14 March, 2016

Dog Ownership in America vs. Germany

My mom's adorable sheltie Jake.

Dogs can be a very important part of people's lives. They are companions, jogging partners, snuggle buddies, and a friendly face to greet you when you come home. Human affection for dogs exists in many parts of the world, but dogs are not universally loved, and people's attitudes toward dogs and their role in daily life can vary. Like many of the other aspects of life I've documented on this blog, the popularity of dogs, the role of dogs in people's lives and the expectations of dog ownership vary between the U.S. and Germany.

First, some raw numbers. According to this article from The Nest, there are 78.2 million pet dogs living in the U.S. With a human population of 318.9 million, that's one dog for every 4.1 Americans. Germany, in contrast, has 5.2 million pet dogs for 80.62 million people, which comes out to one dog for every 15.5 Germans. Based on these numbers, it's obvious that dogs are much more popular in the U.S. than they are in Germany. (Side note: If you add cats into the calculation, there is one pet for every 1.9 people in America and one for every 6.2 people in Germany.* So it seems that the German trend is not just toward fewer dogs but toward fewer pets in general.)

The differences regarding dog ownership don't end with the numbers. The rules and expectations for dogs in daily life also vary. The most obvious difference I noticed shortly after moving to Germany is which public spaces dogs are allowed to enter. In the U.S., dogs are usually welcome in all areas of people's homes and are even allowed up on people's couches and beds, but once the dog leaves the home and enters public space the expectations change. Dogs are not allowed in stores, restaurants, movie theaters, offices or most other buildings, unless the dog is a service dog for someone who is blind, deaf or otherwise disabled. There are laws in place regarding food safety that make it illegal for any non-service dog to enter a business where food is being served, including restaurants, cafes and bars (not that you'd want to bring a dog to a bar anyway). A few non-food stores allow dogs in, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

In Germany, the rules are different. I've seen dogs in stores, shopping malls and cafes, and no one except me seems to think it's weird. I was shocked the first time I saw someone bring their dog into the mall and thought they must be crazy, but since then I've seen dogs in stores and cafes over and over again. Some German businesses post signs asking that dogs remain outside, but if there's no sign it could be assumed that dogs are welcome. Even though I still think it's really weird that people bring their dogs everywhere, it usually doesn't bother me, except when the dog is barking, which happened once when Maxim and I were at a cafe. The dog and his owner didn't even get kicked out of the cafe after repeated episodes of barking, which was very frustrating.

Other than that one incident, though, dogs that make public appearances in Germany are almost always well-behaved. Germans seem to take the behavior of their dogs very seriously and train them accordingly and well from a young age. Most of the time when I walk past someone walking their dog, the dog is so well-behaved that I barely even notice it, and when I do notice it's only because it's particularly small and cute (I have a soft spot for cute little dogs!).

Well-behaved is not always the norm in the U.S. Many inexperienced people get dogs without having the slightest idea what to do with them, and as a result a fairly large number of dogs in America are poorly or not at all trained. This can work out okay if the dog is small, but the most popular dogs in America are on the larger side (the top three most popular breeds in America in 2015 were Labrador retrievers, German shepherds and golden retrievers) so the lack of training can be a problem. It's not uncommon to go over to someone's house and be greeted by their large dog jumping on you and barking.

Golden Retriever, couch for scale. Thanks to Lindsay for the picture.

Of course, there are also some dogs in Germany that are not well trained; not every German prioritizes dog training, just like not every American lets their dog misbehave. However, you don't tend to see the unruly dogs in public in Germany because the owners leave them at home (thank goodness). I think most Germans would be embarrassed to go out in public with a misbehaving dog due to judgment from strangers, whereas Americans are more likely to overlook something like that.

I should note that I may be comparing apples and oranges when it comes to my own personal experiences with dogs in both countries. In the U.S. I mostly lived in rural areas or small towns, and in Germany I've mostly lived in cities. Maybe city living leads people to train their dogs better, and maybe the freedom of a rural area makes dog training less important. That could have something to do with the differences I've seen, but I don't think it explains them completely.

One last difference: spaying and neutering. There is generally an expectation in the U.S. that you will get your dog spayed (if it's female) or neutered (if it's male), leading to 78 percent of dogs in America being "fixed." This expectation is not nearly as strong in Germany. I don't have statistics on spaying and neutering in Germany, but all it takes is a set of eyes to notice that nearly all the male dogs you see on their daily walks are intact. It still catches my attention sometimes, since I grew up in a country where seeing a non-neutered male dog is pretty rare. I have a theory that this difference is also related to differing expectations in terms of training and owner attentiveness: in the U.S. spaying and neutering is a precaution to prevent unintended doggie pregnancy and to reduce the number of stray and unwanted dogs. In Germany, the precaution may be seen as unnecessary because you should have your dog trained and under control in the first place, giving it no opportunity for shenanigans.

I realize I am making sweeping generalizations in this post, as I often do in my "America vs. Germany" posts. While I do my best to describe real trends as I see them, remember that this is based on my personal experience and a bit of light research. Have you noticed the same things about dog ownership in the U.S. and/or Germany? Are there differences I've forgotten to mention? Let me know in the comments!

* Number of pet dogs and cats in the U.S. and Germany taken from the article "Number of Dogs & Cats in Households Worldwide," people-per-pet calculations done by me with population data from Google.

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