The Homophobic Neighbor And The Shy Dog
How to keep the peace at home while ensuring your pets' needs are being met.
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 dogs 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 neighbor whose newest harassment tactic is to first complain about the dog barking at her, and then to insist that the dog MUST become friends with her. The reader's housemates are pressuring her to appease the neighbor....
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 neighbor, and that now she seems to have turned her focus to picking on your poor dog! From what you shared, it sounds like your neighbor 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 neighbor 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 neighbor'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 should (within reason) be given some level of autonomy. We as guardians have a responsibility to know our dogs well, and to not put them into situations where they will be unsafe. Dogs all have different thresholds for how comfortable they are 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 neighborhood 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 reader's situation, it sounds like her historically homophobic neighbor's insistence on meeting the dog is about the neighbor 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 neighbor which is right in line with where my own focus would be.
Pushing a dog who is fearful into a situation is almost guaranteed to have an outcome that won't make you, the neighbor, or and perhaps most importantly the dog happy. Dogs pushed over their threshold are not being put in a position where they are learning anything, and 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, and so understandably if the reader is after years of homophobic harassment uncomfortable with her neighbor, 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 neighbor. My #1 fear in this situation is that by pushing the dog to interact with a neighbor who has been outright hostile to his parent and her roommates is going to be a setup for failure and create a situation unsafe for everyone involved.
I don't trust homophobes. I think it's possible that the neighbor could actually be trying to setup the dog and the owner. The neighbor consistently insisting she needs to be physically friendly with this dog 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 that dog and his family. Perhaps I'm overreacting but I say never trust homophobes and continue to prioritize your dogs comfort and safety.
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