Saturday, May 31, 2014

Outlaw Dog Owners And The Psychopathology Of Everyday Life

Before going any further, I have to disclose that I have my own biases about dogs.  In grade school a weimaraner ran up and chomped directly into the side of one of my friends, just below his rib cage.  In another incident an allegedly friendly cocker spaniel leapt up and tore into the throat of another friend as he was bending over to pet him.  Luckily major vessels were missed but it took 80 stitches to close the wound in his neck just below the chin.  I was constantly harassed on my way to school by a dog named Spot.  Spot was a solid black dog, so the name never made any sense to me.  I only had about 6 blocks to walk, but on block 2, Spot would come tearing out of the back yard.   He was menacing, threatening, and attempting to bite.  I didn't think of it at the time, but Spot's owners often just sat on the front porch pretending to be oblivious to their dog's uncontrolled behavior. At times they would utter an unethusiastic: "Here Spot."  But some of my fellow pedestrians took a more aggressive stance with Spot.  I heard that he was kicked and thrashed with a belt.  I was a nervous and wildly neurotic kid so I immediately took a parallel route to avoid Spot.  I avoided him by blocks.  I was probably in the third grade at the time.  Thus began my life long observations about dogs, dog owners, and their relationship to other people.

Over the intervening decades I have encountered exactly one dog owner who was able to utter the warning: "No - be careful - he bites."  The others usually walk by pretending that nothing is happening as their dog strains to the limits of the leash trying to bite me.  So that is exactly one dog owner with an honest warning as opposed to the tens of thousands who depend on their ability to restrain the dog and protect its reputation?  Help me out here.  Why are dog owners unable to level with people about their dog's real nature?  Would a dog with poorly controlled behavior sully the reputation of the family?

The aggressive nature of dogs should be considered natural instinct.  My scariest incident occurred when I was out cycling one day.  I was out in the country, cycling past farms and silos on a two lane blacktop road with no shoulder.  I had just come up a long hill and was recovering and just starting to pick up speed.  Suddenly I heard four paws hitting the pavement in a rhythmic and rapid manner.  I looked over my shoulder and saw a dog closing in on me.  I recognized the breed immediately but will not type it here.  I have seen the public outcry when dog breeds are named in attack situations and want to avoid that scandal.  I was faced with a very muscular dog torpedo heading right at me.  I was well schooled in what to do about dog attacks having read about it in the cycling literature for decades.  After a fast calculation (fatigue level, strength and conditioning, road surface, incline, current gear, weather conditions)  I decided I could outrun him and after about a quarter of a mile - I did.  I guess even an irrational attacking dog can decide when to give up as the quarry fades on the horizon.

 Humans may be somewhat grandiose in what domestication has accomplished.  Most people saw the recent YouTube video of the dog attack on a toddler and the dog being repelled by the family cat.  What exactly do you think that dog was trying to do?  I have no doubt, but realize that it is too awful for the modern dog owner to contemplate.  Robert Service wrote about it in his poem "The Parson's Son" but I won't quote or link to it from here and encourage only those who can tolerate violent imagery to look it up.  It would be offensive to most dog owners today, many of whom seem to view their dog as a member of the human family.  

Dogs frequently make the news for any number of reasons such as dog attacks, dog abuse,  neglect, and illegal dog fighting but the owners get less press.  Living in the suburbs has provided fertile ground for observing dogs and their owners.  Over half of everybody in my neighborhood owns at least one dog.  Some people own more than two.  In the town where I live there is a leash law and a law that you must pick up your dogs fecal material and dispose of it properly.  Easily half of the dog owners do neither.  The city provides bags and receptacles for collecting this material and places it conveniently at the start of the trail.    The police apparently don't care unless they catch the dog in the act.  Since they are never around there is no chance that will happen.  That has led some of the dog owners to develop somewhat of an outlaw attitude.  That would be exemplified in the following confrontation by a property owner (PO) witnessing a dog defecating on his lawn.  Response by the dog owner are designated (DO).

PO:  "I hope you are going to pick that up."
DO:  "Why it isn't your property."  (The area in question is ten feet from his front door).
PO:  "Actually it is.  What makes you think it is not my front yard."
DO:  "This is the easement and there is supposed to be a public sidewalk here".  (There are no public sidewalks for miles and no easements in the neighborhood).
PO:  "So you do need to pick that up."
DO:  "Well I am not going to."
PO:   "Why not?"
DO:  "Because you're an asshole."

To recap, we have a dog owner here in clear violation of the dog ordinance arguing that the ordinance and property rights can be ignored.  When that argument did not carry the day, an ad hominem attack was initiated.  Clearly at least some dog owners have a strong motivation for their irrational behavior.

A Medline search of dog ownership turned up no references on the rogue behavior of dog owners.  There was research on how dogs affect the physical activity of their owners, the impact of dogs on he immune status of family members at home and even research on the problematic behavior of dogs and how to approach that.  Nothing on the problematic behavior of dog owners.  If there is none, it should be done and I would be very interested in the results.  I am not doubting the positive effects of companionship, the health effects, or the roles of dogs in specific areas of service.  I am more focused on the associated behavior of humans who not only readily dismiss some of the legal responsibilities of dog ownership and expose members of the public who have entirely different experiences with dogs than they do, but also in some situations put dogs at risk.  We are all familiar with the Humane Society ads focusing on neglected and abandoned pets.  The stories about large numbers of neglected dogs are also regular local news fare.  Do those situations result from an unrealistic view of dogs and a serious overestimate about how many dogs one can care for in the first place?  What leads to that bias?

