Influence of dogs on city sidewalk character

Recently, I bought a free-standing pedestal mailbox and I installed it in my front yard near the city sidewalk. This is in a part of town where the mailman normally delivers mail to the door, and often with one of those slots that go through the door. I moved the mailbox to get the mailman to stop taking a short cut across the front yards. I did not mind that much for my own yard, but I was annoyed for the neighbors on either side.

Immediately after installing the mailbox, I peeked a look at it from the window in my house and at that moment there was someone walking a large dog. It inspected this vertical object and promptly applied its mark.

I do a lot of walking. I especially enjoy long walks through town, often for errands that involve carrying something home. In my neighborhood, I do not see many people walking so purposefully. People walking by my house almost always are walking their dogs. There are occasions for baby strollers, but even they are usually accompanied by dogs.

As I exit or enter my neighborhood, I have picked up a habit to walk on the street side of the parked cars. The sidewalks are in reasonable shape, but they are narrow. When I do encounter another pedestrian on a sidewalk, one of us needs to step aside, especially during the pandemic that taught us that getting sidewalk-width close is not correct. Most of the time I do encounter another pedestrian, there is usually a leashed dog and that is another layer of awkwardness.

In all my adult life, I never had a dog of my own. I am not against getting one but I became accustomed to not having one during my earlier career where I would spend most of my day away from home. I didn’t like the idea of leaving the dog alone in a house all day every day. Most people don’t have this concern.

Once I get out of my neighborhood of single family houses, I get to the area with high rise apartments. This town is set up with a roughly equal mix of apartments and office building side by side. I walk by a lot of apartments and condominiums. In those areas, a good portion of people walking around are walking their dogs.

Dog walking in the city has a benefit of meeting other dog walkers. Actually, it is the dogs that meet each other and that brings the owners within two leash lengths of each other. This inevitably leads to a discussion about whether the dogs are ok to be near other dogs, but also out of the awkwardness of being so near each other without talking. Another social interaction occurs with non-dog-walkers stopping to admire the dog or to comment about it. This also uses the dog as the catalyst for the conversation. One thing I noticed is that the presence of the dog discourages a stranger to attempt to start a conversation with the dog walker directly without any interest in the dog. The dog walker has an invisible shield against that kind of interaction.

The area around here is relatively well maintained. Various property owners and the city make attempts to plant small trees on the strip between the sidewalk and street. These trees offer a character to the street, especially when they mature. The problem is that frequently the trees will die prematurely. When that happens, it is usually the entire row of trees. There may be many reasons for the die-off, but it often seems obvious that the continue drenching of the lower bark by a multitude of dogs played a row. The lower bark just falls off of the trunk.

It takes a while for a distressed tree to fully die, and it takes a while before the dead tree is replaced. This adds to the street a character that is not as inviting as healthy trees. Often the tree is only cut down, leaving the stump behind and often with the grate or landscaping that marks the intention for a tree to be there. When I see this, I can’t help but to think that there would be a tree there if there were not as many dogs peeing on it.

Near the apartment buildings and at the time when people return from work, I would often seen someone leave the apartment with their dog on leash but their attention fixated on their smart phones. They would walk to the nearest tree and then pace back and forth until the dog did something. I feel sorry for the dog, not only does it not get to pick out a spot it would prefer, but it must want to do more with the outdoors than just do its business. The owner doesn’t have time for that.

Other owners will take their dogs for a walk, but it would be the exact same path every day, making a loop that ends back at the apartment entrance. They may encounter other dog walkers on this path. This activity trains the person to thinking that the sidewalks near his home is solely for the dogs. When he wants to get out without the dog, he will use some other transport to get past the dog territory. I think this partly explains the popularity of the electric scooters. They teleport people away from the dog walking territory they know about.

In my long walks, I will walk past perhaps a dozen such dog-walking patches. At a subconscious level, I learned that when I cross paths with a dog walker, they are not much interested in direct interaction. In their mind, this is the dog’s time, but also it is the dog’s space. Interpersonal interaction that ignore the dog is awkward.

