For the first six years after I moved to New York City, I was the creepy, dog-crazed pedestrian who was constantly trying—and failing—to resist the urge to casually reach out and pet every pup I passed on the sidewalk. Having grown up in the suburbs with animal-loving parents, I came by the habit honestly. I’d been surrounded by pets for the better part of my life, so it felt uncomfortable not to have a furry friend of my own. I trusted that any dog owner would understand this, even if they were New Yorkers.
My long-held dream—the dream that would allow me to join the ranks of said dog owners—finally came true in September of 2018. My husband and I picked up our ten-week-old golden retriever puppy Irv (officially Irving, but he’s only called that when he’s in trouble, of course) just a few days after we moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn. Irv rode home in a laundry basket in the back seat of our car and boldly peed on a grate the moment we placed him on the sidewalk. I cried tears of pride and joy.
Given the fact that I grew up with dogs in the ‘burbs and was all too familiar with N.Y.C. weirdos who find it appropriate to approach and pet dogs on the street (guilty!), I was pretty sure I was ready for anything. At first, it felt good to be on the other side of the sidewalk interaction I knew so well. I may be biased, but Irv is pretty much the cutest animal to ever walk on four legs. In those early days, I couldn’t blame the literal dozens of people who stopped us to say hello to him. While my conversations with them are often pleasant, I can’t say this is always the case.
To be more specific, I’ve never in my life felt more exposed to unwanted male attention than I have in the months since becoming a dog owner.
Suddenly, strange men on my block seem to feel more emboldened than ever to chat me up, using my dog as an excuse.
“Cute dog, sweetheart!” they’ll call as I wait patiently for Irv to find the perfect spot to pee on a grate, otherwise minding my own business. On more than one occasion, a group of bro-y dudes have grabbed my pup’s leash and mimed walking away with it, egging each other on with their laughter and throwing a condescending stare my direction when I pull the leash away and walk past them. Last week, a pair of men at least forty years my senior seemed to be innocently visiting with Irv, until one of them looked up at me, winked, and said, “And you thought it would be tough to meet guys in New York!” Ew.
Even conversations that start off in a comfortable, appropriate way often go on just a little longer than I’d like them to. The fact that my naïve, naturally friendly golden retriever has cozied up to the stranger in question makes it all the more difficult to excuse myself.
I understand that there are plenty of men who have perfectly good intentions when they come up to visit my dog—and that there are plenty of women who may just as easily have impure objectives. But as a woman who often finds herself walking alone on the streets of my Brooklyn neighborhood, I’ve become highly attuned to what feels like a new kind of male attention. I’ve experienced my fair share of sexual and verbal harassment in the past, but I never expected this highly specific brand of it. As I’ve watched the #MeToo movement unfold, I am so much more aware of the power imbalances that exist between men and women and shape my daily life…but who knew that those imbalances would smack me quite so squarely in the face simply because I picked up a canine companion?
I’ve worked hard to step into my power, to demand respect beyond the object that many men have made me—and all women—out to be. But there are still plenty of men prepared to objectify me by using my beloved dog to their advantage. The fact that, when I take Irv for a walk, I intentionally wear my husband’s unflattering clothes and a bulky winter jacket or don’t put on any makeup all in hopes of avoiding catcalls is representative of a serious issue—one that underscores just how much still needs to be done so that women can live their lives without constantly fearing for their safety.
I’ve learned my lesson about respecting the personal space that rightfully belongs to the humans with dogs that I pass on the street (and I retroactively apologize to anyone whose space I’ve violated). As the #MeToo movement helps us all take in more lessons about respecting boundaries, I hope that others can do the same.
Yes, you can pet my dog if you ask—nicely!—but that doesn’t give you the right to chat me up. Irv and I don’t owe you anything.