Pleasure vs. Danger

"The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety." 
— Goethe 


Bark magazine

Looks like fun: The Bark Magazine (cover photo by Clever Barbosa, B2CFotos).

If I had to pick a phrase from the dog subculture that I really dislike (besides "micro dog") it would be "responsible dog ownership." What a killjoy expression. When your dogs look at you with affection, excitement, or yearning — their dinner-is-coming gaze usually combines all three — does the thought "they love me because I'm so responsible" cross your mind? Me neither. Although it's true, a responsible dog person generally feeds her dogs dinner.

Harping on responsibility seems to be habitual on websites, in municipal governments, and within veterinary associations. My inbox is filled with headings like 'Stop Now If You're Feeding Your Dog Any of These Foods,' 'If Your Dog Bites Someone, Take Action Immediately,' 'Teach Your Dog Good Manners,' etc.  There's at least twenty of these for every 'What Is Your Favourite Way of Spending Time With Your Dog?' type of article.

I'll confess up front that I don't meet each and every responsible pet ownership requirement cited by the American Veterinary Medical Association. I'd tell you where I fall down, but just reviewing the list gives me a tired, disheartened, you're-missing-the-point feeling. And I worry I'll be judged for my supposed failures (as well as for the cavalier attitude I'm adopting in this post).

As a human companion to Mim, my first dog, there was much about me that could be deemed irresponsible. I had no idea what I was doing, and it didn't worry me, or anybody else, that I knew of. Tabula rasa and all that. Everything Mim did was fine with me, whether she dragged her head along the sidewalk to rip off her halti, ate a stick or ten too many, or bit my father's fingers extra hard when he gave her a treat.

I thought everything I did with Mim was fine, too (Mim herself seemed more critical, and often cast contemptuous looks my way). I made her wear a halti, fed her raisins from my muffins, and got only a little ticked off when she bit my fingers extra hard.

Mim is dead now, not from a raisin overdose, and I know much more about the evils of head harnesses and how to gentle treat-taking. I miss her, as well as those more relaxed, if ignorant, days.

Maybe it was nostalgia for such carefree times that impelled me to buy The Bark Magazine last summer. Its cover sported a happy dog playing with a coconut on a beach, promising "Dog Summer Fun & Games."

Mae at the beach

Mae, having fun (no doubt safely and responsibly) at the beach. Photo by Sean Howard,

I flipped to the "Playlist" inside. It started with a long list of safety tips that began with the proviso "We know we don't have to tell you this, but ..."  So why do they? Is it to avoid being inundated with letters warning, say, of the dangers of hyponatremia, aka water intoxication, which was mentioned in almost every article on dogs disporting in water that I read last year? Only three of Bark's seven ways to "carpe the summer diem" were straightforward how-to-have-fun suggestions; others were along the line  of 'Plan a toxin-free and dog-friendly landscape' or 'Sign up for summer school,' or contained yet more safety warnings. It did not strike me as day-at-the-beach-with-a-coconut material.

Most canines I know are a lot like the dog on the cover of The Bark: highly energetic, inventive, hilarious, overly fond of food and drink, and sometimes, though rarely, despondent. I want to have as much fun as possible with them, for as long as possible, without raining on anyone else's parade. I'm willing to devote, say, twenty per cent of my attention to safety/ responsibility issues, with 80 per cent going to joy. Is the inverse pleasure/ danger ratio used in so much media coverage of canines necessary? Isn't the 'don't make this mistake' tone more off-putting than appealing?  


Harvey at the beach

Harvey also risks playing at the beach, probably without sunscreen. Photo by Joy Gough.

It's a bit more understandable that safety is priority number one for municipal governments. But still, Toronto the Good is one of the wettest of wet blankets on the subject.  Recently the City undertook a "Review of Dog Behaviour and Responsible Dog Ownership." The City's survey focused on people's negative experiences with dogs. Though most respondents seemed more upset by unscooped poop than vicious dog bites, the focus of the City — and the media headlines — seemed to be all about 'dangerous dogs' and 'irresponsible owners.'

As a point of comparison, I checked out the rhetorical tone of the City's on-line parenting info. Parenting is cast as a rewarding job, with an emphasis on the wellness of the child and how to build positive relationships. Hmm. Had the dog survey used a wellness/ relationship lens, as well as the safety/ responsibility one, perhaps we would have had an emphasis on the need for more off-leash areas (T.O. has 60, out of 1,500 parks, last time I looked), in addition to the proposals for steeper fines and escalating penalties.

Unhappily, safety and responsibility issues overshadow almost every public discussion of dog-human relationships, even the day-at-the-beach ones. How fun is that?


Despite this post's 'it-could-be-more-fun' commentary, I'm a fan of The Bark:

For a list of what not to feed your dog, including raisins:

The American Veterinary Medical Association on responsibility: Responsible Pet Ownership

Toronto's  summary of their survey:
Survey Summary - Responsible Dog Ownership Review
Toronto's Report

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