Barking Mad - Puppies and Toddlers in an Intolerant Land

This is my last Moral Maze column. What better way to go out than with mongrels – the word we apply to unlovely people and to man’s best friend.

On Twitter recently, a high-profile equality activist announced that while she didn’t love dogs, she did love things feathery. But she didn’t take her ducks down the street. Another well-known woman quickly agreed.

Not long after, a woman shouted at me for reprimanding my puppy loudly and by way of a control collar. Why could I never let the poor thing off the lead? That afternoon, a father holding his toddler, seemingly determined to hand his fear of dogs down to the next generation, threatened to call the council if I didn’t get mine – sniffing in the far reaches of the bushes for a place to poo – under control.

Less than a week later, I lost my balance while scooping up the pup’s dropping. She’s a labrador, a breed renowned for aggressive friendliness. She raced across a highly trafficked inner-city street to enthusiastically greet a terrier she didn’t know.

Not only would the dog’s owner not help untangle the two dogs – hers aggressively snapping and yapping throughout – but as I crossed back to reclaim my dog’s poo, a passing motorist shouted: ‘'You should apologise.’'

Apologise for what? Losing my balance? For a very young dog’s failed attempt to socialise with an animal that tried to bite her head off? Or was my true crime having a puppy at all, with all the unpredictability, accidents and inconvenience to others this risked? (Parents, feel free to substitute ‘'toddler’‘ for ’‘puppy’‘ before reading on.)

At the heart of morality is a negotiation of our relations with others – other people, the creatures with whom we share the planet and the demands of the planet on which we depend. Liberal democratic theory suggests the right to swing our fists ends where another’s nose begins. But debates about where lines should be drawn when rights collide presume the mutual toleration of inconvenience. Otherwise, we’d be confusing quibbles with stuff that matters and society would evaporate, leaving only Thatcher’s individuals and their families.

Small towns are wonderful, you are part of a community; small towns are claustrophobic, people gossip and judge. Both of these things are true because we can’t have it both ways. Keeping clear of others minimises disruption and inconvenience but it also renders humans – social creatures by nature – physically isolated and psychically alone.

Some people don’t like lots of stimulation. Everyone has days when they want the rest of the world to piss off and leave them alone. But the plain truth is that outside your house, the world is not yours. You share it with other unpredictable, irritating and downright inconvenient members of the human tribe and their dogs. Not to mention their kids, the aged and infirm.

If the issue is fear, get some help. Cognitive behavioural therapy can work wonders. Where attitude is the problem, change yours.

Ill-informed opinion is the rage these days but its greatest achievement is to promote misunderstanding and encourage judgment – hardly recipes for social harmony. I know you’re in a hurry but either slow down or recognise that it’s you who needs to give way. The rest of us aren’t out to get you, we’re just doing the best we can in our own imperfect way.

These past four years have been a privilege. Thank you for making me part of your Sundays.

Publication history

Barking Mad - Tolerance a Two-Way Street   Moral Maze: The Sun Herald (Sydney)