How our views on dogs are shaped by culture and experience
Evergreen’s Guest Writer Series shares diverse perspectives on making public spaces feel welcoming.
Published on November 11, 2022
Public spaces are so much more than a place that’s open to the community.
These spaces offer opportunities for interaction and function as an important connection point that strengthens community health and vibrancy. To ensure our vital public spaces are truly inclusive, they need to feel welcoming to everyone.
Evergreen is inviting guest writers to share their perspectives on making public spaces more welcoming. As the first in this series, Jacqueline L. Scott writes about making public spaces feel safe and accessible in her neighbourhood.
Scott is a writer, scholar, and avid fan of outdoor recreation. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto researching the links between race and environmentalism. As part of the Evergreen Ignite Speaker Series, Scott’s walking tour, called The Black Experience, Art and Public Space, discussed Race and nature in the city.
Connecting in public spaces
Dogs are a great way of meeting people; they are better than a dating app according to some of my friends! Dogs are wonderful companions and there was a huge increase in dog ownership over the pandemic. They are also great for connecting people to nature as their owners are more likely to visit parks to walk their dog.
Dogs can make a neighbourhood feel more friendly, as those walking their dog are more likely to meet other people. As the dogs interact, by barking or sniffing each other’s bum, it creates an opportunity for the owners to smile and chat – if only to apologize for their dog’s behaviour! Dogs can reduce loneliness and isolation; they can link people to their community.
Who has dogs however, varies by race – something that I have noticed on walks around my Toronto neighbourhood. White people are twice as likely to own pets, including dogs, compared to Black people. Socio-economic status is also linked to dog ownership. In other words, the richer the ’hood the greater the number of dogs. And in Toronto, the rich areas are more likely to be white.
Dogs can make public spaces feel more welcoming. But, unleashed dogs can mean different things to different people based on their experiences and comfort with dogs.
How culture can shape our views of pets
How we view or relate to dogs is shaped by culture and experience. When I think of dogs and Black people, the first images that pop into my head are the USA’s Civil Rights photographs of police dogs attacking protestors. And then apartheid South Africa where the dogs were used for the same purpose. Some of these images may feel long in the past.
Except when it is today’s police dogs biting and snarling at Black Lives Matter protesters. These dogs are not cute and cuddly. One is not tempted to go up and pat the dog, saying ‘good boy’, or ‘good girl.’ Using dogs to attack Black people has its roots in slavery where blood hounds were trained to track runaways.
Dogs and dog parks are good indicators of the gentrification of a neighbourhood. The more dogs on the street, at the park or in the dog park, the whiter the ’hood. Dogs may make white people feel safer in their neighbourhood. The presence of those same dogs, especially when unleashed, makes me feel less safe. Race is a factor in what is seen as safe or unsafe. I am particularly uneasy around large dogs, like the German Shepherd. I have the childhood scars to prove it.
A decade or so ago, there was a panic around Pit Bulls in the city. The dog breed seems to have become a problem only when they were owned by Black people. Conversations around Pit Bull safety were also coded chatter about race, but without mentioning race. The dogs that created a sense of safety for Black men were suddenly perceived as a threat by society.
I often stroll by a large park in a rich ‘hood on my way to do some birdwatching in a cemetery. The park is a popular spot for walking dogs. Most run off-leash, even when they are not supposed to according to the posted signs. As Black people are less likely to go to places where dogs are unleashed, it reinforces that the pretty park is a white space.
Putting the dogs on the leash where they are supposed to be can make diverse people feel safe and comfortable in parks and ravines.
My experience with dogs in the ravines
I frequently walk by another large city park, pass the scores of dogs running free in the fenced dog park, as their owners chat. The energy, the barking, and the speed of the dogs is amazing to watch – as I am safe on the other side of the fence.
Another favourite stroll is through a ravine with my friend and her dog Spirit. The dog is about knee-high, thick and muscular, with a head like a fighter. I have learned to enjoy Spirit. My friend is from India and grew up with large dogs as pets and as guard dogs. Spirit is always on the leash.
Most of the dogs we meet in the ravine are off the leash. When they come sprinting towards us – panting, fangs showing, tongue hanging out – I remember to see them as beloved pets when I am with my friend and her dog.
When I am alone, the unleashed dogs are most likely to trigger fear. I see the same anxious reaction from other people of colour in the ravine. The owners often shout that their dog is just being friendly as it gambols too close.
One shouldn’t be worried that a nature walk might end in a bite from a ‘friendly dog.’ Putting the dogs on the leash where they are supposed to be can make diverse people feel safe and comfortable in parks and ravines. These nature spaces are for everyone. Leashing dogs helps all of the community feel secure and connected to these public spaces.