I am not sure, but I think the amount of dog ownership has grown a lot over the past few decades. My recollection may be faulty, but there seemed to be a lot fewer dog walkers around 4 decades ago. There were a lot fewer dogs in apartments. I do remember noting the change a long time ago. I wondered what was driving the growing interest in dogs. I supposed that part of the reason was the dog’s providing relief to loneliness. People were becoming lonelier.

This takes some explanation because many dog owners are young and many have social lives. They have jobs that keep them busy, and they take advantage of going out with friends at local and distant entertainment locations. They should not have much time to be lonely.

Even after accounting for a full calendar of social interactions, there remains an inevitable period when the person will be alone in their apartment. They may have a spouse or they may have room mates but the times spent in the apartment is not the same kind of social experience. The atmosphere within the apartment is lonely. The presence of the dog solves that problem, even though it may be a small fraction of the person’s day.

That’s just my guess. There are a lot of dogs around.

I also recall the change occurring in terms of business’s rules on dogs. I recall a time when most businesses would not allow dogs, even in outdoor dining areas. Now, every place with sidewalk dining permit dogs, and many other businesses, including banks, have signs saying that dogs are welcome. Many places will set out water dishes for dogs, and even a little bucket for dog biscuits. My memory may be foggy, but this was a lot rarer when I was younger.

People bringing their dogs into areas where people eat, or shop, or just hang around. Those circumstances have the same character as the dog walking territories near the owner’s home. The space becomes a place to bring a dog. People meet each other because the dogs want to meet. People do not meet without acknowledging the dog.

There is a socialization cost to allowing so many dogs in people spaces. The spaces in some sense become dog spaces. I am not objecting to this. I am only noting what seems to be a change in the social character when dogs become too common. The spaces become dog spaces. People without dogs are intruders in the dog territory, and they are encouraged to act like a good guest.

There are spaces where pets are still not allowed or at least highly discouraged. I note that those spaces feel different than spaces that have dogs present. Perhaps it is just my imagination, but I feel like people interact with each other more directly when they are not around dogs. The image that just occurred to me is when people meet up outside of work and far away from their managers: the conversation is very different than it would be in the office. Something like that is happening with the dogs instead of managers. The spaces where dogs are allowed are like the spaces where managers may be present. People have to adjust the behavior accordingly.

Another thing I noticed over time is that I seem to be walking slower. Today when other pedestrians pass me, they are walking so briskly that they will cover twice the difference I would in the same amount of time. I don’t think I am walking any slower. Surely, part of the reason is that most people have some purpose to their walk while I typically walk just for enjoyment. I am convinced that people are walking faster even when they appear not to be catching some appointment. The route they are taking is not a quickest way to getting to anything significant.

My pace is faster than dog walkers, but slower than just about any other walker who is not using a cane or crutches. People using motorized wheel chairs are going even faster. I do not believe everyone is in such a rush.

I have a theory that people are embarrassed to be walking outside. They are walking because it is practical, or they know they want the fresh air and exercise. When they are walking, there may be a subconscious message that they do not belong there. Walking faster minimizes the time outside, but it also sends a message of purpose that legitimizes their walking. I don’t think they think someone is watching. It is more like what happens with trespassers. They know they don’t belong on the property, but they want the advantage of the short cut. They walk very quickly as if that minimizes the trespass.

When people are walking on sidewalks, their subconscious may be telling them they are trespassing. They are trespassing on the territory for dogs.

My walking pace is probably very similar to a pace of walking along a beach or a scenic walk. I am walking slower because I am just enjoying the experience of being where I am, even when there is no real attraction to enjoy. Because I walk longer distances that cross multiple dog territories, and because I don’t have a dog of my own, I don’t think about the dogs claim of the path as their territory. In fact, I think the opposite. The dogs are intruding on people territory. I don’t like what they are doing to the trees. I don’t like seeing them squat and strain while staring at me while their owners patiently wait with the plastic bag. I didn’t like when I accidentally stepped into a water dish or knock over a pail of dog biscuits some business set out at the edge of the sidewalk.

The sidewalks have gone to the dogs. I have taken up the habit of walking in the street instead.


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