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Miss Conduct

Going to the dogs

Can you insist on order in the park? Plus, meddling sisters-in-law.

By Robin Abrahams
October 24, 2010

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At a local park, several dozen dogs regularly play off-leash illegally. Not a week goes by that I don’t see a dog escape into the street, owner running behind as cars screech to a halt. My neighbors’ children have been knocked over by off-leash dogs. Yet a world-class enclosed dog park is only a five-minute walk down the street. Recent events have pushed me to a boiling point: being asked “what’s wrong” with my dog that I keep her on leash, and being blamed for an unprovoked attack by an off-leash dog. In both cases, I reminded the other owner that this is not an off-leash dog park. Am I being an insufferable stick-in-the-mud, or am I right? R.V. / Boston

You ask as though those two options were mutually exclusive, which, sadly, they are not. I don’t think you’re being insufferable; the situation as you describe it isn’t physically safe or psychologically beneficial for dogs or people. It seems only a matter of time before a child or dog gets seriously hurt in an altercation or a dog gets run over. But how much of a crusade do you want to lead here? The culture of this particular park has clearly deteriorated into a free-for-all, and unless you want to be the person who is constantly calling Animal Control (and believe me, the neighbors will figure out it’s you), I don’t see that there is much you can do about it. You say there is a world-class dog park nearby – why not go there instead? Or you could take your dog on longer, non-park-oriented walks. One of the well-known health benefits of owning a dog is that it can increase the amount of exercise and social interaction its owners get, but of course it’s up to the owners to make sure that happens. Walking your dog through the pretty autumn streets of Boston seems a better way to get your heart rate up than arguing with your neighbors.

There are times when my childless sister-in-law lovingly offers family management tips that I really want to rejoin with: “If you had children, you’d understand.” My concern is that I may offend her if she is trying to conceive. About six months ago I unfortunately blurted out, “Well, if you had kids . . .” To my surprise, she became quite upset and suggested I shouldn’t say that. She may not want kids – I’m not sure. So what should I say to her when she offers these tips? K.A. / Woburn

Sorry, you need better material than that. What do you say to your children when they ask you questions? I’m guessing if you’ve ever tried the good old parental standby “You’ll understand when you’re older,” it didn’t go over too well. It’s irrelevant whether your sister-in-law wants children or not; people simply don’t like to be told that they are categorically incapable of understanding another person’s experience. We are all locked into our own solitary minds, but we have language and imagination and empathy – and saying, “You just can’t [as opposed to ‘don’t’] understand” does nothing but put up a brick wall between you and the other person. (Wait until your kids are teenagers and pull the same “You’ll never understand!” door-slamming routine on you. Then you’ll understand.) Which is not to say that you need to put up with excessive meddling or advice-giving if it’s getting on your nerves. Talk to your sister-in-law and apologize for your comment, and say that you’ll try not to dismiss her like that again. Then explain how you feel when she gives you advice – frustrated? condescended to? inadequate? ignored? It sounds as though both of you need to stop talking at each other and start listening a bit instead. And since you’re the one who wrote to an advice columnist, not her, then tag, you’re it.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to missconduct@globe.com. BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at boston.com/missconduct. CHAT Get advice live every first and third Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at boston.com.

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