Dear Dog Owners of Tbilisi,
I am so excited that dog ownership is the cool thing to do now in Tbilisi. When I first visited Tbilisi in 2010, very few people owned what Americans/West Europeans would consider “pet” dogs. There were (and still are) a great many stray dogs, in addition to semi-feral dogs kept chained and/or fenced in yards to serve as cheap security systems. The vast majority of people were justifiably afraid of dogs, as both strays and watchdogs were loud, aggressive, and often diseased. Many Georgians still react with comically exaggerated terror even to small dogs, but I think this will probably wind down as more and more people grow up with or at least around them.
I’m also glad to see that dog-owner enthusiasm here has stopped short of “pet parenting” in America–where dogs (and pets in general) are treated a little too much like actual blood members of one’s family. I don’t ever want to come to Tbilisi and see a chain of doggie day-spas. Or go in someone’s house and see this, or any dog bed that looks like anything other than a blanket or foam cushion. And if ever hear the words “furkid” or “furbaby,” I would just stop coming to Georgia altogether, because this is the mark of Satan. Don’t go down that road, Tbilisi pet owners.
That said, some aspects of this spike in dog ownership disturb me a bit, and I think they merit discussion. There are many responsible dog owners in Tbilisi, but it also seems like there are many people who (most likely because they are the first in their families to own a dog) seemed to have taken on more than they bargained for. Dog ownership has clearly just risen faster than awareness of how to actually take care of a dog in terms of socialization, training, exercise, nutrition, and medical care. And then of course some people are just colossal douchebags, which as we all know is a global phenomenon not limited to Georgia. As Adam Tod Brown of Cracked notes, “Some people display their insanity and inner-dickishness in more subtle ways, and the poor pets are always the innocent victims.”
One of the biggest issues I’ve noted in Tbilisi is that of choosing an appropriate dog for one’s lifestyle, climate, and housing. This is partly the fault of the breeders here, who often sell puppies with no inquiries as to whether or not the prospective owners are actually a good match for their breed’s unique qualities–the polar opposite of America’s Nazi AKC breeders, who want to personally visit your house and receive three character references on your “puppy application” before they’ll put you on a waiting list.
bred to pull sleds for hundreds of miles across Siberian tundra, not go for daily walks in hundred degree heat
Tbilisi is classified as having a “moderately humid subtropical climate,” comparable to Richmond in the U.S., with hot summers and mild winters. Most people live in apartments or houses with very small (often shared) yards. Some dogs can be very happy in these conditions, and have become popular in Tbilisi–I see a lot of cocker spaniels, dachshunds, and yorkies. The problem is that it many of Tbilisi’s nouveau riche have decided to make a fashion statement with Siberian huskies, Caucasian shepherds, and other high-energy working dogs like pointers. Not only do dogs bred for strenuous cold-weather work have no business living in subtropical apartments, but the demand for such dogs in Tbilisi has been wreaking havoc on endangered breeds–most notably one of the country’s beloved national symbols, the Caucasian shepherd. When bored, hot, and untrained, these breeds can become aggressive–and they are large enough to do serious damage to other people and animals. (It certainly doesn’t help either that dogfighting is still common practice among Caucasian shepherd owners, who use it both for entertainment and to select “superior” specimens for breeding).
Aside from choosing a breed appropriate to your overall living conditions, there are two other ways to reduce canine aggression: spaying/neutering, and socialization. There is no historical precedent for either of these practices in Georgia, where veterinary care has always been limited, and where dogs were deliberately raised without socialization so they could fulfill their role as guard dogs. There seems to be a lag, however, between the expectations of contemporary dog owners in Tbilisi (who want house pets) and the dog-training philosophies (or lack thereof) of previous generations.
testosterone and animal abuse going hand in hand at Lisi Lake, outside Tbilisi
To put it bluntly, if you cannot afford to spay/neuter a dog, and do not plan to (responsibly) breed it, then you can’t afford a dog. Altered dogs are less aggressive, particularly males, who otherwise feel the natural urge to attack whatever they can’t hump. They are also less likely to run away in the pursuit of getting laid, and as a result will not contribute to Tbilisi’s ongoing stray dog problem. But like men everywhere else in the world with macho social norms, many Georgian men are happy to ignore these truths in favor of having a “manly” dog. Seriously, don’t inflict your gender insecurities on your dog. It is not funny or cool to have a large, aggressive, out-of-control dog that lunges at passers-by. Dogs have no conception of gender norms to begin with, and when your squeamishness results in a dangerous animal, you’ve just put your family, neighbors, and other local animals at risk.
Likewise, if you want a house pet but do not have the time to socialize and housebreak a dog, then you do not have time for a dog period. I am absolutely baffled by my neighbors, who have a weimaraner puppy that lives exclusively on their balcony. Not only is a balcony an unsafe and inappropriate place to keep a puppy (particularly a short-haired one) year round, but it is also very annoying for the neighbors, who have to listen to the poor thing whine because it is bored out of its mind and starved for attention. Why get a pet in the first place if you aren’t willing to spend any time with it? Owning a pet is a lifetime commitment, usually between 8 to 15 years of care. If you can’t make the commitment, don’t get the pet.
In the same vein, putting a collar on a dog and letting it roam the streets is not “having a dog.” It’s putting a collar on a street dog. While that collar might give Tbilisi’s notoriously vicious dogcatchers pause, it still does not protect the dog from cars, other dogs, disease, parasites, abusive people, rotten food/chemicals, and weather extremes. It is also a hazard to people walking their actual domestic dogs in your area, as a loose dog tends to establish a territory and attack any animal it views as intruding. I’m looking at you, whoever “owns” that brown boxer-looking mix who makes my every trip down Bakradze a living hell.
Finally, many Tbilisians simply need to learn how to behave appropriately around animals. This is especially true for small children, many of whom can be surprised to discover that real-life dogs do not act the way Balto and Beethoven do on TV. Children need to know that it is not funny at all to tease or torment a dog, an occurrence I see with alarming frequency, and with no adult intervention.
The best advice I have for adults is CALM DOWN. The teen/adult Tbilisians today grew up in a time when almost every dog was wild (or effectively so), and as a result have a justifiable fear of them. What needs to be made clear, however, is that screaming and running only tends to confuse animals, putting them on their guard and actually making them more likely to have an aggressive reaction. So please, if you have reason to suspect a certain dog might not like you, the safest thing to do is be quiet, don’t make eye contact, and go about about your business as if the dog is not there. Additionally, just because a dog isn’t “purebred” doesn’t mean it’s a rabid monster that wants to eat your children. Mutts are as good as any other dog when they are trained and cared for properly.
Kissy noises apparently make Georgians think of puppies. This is what it makes me think of.
And as a cultural side note, Georgians should be aware that in most other parts of the world, making obnoxious kiss noises is reserved for gross old men hitting on girls, not for calling a dog. This seems to be a widespread practice, so I don’t expect Georgians to give it up anytime soon. But nobody here seems to recognize the alternative connotations of this gesture, so I just want to throw this out there–that way you know why my first instinct is to give you a dirty look when you do this to any dog I’m out walking.
In just two years, I have seen Tbilisi make enormous strides in dog ownership responsibility. I hope those strides continue, and that more Tbilisians experience the joy of having happy, healthy, friendly dogs to share their homes.
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