Friday, May 11, 2018

Leashing Attitudes

I exist in a community of trail runners. We're a simple folk, people who value playing in the mud (responsibly, of course--would you believe there's conflicting mud etiquette, depending on the trail?) more than catching a sitcom, a happy cohesive mix of beer drinkers and AA members. Some of us even dabble in road running every now and then.

But one thing divides us more than anything else:

Dog leashes.

The leashed-dog-while-trail-running debate is the 'politics and religion' of trail running. The range of opinions are fascinating. I know I'm going to delight some, enrage others, and likely offend a few; it's like Facebook's biggest problem (aside the data mining) being that you actually learn about the people you used to like (with the irony that I'll likely share this on Facebook). So why write this at all? I was asked to, and maybe someone will read this and go about life with a slightly new perspective (and I'll get a little less flack out there on the trails--yeah, wishful thinking).

(If I were a better writer, this would feel like a conversation, like we're trying to hash things out--but I'm not, so buckle up for a full dose of selfish expression.)

The bitten. I know like, six people who claim to have been bitten by dogs out on the trails repeatedly, like, every third time they go for a run (not really, but it feels like it, and if you ask those six about dog leashes, it sounds like it's every third run). Look, you six, I can't pretend to understand why these random, otherwise happy trail dogs are seemingly targeting you with excessive violence, but I get it--if I were targeted with a bunch of random violence by a specific demographic for no apparent reason, I'd probably advocate that the entire demographic be arbitrarily imprisoned to save my personal enjoyment of the outdoors.

Or would I?

The best and kindest running partner I ever had, shoeless, at bottom right.

At this point, I usually write some ridiculous analogy involving kids, or cars, or something--but that just pushes people further into their corners and they pick up their ball and go home, or focus on the analogy instead of actually digging into the heart of the matter.

Some people are afraid of dogs--or rather, afraid of the possibility that they might be hurt by a dog, and that's enough for them. They value their feeling of safety over the freedom and enjoyment of others. I don't mean the freedom and enjoyment that some psychopaths find in actually hurting others--but the freedom and enjoyment to run around with reckless abandon and childlike wonder, stomping in puddles, feeling the grass beneath your feet, free of arbitrary chains and encumbrances.

"They're just dogs, not people."
What about that whole, 'treat others as you would like to be treated' bit?
"Yeah, but God gave me dominion over the animals, so I can do whatever I want to them."
Now you're just being an asshole.

"They're not like me."

And herein lies the problem: our base, intrinsic reaction to everything is to be a selfish asshole. I'm not saying that you are a selfish asshole, I'm saying that we tend to take care of ourselves first and foremost, then people close to us, and then, if we have any care left to give (many don't), maybe others.

Do you know which is the safest side of a car? The driver's side. Even if your spouse or child is sitting on the passenger side, your base, automatic, intrinsic reaction is to turn away from the danger (except hockey goalies--those people are strange).

So if you or your child or loved one are afraid of dogs, of course you weigh you and your loved one's enjoyment of the trails and outdoors more heavily than any dogs'.

But that's not how you should look at it.

It's not a dog's fault that it's a dog. I don't remember asking any God to create me, or put me here, at this time, in this place, as a human. Best I can tell, I'm here and I exist through no fault of my own. And although I can't be sure, I'm fairly confident my dogs didn't ask to show up this way, either.

Maybe we--as a people, or society--should balance our personal enjoyment of the outdoors with that of species or demographic--any demographic. You six? Maybe your fear of dogs is misguided (you're more likely to die from a falling tree than anything dog related, but I doubt you go around yelling at trees). Or maybe you're unknowingly behaving in a way that's threatening to that demographic (great, now I'm victim-shaming). It's impossible to say in the abstract. I've only been bitten a few times in my life, but each time I point to some specific reason why (though sometimes it is as simple as "that dog is an asshole"--Max, the German Shepherd on that gravel road just west of Welch, MN, I'm talking about you).

Yet even being bitten, I don't believe in the maxim that, if a statute declares it, all dogs belong leashed at all times--mainly because I'd never want to live my life on a 6-foot leash attached to my neck simply because of who or what I had the sorry luck to be born as.
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." -- often attributed to Gandhi, or the pacifist Dusty Olson, one of the two
Bigger than this, the more classes or levels we create to justify mistreatment of others, the easier it becomes to create even more classes and levels to justify even more mistreatment. "They're not like me, so..."

But they are like us, and it would be better for us, all of us, to treat them better--to treat everyone better.

Am I saying that everyone who's afraid of dogs mistreats people? No. Is this a slippery-slope argument? Possibly. But more so, I think we can do better, we can BE better, to everyone and everything, and if we reasonably can, we should. But to do that, we have to get over that fear, and that base thought that "I am the most important thing in the universe, and I should advocate for what is best for me."

Of vocal attitudes, I am in the minority. (Though I suspect there's a silent majority on the sidelines of this issue going, "I don't know what you're all yelling about--there are like, real problems in the world." Word.)

