Lessons From the Dogs of Lucca

The District Vet: What we can learn about socializing our dogs

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When walking down the street, I note every dog in front and behind me. I note their gait, their body condition score, their weight, and behavior. This is not purposeful, but is ingrained in me as a veterinarian. It is second nature. Much is routine, the behaviors expected, but what if the surroundings were suddenly different?

Recently I was in the city of Lucca, in Italy. This is a small ancient walled city, with its beginnings dating back a thousand years. The central historic district is composed of piazzas and walking paths, scant cars. The evening sport is walking the promenade of the city’s encircling wall. While the setting was remarkable, I was drawn to what I am used to—dogs. And I was taken back by the differences in dog culture between this area of Italy and our fair city.

The first difference noted is that dogs seem to be welcomed almost everywhere. Restaurant? Not a problem. On the train? Sure, so long as they have a ticket if not in a bag. Clothing store? Absolutely. The single area where dogs were notably absent was the supermarket. There was no sign outside prohibiting dogs, but people had an understanding that this one area was off-limits to canine companions. And there was a line of people sitting with a canine while their companion obtained the essentials inside.

I was not alone in this visit, I was visiting my mother and her little dog, too. The dog, given a new name for her Italian adventure (Nutella), helped give more perspectives on the differences in dog culture. We have quickly learned that the dog itself was not going to be an impediment to activities. Contrary to what is experienced in many establishments here, the dog was welcomed everywhere. This furry creature made for easy introductions for my mother.

Of note was the interactions that dogs had with each other. While we stress spay and neuter in the United States (and we should continue this), many dogs in Italy are intact. I was anticipating an increase in aggressiveness verses what is normally observed on our District streets. Dogs at outside restaurants in the US tend to jump up and defend their territory or bark at passersby.

Most interestingly the dogs in restaurants in Lucca generally could care less about who was sauntering down the sidewalk. There was no jumping up and leash pulling or aggressive barking. This was almost universal. When the dogs were out for a walk in the city, the frequently ignored each other or politely did the traditional butt-sniffing and then moved on. It did not matter if we were observing a miniature poodle or a Bernese Mountain dog. I was amazed.

The question arises then as to why the difference in behavior? Many dog parents here train their dogs intensely and work to socialize them. It comes down to not the dogs, but us. We want our dogs to interact. And whereas this is essential for socialization, we tend to force our version of it upon them. In European dog culture, it is ok for dogs to not meet and it is not socially taboo to cross the street when another dog is approaching. This is the same with people and dogs: allow the dog to seek attention from people, not the opposite.

Italian dog culture gave me the impression that dogs were more in control of their own actions than we allow. If they wanted to interact, they did, if not, they were flat on the floor under a table. And by allowing dogs to go most places, dogs were habituated to city streets and noises, differing situations, crowds, trains, restaurants, and stores. We tend to walk dogs a few times per day, maybe take them to the dog park, but in Lucca, the dogs frequently went everywhere.

There are lessons from the dogs of Lucca, which can help our dogs be more comfortable in DC. First, remember that socialization needs to be on their terms. Second, the more the dog is involved with daily life, the more comfortable and less stressed they become. We need to adjust how we relate to dogs in public and welcome them, but allow dogs to be dogs.

Dan Teich, DVM is Medical Director at District Veterinary Hospital Eastern Market.