What can be done about the problem?  It seems like a good question for research.  I have seen at least one municipality that does DNA testing of fecal material and compares those results against a mandatory database of DNA samples obtained at the time of licensing.  That level of enforcement seems a bit drastic but compliance with the law seems so low it also makes sense.  Why is it so hard to follow a basic ordinance?  Is the decision to become an outlaw dog owner more similar to the decisions to drive 5 or 10 miles per hour over the speed limit?  Or is it closer to a broker selling you a stock that he and his company are betting against?  Is it as bad as cheating on your taxes and hoping to get away with it?  We may need some neuroeconomists to load some of these folks in an fMRI scanner and see what networks seem to be activated.  I can see the experiment now: "experimental subjects we placed in the fMRI scanner and listened to audio scripts of confrontations about violations of the leash law or collecting dog feces.  Their response was measured...."

Don't get me wrong.  I would never consider "Outlaw dog owner" to be anything like a diagnosis or anything that needs "treatment" .  I would put it in that general class of irrational behaviors that seem to make people miserable and that they seem to be unable to figure out and self correct on their own.  Hence my allusion to Freud's thesis of over a century ago.  As far as I can tell. these dog owners who are otherwise normal and law abiding citizens in most areas of their life are much different with their dog.  Some of my best friends are dog owners.  Dogs seem to be projective tests for a lot of neurotic and otherwise irrational human behavior.  I do think that it speaks to unconscious factors in everyday life that are explained away by overly simplistic observations.   Common approaches are looking at laws and who can abide by them or the fact that some people are "dog lovers" and other are not.  Those factors extend far beyond the realm of dogs, and within that realm there seems to be plenty of unnecessary conflict to go around on any given day.

I have been judged by dog owners for not being affiliative enough with their pets.  I don't throw saliva covered tennis balls or talk to dogs by using baby talk.  I am not a Dog Whisperer, but they all seem to love me - except for Spot.  Maybe because they appreciate the fact that I know their true nature.  At any rate, whenever this happens (the dog jumping excitedly all over me), the owner invariably asks the question about whether or not I want to join the fellowship of dog owners.  I have never owned a dog in my life and don't plan to.  I come up with a lot of excuses, but don't go into a lot of detail.  But occasionally the truth comes out.

I am really a people person.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Supplementary 1:  Outrunning a dog on a bike should only be attempted by a highly skilled cyclist who knows the relevant variables and the other suggested methods for fending off dog attacks.  In a split second you have to weigh the risks of getting caught by the dog as opposed to the relief of getting away.  So do not try this at home.  It is risky even if you have the necessary training and background.  Since this blog is not about cycling, I defer any interested reader to the usual cycling references.

Supplementary 2: The American Academy of Pediatrics has always played a prominent role in educating the public about dogs and children.  They post some incredible statistics on dog bites and the most important and frequently ignored advice about dogs and small children:

"Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog."


  1. This is an interesting post, and I am somewhat curious to know what drove it

    From my observation, I don't see this as specific to dog owners. What about parents of obnoxious tikes, smokers, non-smokers, people cutting in line, vegetarians, people that think i want to hear their bad loud music, etc.? All, I am saying is that there is general lack of civility that cuts across our society, and I think that signaling out dog owners makes you an asshole....ok, kidding on that last part. That was me channeling an obnoxious dog owner.

    For the most part, I agree with you about dogs. I actually like them, but not to own because they are gross. And, I am very glad you're a people person; it would be scary if you weren't.

  2. Why are dog owners unable to level with people about their dog's real nature? Because love is blind. The dog's real nature is hidden from their owners as well. I've written beforeabout entitlement, e.g., calling a dog a service animal when it isn't, so that the owner can bring it into businesses, including grocery stores and restaurants. Many households here in San Francisco raise canine children instead of human ones, saving on private schools and college tuition.

    Dogs (and cats) are ok by me, but I don't anthropomorphize them. Despite a number of requests by patients, I also don't let them into my office or waiting room unless they're truly service animals. I agree with RB above that "my dog right or wrong" shades smoothly into other incivility and entitlement, truly the psychopathology of everyday life nowadays.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I notice "Dawson" is mentioned in "The Parson's Son". Any relation?

  3. Thanks very much for the comments. The post was driven by another collection of associations as I heard continued griping about the dogs, saw the video of the dog trying to drag the toddler away, and thought about the various psychopathologies (including my own) that happen on a daily basis. I like to think that I am more self correcting. But I also think that it would be interesting to have a study plan to identity these problems and self correct that could be widely available.

    On my family name, the family folklore was that my grandparents got off the boat in Ellis Island with a last name that had either Austrian or Croatian origins. They couldn't spell it, so the authorities told them their new name was Dawson. So I am probably unrelated to the Yukon Dawsons or probably most Dawsons.