The Shy Dog And The Homophobic Neighbour
This is how to ensure your pet's needs are met while keeping the peace at home.
This month's column is inspired by a letter from a reader who has a queer pet problem and is looking for support on how to keep the peace at home and ensure her dog's needs are being met!
The short version of the story is that this reader has both a dog who is nervous about strangers, and a homophobic neighbour whose newest harassment tactic is to first complain about the dog barking at her, and now to insist that the dog MUST become friends with her. The reader's housemates are pressuring her to appease the neighbour...
Dear Reader- What an awful situation! I'm so sorry to hear that you have had to put up with an ongoing homophobic interaction with your neighbour, and that now she seems to have turned her focus to picking on your poor dog! From what you shared, it sounds like your neighbour is subtly homophobic in a way that means you can't even file a complaint for harassment (if you live in a jurisdiction that protects for sexual orientation or gender identity). This neighbour is harassing you in a way that isn't easy to prove or document which puts you, and now your dog, in a really crummy situation!
It's unfortunate that your roommates are starting to cave under the neighbour's pressure and in turn starting to push you to put your dog into a situation that won't be successful. My advice is always that safety is number one, and beyond and related, the dog's needs come first. Dogs are individuals and I believe they should (within reason) be given some level of autonomy, by which I mean we as guardians have a responsibility to know our dogs well, and to not put them in situations where they will be unsafe. Dogs all have different thresholds for engaging with strangers. Breed, socialization, inherent temperament, and training all play a part. Our dogs are generally pretty clear about what they are and aren't comfortable with. It's up to us to ensure that their needs are respected.
Frequently, there are strangers on the street that want to engage with my dogs. Just last week, I caused a small child to have a full tantrum on the sidewalk of my neighbourhood because I said that he couldn't pet my 14 year old blind dog after he came racing down the sidewalk screaming. People are unpredictable, and I tend to be cautious and selective about who I allow to pet either of my dogs - one who is now elderly, and the other who is a special needs rescue.
In this situation, it sounds like this historically homophobic neighbour's insistence on meeting the dog is about the neighbour and not about what is in the best interest of the dog who is anxious about strangers. As such, from my perspective, it is an unrealistic request/expectation, unfair to the nervous, and is liable to make the situation even worse for everyone.
The reader mentioned to me that her dog is already fearful and nervous about people, and while her dog has come a long way with learning strategies for managing that fear, it is still uncomfortable with new people and in new situations. The reader has put a lot of emphasis on teaching her dog coping strategies to ensure he doesn't bark at the neighbour, which is right in line with where my own focus would be.
Pushing a dog who is fearful into a situation with which they are uncomfortable is almost guaranteed to have an outcome that won't make you, the neighbour, or and perhaps most importantly the dog, happy. Dogs pushed over threshold are not being put in a position where they are learning anything. Their training is likely to backslide. In fact, pushing a dog beyond their threshold only increases the likelihood that something could go very wrong and someone could get bitten.
Dogs are incredibly sensitive to their owners, so understandably, if the reader is after years of homophobic harassment and uncomfortable with her neighbour, it makes sense that her dog would be too. Especially for a dog predisposed to being uncomfortable around strangers, it’s understandable they would exhibit signs of discomfort and stress if forced to interact with the neighbour. My #1 fear in this situation is that by pushing the dog to interact with a neighbour who has been outright homophobically hostile to his parent and her roommates, failure is almost certain and it may create a situation unsafe for everyone involved.
I honestly I don't trust homophobes. I think it's possible that the neighbour could actually be trying to set up the dog, who she knows both because it used to bark at her (again props to training for stopping that), and because she has explicitly been told. If the neighbour consistently insists that she needs to be physically friendly with this dog, this may be her trying to create a situation where it's possible to frame that dog as dangerous, which could have significant impacts on the life of the dog and its family. Perhaps I'm overreacting, but I say never trust homophobes and continue to prioritise your dogs comfort and safety.