When Charles II redesigned St James’s Park in the 1670s, he envisioned a space in which dogs might roam freely with humans. Needless to say, this didn’t go to plan.
The Royal Dogs described variously as ‘a black dog between a Greyhound and a Spaniel’ and a ‘Dog of His Majesty full of blue spots about the size of a tumbler’, were always scarpering off beyond the confines of the park and ending up in the newspapers. This anecdote will surprise precisely zero dog owners who would regard the idea of dogs and humans roaming freely in the park as total anarchy.
Almost three hundred and fifty years later, the rules for dogs in parks and other green spaces are more tightly regulated. In many parks, dogs are not allowed off the lead. When your dog defecates, you must pick it up and dispose of it in the appropriate bin often under the horrified gaze of passing joggers. Woe betide the citizen who shirks this most essential of civic duties. In some English villages, this sort of negligence is on a par with murdering the vicar. Multiple offenders are named and shamed with glee on the community facebook page.
In my local urban “green space” Oxford University Parks, dogs must be kept on a lead in areas where other people are walking but not where they aren’t. In Blenheim Palace’s gigantic great park, dogs are not allowed off the lead and must be led like prisoners around the vast expanse of landscaped woodland, although presumably the Duke lets his Labradors off for a romp after hours.
Many people, of course, would agree with the restrictions. What is an object of affection for one is a symbol of danger for another and the line between the two wavers constantly during any dog walk on public ground. Frequently walking along the waterways of Oxfordshire with a Pointer and a small child, I am a double target for either a surfeit of affection or antipathy. Mostly, people look at me as if I am stark staring mad to have a large dog and a small child in my charge and I would not disagree with them.
Without their owners to control them, dogs are a metonym for civil disorder and chaos, tearing down hierarchies between man and beast and romping over carefully constructed civil mechanisms that keep us in check. Owners would do well to remember this next time a passerby looks stricken by the sight of their overly friendly hound bounding over to greet them.
In the Covid era, dog walking on public ground can tell us a great deal about how we are adapting to ‘the new normal’. The rule of social-distancing in particular, reveals its seams. Contact-starved people find themselves powerless to resist the temptation to fling themselves onto the nearest dog, straining to take selfies amidst the fur and paws. Some owners love it when other park dwellers bestow this sort of adulation on their pet. To others it’s as uncouth and as unwanted as a perfect stranger going in for a hug.
Even before Covid, this was a minefield one had to navigate with care. The British are always more effusive with their pets than they are with each other. Yet pets are often the means by which we strike up conversations; we rely on them like we do the weather.
Some non dog owners, who practically observe the two-metre rule of social distancing with a tape-measure, make an exaggerated bee-line away from dog walkers in case an excess of canine enthusiasm should lead to an inadvertent breach of the rules.
Thanks to the lockdown puppy boom and the closing of other public spaces, the park-going public are now confronted with more dogs than ever. Before lockdown, you probably had better things to think about. But now our newsfeeds are flooded with pictures of new canines, society is squarely divided into the haves and the have nots, the dog adorers and the dog loathers. It turns out dogs are as divisive as lockdowns themselves.
After centuries of canines being condemned as vectors of disease and filth, the tables have turned. We are the source of contagion. But the further we move apart from each other, the closer we move to our canine counterparts. St James’s Park is not what it was in Charles II’s era. Let’s stick a few more dogs in there and see what happens; we might even enjoy ourselves.