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The Ethical Dog Owner

When Man’s Best Friend Encounters the Neighbors


Everyone loves dogs. Well, almost everyone. Some think dogs are nuisances, or worse, and should be banned from all public places. I’m not going to name names, but I have a few friends who are not dog friendly.

Most non-dog-lovers I know have had at least one bad experience with a dog. One friend was bitten in the tush while jogging (by a dog, that is), another witnessed a large dog chase her cat across a busy street (both dog and cat made it), and another received daily contributions of dog poop on her front lawn until a security camera identified the culprit and his owner.

Ben Bycel

I feel their pain, but should man’s (and woman’s) best friend be blamed? No. In most cases of bad dog behavior, the blame should rest on dog owners who, in the face of readily available information, don’t train their dogs properly or at all.

This is human antisocial, unethical behavior, not a bad dog attitude. In most cases, to borrow a child behavioral term, it’s nurture, or lack thereof, over nature.

Cesar Millan, TV’s famous Dog Whisperer, doesn’t think that there are inherently vicious dogs but in most cases only dog owners who do not train or care for their dogs properly. This includes such breeds as pit bulls, which Millan says are not dangerous if raised correctly. (Note: The issue of whether pit bulls are dangerous is a controversial subject with arguments on both sides.)

There are a number of ethical issues involved with dog ownership.

Recently a BBC Internet post focused on the ethical behavior of humans as it relates to pets of all kinds — including dogs. The article noted, as any veterinarian will tell you, it is unethical to get the wrong dog for your lifestyle or living space. Stroll the streets of New York, and you will see a number of large dogs being walked and pooping in the streets (we’ll get to that later). It’s a good guess that many of those owners live in apartments without yards and keep their dogs inside all day in close quarters while they’re at work. When they return home, they do not provide enough exercise for their pets to relax and enjoy being a dog.

That’s a sure-fire recipe for human-triggered, bad dog behavior.

Even worse are dog owners who have adequate space for dogs but do not properly train them or follow through with discipline. Some dog owners refuse to discipline their dogs because they see any behavioral corrections as cruel. This sends the message to Fluffy that she can pee on the couch or tear a favorite pillow to shreds. Biting the neighbor kid may well be next.

Veterinarians say that an untrained dog is an unhappy one. And that unhappiness may manifest itself in an attack on another dog, a human, or maybe even the owner herself.

The most common accusation of unethical behavior by dog owners is that they allow their pets to use the street and front yards as their toilet bowl without the owner picking up the poop. In a blog at the Washington Monthly, Timothy Noah wrote about the mayor of San Marino, California, who had to resign this June after he was caught picking up a bag of “dog feces lying near a public sidewalk and tossing [it] onto his neighbors property.”

Noah went on, “ … a slightly modified version of this battle plays out … in just about every neighborhood between dog owners and nonowners.” It’s certainly true in the streets and parks of Santa Barbara.

Another issue that can turn neighbor against neighbor is when a dog owner bags his dog’s waste and then puts it into someone else’s garbage can. In other words, makes a decision to stink up his neighbor’s garbage can rather than his own. But what if you are two miles from home, do you carry the bag all the way home? What if you have a baby and can’t possibly carry the dog’s business? These are ethical dilemmas that must be resolved on a case-by-case basis.

As a dog owner, I try, but I’ve not been perfect in picking up my dog’s waste. This most often happens after he does his looking for the perfect place to let loose (apparently dogs always stand north and south), and he ends up in a hard place to reach, for example, on a hillside overgrown with ivy. Or try picking up poop at the beach.

I wrote this column in part to challenge myself to do the right thing every time. I realize my aging Labrador retriever, Ali, cannot promise me that he will choose accessible locations for his actions, but then again, it’s not his ethical problem; it’s mine.

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to streetethics@independent.com.

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