’s leash arm off. And even that’s gotten better. They had to get a muzzle for him, not because he was vicious, but because it gave them more control over his head to pull him up faster. They don’t need to use it anymore though, he’s improved that much. Eventually I think they’ll have him at a point where he forgets less.

        Some dogs certainly are harder to train than others, but not near so many as there are dogs who just aren’t trained at all, and if you have one of those dogs that’s hard to train, you *really* need to work at it. Training is part of having a dog, as much as feeding it and letting it out to pee.

        • Marie Brennan

          Some dogs certainly are harder to train than others, but not near so many as there are dogs who just aren’t trained at all

          Exactly. And mad props to your friend for putting in the effort to reform the dog — it’s all the harder when they didn’t get it young, and grew accustomed to bad habits.

  4. krazykitty529

    Just saw this on the LJ homepage and am so happy I’m not the only one who feels this way. What’s frustrating is people think there’s something wrong with me not liking a dog to jump on me and lick me…there’s a time and place for that.

    • Marie Brennan

      Welcome! It’s always good to know you’ve got company, yeah.

      Being greeted like that by a dog is sort of like being hugged. Some people like hugs, and welcome them from pretty much anybody they know. Others don’t. Would it be polite to throw yourself at everybody, assuming that surely they’ll be glad to get a hug? Not remotely.

    • shveta_thakrar

      What’s frustrating is people think there’s something wrong with me not liking a dog to jump on me and lick me

      I’m with you. What I don’t get is why that’s so hard for some dog owners to understand!

  5. blairmacg

    Absolute agreement here, from a household with a massive Lab and a mid-size Staffy-Boxer-Rottweiler mix. My son trained both dogs through 4H and, after being in the midst of up to 200 trained dogs at the State Fair, it’s always jarring to be around dogs whose owners haven’t given them the needed time and attention.

    I’ve had rounds with my neighbor, who walks her dog on one of those extension leashes that lets the dogs run its full length. She was ticked my dogs were barking at her dog. I did point out that her dog was charging around in the middle of my yard at the time, completely out of control, while my dogs went back to the porch on command, but she didn’t consider that relevant.

  6. spiffikins

    I don’t have a dog – mostly because I’m at work all day and I can’t imagine leaving a dog alone all day, much less *crated* all day long like I’ve read other people do!

    My pet peeve is people who drive in their cars with their dog on their laps in the driver’s seat. You would NEVER sit your infant or toddler on your lap while you drive – what makes you think having the damn dog hanging half out the window is a good idea? Especially after reading one blogger who reported being in a car crash, and admitting that her dog on her lap distracted her at a crucial moment – thank GOD she didn’t kill or injure anyone else!

    I also agree dogs should be on short leashes. My boss had 2 dogs that he would bring to the office – they had things they did that were not things I would have allowed, but they followed him around like they were attached – I called them his velcro dogs. And – if they were in the office and I had to go out to check the mail, I had no qualms at all about saying to them ‘boys, let’s go check the mail’ – and they’d happily follow me out of the office, down the stairs and outside – and I had ZERO worries that they’d take off on me. They stayed close, sniffed around in the grass and would come immediately when called.

    Sadly neither of those dogs are still around – and his new dogs – I love them, they’re cute – but I wouldn’t take them ANYWHERE without a leash – I don’t have the confidence that they’d come back to *me* when called.

    • green_knight

      much less *crated* all day long

      Crates seem to be mainly an American thing, from what I can tell, and they puzzle me. Over here, the only reason most people would crate a dog would be if he is injured and must not move other than under supervision. Other than that, you’d shut a puppy overnight (and for short periods) in a place like the kitchen or the basement or the mud room where there isn’t much to destroy and the floor is wipeable; some people’s dogs spend the night in dedicated rooms, others are shut out of the bedroom or have free run of the house… and the dog is expected to behave, not destroy anything, and complain when he needs to go out.

      Then again, I wonder whether crates are indoor extentions of kennels. I’ve seen *that* happen, though not recently: the dog is allowed inside as long as he behaves or unless the owner gets tired of it, after which he is shut into the kennel again until the next time the owner feels like interacting with them. And those were badly behaved dogs, no surprises there. (My partner tells the story of someone local who got a ‘big, nasty Alsatian’ and kept him chained in the yard. One day a burglar came… and took the dog.)

      • Marie Brennan

        There’s a reason I specifically addressed my post to the Dog Owners of America; I don’t have enough experience of dogs in other countries, much less how their owners handle them, to speak to that topic.

        I’m sure there are people who use crates in exactly that way. I’ve definitely known people to stick their dogs in the back yard for extended periods of time, though not necessarily in a kennel.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, the dog in the car is a disaster of a whole different sort. I’ve also seen people driving with their dogs loose in the bed of a pickup, which is pretty much going to translate to a dead dog if anything goes wrong.

  7. Anonymous

    I’m going to gently disagree on one thing:

    I have no problem with the dog that keeps barking at the door until the human Alpha is there, even if that takes a minute or two. That’s what they’re supposed to do for the pack: Maintain guard until Alpha determines that the potential danger is past. That’s not the same thing as growl at and menace a courier (missionaries… go right ahead), especially if the dog shuts up when Alpha is at the door.

    The other objections I agree with. Of course, much of the time the problem is that the owner hasn’t been trained!

    • Marie Brennan

      I also think there’s a difference between “I will bark to alert you that there’s somebody here” and “I will utterly lose my shit the minute anybody shows up.”