If we're taking sides, though, there are a few fundamentals:

Anecdotes. Everyone has their own experiences. The problem though, is that everyone has their own experiences. When deciding policy, the truth is that your experience doesn't matter. Your personal feelings towards dogs don't matter. Your (irrational) fear of improbable harm doesn't matter. We need to divorce our personal preferences and look to the effect of the policy--where the individual is dead and we do what is best for all.

"Where we all decide? Like, democracy?" No. This is not mob rule by the majority. Remember, the problem is that people are selfish. A majority of people could want all dogs leashed in all public settings, but that may not be what's best for us.

If there's a human demographic with a higher crime rate, we don't arbitrarily make different laws for that demographic so that others feel superficially more secure, even if that demographic is a minority, and doing so would increase the security of the majority. We've done that--let fear of the majority drive us. Not long ago, a majority of Americans supported FDRs internment of Japanese-Americans (I am not saying that dogs are like Japanese-Americans--it's an analogy, not an equivalence). It was wrong then. It's wrong now. 51% of people being selfish should not be rewarded.

"But they're just dogs."

Stop it. That's not how we should live, or treat anything.

The big difference is that here, my community includes the dogs--and we should weigh things by the impact to all involved: the fear that you may be harmed versus literal loss of liberty, even for those who may otherwise act in accordance with societal norms, to an entire species (this is also the divide for gun control and common-sense leash laws--guns don't have liberty, dogs do).

I've run into people that think I'm being selfish--that I do this because I want to do this, and that I think my want is more important than theirs.

There's another saying:
"We don't see the world as it is--we see it as we are."
Seeing my dogs happy does bring me joy--but that's not why I let my pups run responsibly off leash--it's because it brings them joy. When their enjoyment is outweighed by harm to others or the risk of harm to themselves, I leash them--but it's their enjoyment I weigh, not only my own.

Societal norms. American society is trending (in comparison to Europe and other societies I've experienced) towards stricter leash rules, not allowing dogs off leash. It's like we made a bargain--more dog parks for less dog freedom. But the more we don't allow dogs off leash (unfenced), the less they know how to behave off leash. Then people use that as further justification for stricter restrictions. It's like not allowing people behind the wheel until they've had experience behind the wheel.

Then, when people talk about this, or come into contact with off-leash dogs, some react in accordance to their previous worst experiences, ensuring a bad experience for at least one party, and maybe all.

"Leash your dog!"
Why? Aside his base existence off-leash, he isn't doing anything wrong. He isn't hurting anyone. He just wants to laugh and frolic in the woods, just like you.
"You're breaking the law."

Though truth be told, upon confrontation, I just smile and say, "Have a nice day!" and we keep on as we were, minding nobody any business at all--and in a way, that's asserting dominance, taking power, and I'm not going to lie, it feels pretty good--but that's not why I do it. It's merely the simplest and least confrontational way to continue to enjoy my day--with a side benefit that it really upsets the authoritarians (I also blow kisses to road-ragers).

But nobody is approaching the problem from a blank slate. We all carry our personal experiences (which mostly shouldn't matter in the abstract), and fail to fully understand the other people we're communicating with.

If I come across a parent quickly scooping up their child at my approaching dogs, I'll call my pups over and leash them. The parent or the child is obviously nervous or afraid--and although we're just here to enjoy ourselves, that's not above other people's fear (irrational or not). Or if someone politely or kindly asks, "Can you put them on a leash?" I'd likely oblige, and ask if they wanted to pet them, to try and turn this into a positive experience for everyone.

So much of this is tone--and I realize I'm coming into this with my own experiences of people trying to tell me what to do, where they really don't have to (even though they are entirely technically correct). I don't think my dogs aren't going to hurt you, but if they do, I get it, I am entirely responsible for that.

Violent dogs are a problem (Max, I'm talking about you). If an unleashed, non-violent dog being in the general vicinity of your dog causes it to turn into a psychotic, raged killer, maybe the unleashed dog isn't the problem. It's not so much different than road rage. Sure, that person cut you off, but that doesn't mean you can pull a gun on them. Or if there was a Dexter for jaywalkers? We can't have that.

Now, I'm not saying that aggressive dogs should live their lives indoors or kenneled, just that they need some work. But also, maybe don't advocate that all dogs belong on leashes at all times just because your dog belongs on a leash at all times. Don't advocate for the arbitrary imprisonment of a demographic just because it works better for you right now.

It's all really simple: If there is a specific problem, we should correct it--but broad strokes that disproportionately benefit one at the expense of another (especially if that expense is their liberty) is never right. If a dog can behave responsibly off-leash under the right circumstances, where it is reasonably safe for all, we should let them.

Should a municipality pass regulations that enable them to easily control problem situations? Maybe, so long as those regulations aren't being used oppressively. In a perfect world we would judge each instance separately--but we have a finite amount of time and resources. The practical realities dictate that the municipality doesn't have the resources to enforce every infraction--which is just fine. I often think of off-leash tickets as a "happy dog tax".

Which is all to say that the biggest issue is not the rules, or the laws, or the executive, but the attitudes of certain individuals demanding adherence to a rule they have no authority to enforce--most often because they grossly value their enjoyment more than the enjoyment of others.

("Narcissists in the running community?! No. Not here!" he says, from his blog post.)

Or I could be wrong about all of this. Who knows?

Happy trails, all.