Of strangers and dogs

Nowadays, people often smile at me when I’m walking down the street. I make an effort to smile back, naturally, because I assume they’re readers, awestruck by the shock of seeing someone they admire so much on the street right in front of them. Or maybe they’re trying to play it cool, and subtly acknowledge that they definitely know who I am even though they don’t want to make a fuss. That’s fine. They know, and I know, and a smile is enough.

Occasionally they’ll say something like “So cute”, which is totally unnecessary, but, hey, that’s their opinion, and of course I’m flattered.

Recently, though, I’ve started to realise that these random expressions of admiration tend to happen only at certain times, and are immediately followed by an admiring look downwards. And while I have excellent taste in footwear, I have to acknowledge that it’s not me. It’s the dog.

The dog is an Australian terrier so ridiculously cute that it’s a wonder he hasn’t been signed for commercials in which he bats his adorable eyes at the camera while promoting mortgages or kibble or something – incidentally, his rates are reasonable, please contact me if interested.

Note: the actual dog in question is cuter

Note: the actual dog in question is far cuter

Since I’ve come to accept that the dog is far more interesting to random pedestrians than I am, I’ve discovered that dog lovers have negotiated completely different social rules to those accepted in regular human society. They’re more than happy to bowl up to you, or burst out in conversation, simply because you happen to be walking a dog. It’s as though I automatically welcome the interactions because I operate a charity dedicated to brightening up people’s days by creating random moments of canine adorableness on the streets of Sydney.

There I am, walking along, minding my own business – and the dog’s in whichever park he sees fit to deposit it – and complete strangers will just begin cooing at me. What’s stranger still is when people simply assume they’re fine to touch him without asking. They’ll swoop down like an opportunistic seagull for a head pat, without wondering for a moment whether he is up for it.

Presumably most dogs are, but this dog is a rescue. Unfortunately, he’s learnt that he can’t always trust humans, because even his boundless adorableness was not sufficient to protect him from horrible mistreatment by a previous owner – which is why if you’re interested in a dog of your own, incidentally, I’d urge you to contact your local shelter because there are lots more like him out there.

When you’ve had the life experiences that the dog has had, you don’t take kindly to sudden movements from strange humans, and I think he shows a great deal of restraint not to nip their hands and teach them a little lesson about respecting his personal space.

Being caressed on the street by a complete stranger would be considered grounds to summon the police for a human,but among dog lovers, it’s perfectly acceptable. I find it odd, but presumably most people who walk dogs love nothing more than someone they haven’t met interrupting them to lavish praise and pats upon their hounds.

The other time when random strangers feel free to interrupt me, of course, is when I’m wandering around with a child. Strap on a Baby Bjorn, put an infant in it, and suddenly everybody wants to have a chat, or perhaps toustle its hair. If there are any politicians in the vicinity, there’s even a clear and present danger that they’ll kiss the poor defenceless child.

This is especially strange when the child is not your own, because everyone will immediately assume that they are, which forces me either to say nothing and falsely take credit for the parenthood I’ve so far failed to achieve, or issue a series of clumsy clarifications. These become all the more awkward when the person you’re talking to is female, because there’s a tendency for the disclaimer to seem like a horrible come-on – “Actually, madam, I’m the child’s uncle, which as it happens, means that I’m totally in the market for reproduction, should that be of interest.” In my experience, these moments are only slightly less awkward than when you’re out with a female friend and her child, and everyone from waiters to passers by assume you’re the father.

I especially notice these unsought interactions with strangers because when I’m walking along a street, it’s extremely rare for anyone to interact with me in any way at all. Practically the only time a stranger will ever say anything to me is when I’ve been too busy tweeting or something and nearly knocked them over, and fair enough, too.

But I’ve come to realise nowadays that this experience of wandering around without interruption is not universal. As a white, relatively hefty man, I’m permitted to float around in a bubble of self-absorption, but as that recent video revealed, the situation can be quite different for women, as many men feel at liberty to pass constant judgement on their appearance. The same experiment was repeated recently by an orthodox Jewish man in Paris, with similarly dispiriting results.

It seems to me that at the very least, we need to be consistent. Either we treat everybody with the same pronounced indifference that I enjoy when I walk through the streets, or we decide that everyone should be available for random conversation, all the time. But if you’re one of those people who finds cities unfriendly, and wish people would stop you in the street to say ‘G’day’ the way they apparently do in country towns (something I’m yet to experience, but perhaps that’s just me), then my advice is to get a dog.

Not only are they humans’ best friends, as advertised, but you’ll soon find that you have an endless supply of unwanted new friends, too.

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