  8. tiamat360

    i absolutely agree that there are many people who have not adequately trained their dogs to behave in public.* it is sad, because dogs are trainable (though obviously how easily they can be trained varies from dog to dog).

    …i would like to contrast this to my impression of cats, which is that they will do one of several things: run away immediately. bite you (including your face). let you pet them for a bit before biting or clawing you. very, very rarely will they actually seem to enjoy attention from you and not hurt you for it. and unlike dogs, i don’t think the owners can do anything about this :(.

    *and seriously screw people who don’t pick up their dog’s poop. that requires no ability or training whatsoever on the part of the owner, just a willingness to make the world less gross for other people.

    • Marie Brennan

      very, very rarely will they actually seem to enjoy attention from you and not hurt you for it.

      . . . it sounds like you’ve known a lot of very badly-socialized cats. They can’t be “trained” in the way that dogs can, but they can absolutely be socialized to interact with humans in a better manner than that. I can count on one hand the number of pet cats I’ve met (as opposed to feral) who will really lash out; most will only do it if a human has made it difficult-to-impossible to run away.

      To be fair, really interacting well with any animal is made easier if you understand the physical language of that animal. I can make friends with cats who will run away from most people because I speak Cat. I recognize that I don’t speak Dog very well; my husband does it much better.

      • teleidoplex

        Ditto on the poorly-socialized cat thing. One of the things I appreciate about shelter kittens from our local humane society is that they don’t adopt them out too early, and they _do_ go to great effort to socialize them with other cats and with people. I’ve always had pretty sociable cats, but the cat I have now is extra friendly and playful (he’s curled up next to my thigh right now – his usual spot when I’m surfing the internet). I ascribe his friendliness to the early socialization he received at the shelter.

  9. akirlu

    I’m going to suggest that it’s not actually the majority of the dogs you see that are badly behaved, but the majority of the dogs that you *notice* and that what you’re reporting is an observer bias. Yes, there absolutely are dogs that behave badly and owners who are remiss for letting them get that way, but the thing about well-behaved dogs is that you’re less likely to notice them. And certainly the more I’ve learned about dogs and dog behavior and communications, the more I am in awe of their incredible forbearance in the face of constant, unrelenting provocations from human beings. So many of the things that human beings are completely casual about doing to dogs — staring, walking in a straight line toward them, putting our hands and arms over their backs, leaning over them — are fundamentally aggressive behaviors in the dog lexicon. If most dogs were badly behaved, we couldn’t keep them.

    • Anonymous

      I have to agree with this, the majority of badly behaved dogs are the most visible and memorable population of dogs you run into and a LOT of this could be prevented or ameliorated by having any knowledge on both parties (outsider and owner) of how to work with your dog.
      The amount of information that is sheer BULLSHIT about working with dogs is astounding, along with the kind of nonsense you get when you hear someone talking about training their labrador retriever or golden and assuming that training a beagle or greyhound is the same. The breeds ARE different in how they react to stimuli and so it’s harder to train some than others. However, everyone who tells people it’s the same means you get people stuck trying to keep their beagle’s attention for longer than five minutes when they have NO IDEA what they’re doing.
      I greatly disagree with a number of points in this post because the primary problem isn’t -lack of training- it’s -lack of information-. Many of these issues – not all, because God knows door manners are exhausting to teach – can be ameliorated by explaining IN SIMPLE TERMS basic loose-leash walking. NOT HEELING.
      They’ll also be helped if people GREET DOGS PROPERLY. That is the number one thing that aggravates my sister’s dog, because people – ESPECIALLY DOG PEOPLE – DO NOT LISTEN OR ASK.
      The state of “most dogs” nowadays is a problem best solved by people actually HELPING EACH OTHER rather than posting negative things like this that remind people already exhausted by their dogs and, likely, family life and work too, that they’re failures.

      • Marie Brennan

        I greatly disagree with a number of points in this post because the primary problem isn’t -lack of training- it’s -lack of information-.

        Actually, I think the primary problem is the lack of will to do it right. I believe you that there’s a lot of misinformation out there, but I also know how many friends and family members I’ve seen not really bother in the first place. And with strangers, their response to their dog’s bad behavior is often to laugh it off as “cute.”

        They’ll also be helped if people GREET DOGS PROPERLY.

        My method of greeting a dog is to stay the hell away if I can, but if the dog comes up to me, try to offer my hand to sniff. Sadly, this does not save me most of the time.

        The state of “most dogs” nowadays is a problem best solved by people actually HELPING EACH OTHER rather than posting negative things like this that remind people already exhausted by their dogs and, likely, family life and work too, that they’re failures.

        This seems to have hit a sore spot for you, and I’m sorry for that.

    • Marie Brennan

      Actually, since I had this particular realization, I’ve paid more attention. I notice the well-behaved dogs now, in a way that I didn’t before — and I have reasonable certainty that for the majority of the dogs I meet, their training mostly ended with teaching them to wait to do their business until they’re outside. In particular, it seems like vanishingly few of them have been taught not to jump on people — and that includes the big dogs, who really need to learn it.

      I agree that some of this can be mitigated by behaving properly toward dogs. But given that my default behavior toward them is “ignore them and stay away from them,” I don’t think that’s the root of the problem here. They’re the ones throwing themselves at me, not the other way around. In fact, very few of the behaviors that bother me the most are a response to aggression (except insofar as entering their territory is “aggressive”).

      If most dogs were badly behaved, we couldn’t keep them.

      Only if the threshold for calling it “bad behavior” is high enough. What I see is a high tolerance for behavior that I think can and should be trained away.

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