The quintessential Irish animal (for us foreigners, at least) may be the sheep. With it comes the image of the quintessential Irish sheepdog, roaming in green pastures at the heels of a shepherd in an earth-toned sweater. To round out the picture, we must give the shepherd a set of khaki pants and a cabbie hat.
While it’s true that Ireland’s fauna does not get much more complicated than a sheep - and cows, for added measure - Ireland does have a distinct culture when it comes to dog ownership.
For example, our American notion of leashes and harnesses can be thrown out right now. Fences? Feh, a mere suggestion of a boundary rather than a hard line. Whereas in the United States we like to keep our animals close and under control, pets in Ireland often roam freely.
Let’s alter the image: instead of a pasture think of a city with low-rise buildings and each door painted vibrantly and distinctively (side note: I was informed by a friend the doors are painted as such in Ireland due to heavy drinking in older times. Similarly to the painted white stumps in Portland, you needed to know what you were knocking on). We’re at the intersection where Western Avenue becomes the city center and pedestrians wait in layers for the light to turn - and there’s a loose dog underfoot. He’s small, about ankle-height, minding his own business and plodding in swooping arcs after an efficiently-moving owner. If he goes too far astray, a word or whistle returns him to the intended path.
So there’s the city. Dogs in the more agricultural areas could have even more liberty to roam at will. Here we are in Dingle wandering the green cliffs and scrabbling over centuries-old bouldered fences to touch, just touch, really, one small pat, a cow. While cows in Ireland could render their own post, the focus now is the lone dog cresting a nearby hill, and who stops to greet us. This scene repeated itself on our way to climb Carrauntoohil when a dog appeared on the road and followed us to the trailhead. In both of these instances the dogs had homes, but they could come and go at will.
We commented often while there how well behaved the dogs are. I think there are a few reasons for this. One is that Ireland has no sizeable predators - Ireland’s move from forested lands to agriculture has a lot to do with that. Thus the freewheeling cats and dogs have significantly less to worry about than the coyotes we get in our neighborhoods. There is also the obvious historical usage of dogs for herding, hunting, and agricultural work, which means dogs had to be at a certain level of training and independence. It wouldn’t surprise me if that is still at play today. Finally, small dogs reign supreme in Ireland, and therefore there’s less risk associated with them.
Let me reiterate: larger dogs aren’t as popular, and are even perceived as dangerous. The few labs, retrievers, and German Shepherds that I saw were leashed and even affixed with muzzles. To drive the point further home, there was a time I was set to meet a friend who warned me repeatedly about his very large dog. When I met the dog, it turned out to be a normally-sized yellow lab. Even more striking, every local we came across that day commented in shock on the size of the dog. In Ireland, you’re more likely to see Jack Russell Terriers, papillons, and other small, shaggy, dogs.
A final note on something those of us Americans found humorous - I swear I saw more children on leashes than dogs.
To finish: do you have a big dog or a small dog? How much freedom does it have?