My fiancée and I own a dog in New York City. First, no matter where you live, owning a dog with your significant other is considered a “big step.” A lot of people will tell you owning a dog is good preparation for having a baby. And why not? They’re both living things that pee and poop whenever they please and insist on taking up room on the couch. But that’s where the similarities end. Comedian Jim Gaffigan refutes the dog-baby analogy in his excellent book Dad Is Fat, and I’m inclined to add some fuel to the argument. Having a baby is a lot more constraining. You can’t leave a baby in your apartment alone all day while you go to work (“Just leave the radio on, he’ll be fine!”). Also, if you accidentally kill your baby, you can’t bury it out in the yard and tell your friends “he ran away.” You can, however, put a baby on a leash. That seems to be acceptable now.
Owning a dog is a challenge in any part of the country, but having one in the five boroughs of New York presents an even greater challenge. It’s not the endless amounts of rotting food, discarded prescription pills, and broken glass on the ground, or the lack of wide-open spaces that makes NYC particularly unsuitable for owning a dog — it’s the other dog owners. Walking a dog in the City is viewed as a social event. You’re expected to congregate where other dog owners congregate, carry on conversation when they initiate one, and let their almost-always-not-on-a-leash, unkempt hellhound sniff, prod, pounce on, and otherwise annoy your dog. Refusing to participate in any one of these activities pegs you as an asshole. It seems counterintuitive, really. New Yorkers — both native and transplanted — are not exactly known for their willingness to engage in friendly conversation. But once they have an animal tethered to them, the questions never end: “Who’s this? What breed is she? How old? What kind of kibble do you feed her? Why are you pulling her away like that? Hey, where are you going?”
Even worse than the people with endless questions are the people who try to give you advice on how train your dog. You see, our dog, Batsy, is a rescue from Virginia, which means she’s scared of the general outside world here in the big city. Buses, sanitation trucks, and strange men rounding the corner are all enough to send her into a full-blown panic. Just convincing her to go outside is a delicate procedure that begins with gentle encouragement, followed by bribing with treats, and almost always ends in us literally pulling her out of the door and across 109th St. One time I had to actually pick her up — all 35 gangly lbs. of her — and walk her down the block. The entire affair is a loud, ridiculous spectacle that draws the attention of every bystander on our block. Whenever someone in this City sees you walking a difficult dog, they always turn into Cesar fucking Millan and want to give you advice on what you’re doing (or not doing) that’s making your dog react in the way it’s reacting. “You’re pulling her too hard.” “You’re not being stern enough with her.” “She looks scared.” No shit, dog whisperer. And you, a stranger, hovering over my dog isn’t helping matters any.
When it comes down to it, dealing with, training, and disciplining a dog is personal. We dog owners love our dogs, and we’d like to think we know what’s best for them. And when someone comes along and gives us unwelcome advice, we get defensive. The truth is, I’d rather have a dog that needs a little work than no dog altogether. Anyone or anything you love is worth the work. Actually…maybe having a dog is a lot like having a kid after all.