Cross-Channel canine contrasts

Dr Tim Blakemore, a former senior law lecturer at the University of Northampton who now lives in France, looks at British and French attitudes to man’s best friend

27 September 2017
By Dr Tim Blakemore

The British are renowned as a nation of dog lovers, but are the French more so, perhaps even to a fault?

In July, a Connexion article ‘Pets are one of the family’ reported a survey saying there were 7.3million dogs in French households with 60% of them regarded as a “member of the family”. Yet, in August, Reha Mutin of animal charity Fondation 30 millions d’amis told Samantha David that the French abandoned 60,000 animals every year.

How do the British compare? Undoubtedly dogs are viewed as part of the family in many cases. You may even have heard the expression “fur babies”, although whether that makes you cringe or smile will depend on the degree of your own enthusiasm. Sadly, the statistics for abandoned dogs seem to tally with the French situation, according to the Dogs Trust.

There are also similarities in the legal position. In England and Wales the Animal Welfare Act of 2007 replaced several pieces of old law on cruelty to animals and for the first time imposed a positive duty of care on pet owners.

Not only will they be guilty of an offence if they cause their pets to suffer harm, but they must also provide them with a suitable environment, such as an appropriate diet or their need to be housed with other animals.

There was much comment in France when the Civil Code (the collection of laws regulating relationships between individuals) was amended in 2014 by changing the status of animals from that of mere objects to that of “sentient living beings” (êtres vivants doués de sensibilité).

Since 1804 they had had a status similar to that of tables and settees, so this was seen as a positive step forwards in animal rights.

In reality, however, it merely brought their status into line with existing criminal laws, but it might be interesting to see if there is a change in tactics in court-room battles over who is to have custody of Fido. Perhaps we will see specialist animal social workers preparing reports for the judge (“Fido is reluctant to say who he would rather live with but I sense a preference for Monsieur. Although his attitude might be influenced by Monsieur’s job in the local sausage factory”).

There are two areas where differences stand out. First, in the UK it is extremely difficult to find a hotel which will allow you to take your dog into your room. But in France it is very unusual to find a hotel which won’t.

At least this is what we have found in numerous trips between the north and south of France, staying in over a dozen different hotels from Calais to Castres with a large long-haired lurcher and a hyperactive Border terrier. It took us a while to get used to this freedom, and even now we feel slightly self-conscious when walking through a hotel reception and up the staircase with two dogs.

There is no law on the subject in the UK, but the French courts have ruled that holiday lettings cannot exclude pets automatically, except “attack dogs”.

No dogs sign red with black and white
No dogs

Similarly in restaurants, the second significant area of difference. You may have tried taking a dog into a bar or pub in the UK, only to be met by a horrified member of staff squawking “but there’s people eating in here!”

No, you insist, he is perfectly house-trained, is not a plague carrier, and does not have a tendency to jump on to tables. All to no avail, despite the fact that Food Hygiene Regulations only make food preparation areas out of bounds, not areas where food is served and sold.

The French have a very different attitude and dogs are usually welcomed. Indeed, in one hotel we stayed at, the manager went out of his way to suggest we bring our dogs into the restaurant rather than leave them in our room. You may have seen French diners get up and fuss another diner’s dog, even bring titbits over to it. It is not unusual to see a small dog sitting on a chair next to their owner.

One of my guilty pleasures was the TV series of Sex and the City. In one episode, the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie Bradshaw) spent time in Paris with her French boy-friend, a little against her better judgment. As she said, “I’ve never been to Paris, unless you count going to the movies”. So when she was pictured in a bistro exchanging morose looks with a large dog seated on the bench next to her, it was a neat illustration of cultural differences and her sense of being abandoned in a foreign world.

Paris is not Manhattan and the contrast reflects British sensibilities as well, although the Kennel Club’s “Be Dog Friendly” campaign is trying to change that.

All of this suggests the key difference between the French and the British is one of culture rather than law when it comes to pets in general, and dogs in particular, with classic British pragmatism contrasted with French sentimentality.

There are lots of other signs that the French are more dog-friendly than the British. Where dogs are not permitted, the signs usually say something along the lines of “our friends the animals” are not allowed, whereas signs in the UK tend towards the brusque “no dogs”.

Even when supposedly excluded, in French supermarkets it is not unusual to see a small dog in someone’s bag or even in the trolley seat for children, yet I have never seen one being pursued by an anxious manager.

Dog grooming parlours can be seen in most towns.

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Specialised cemeteries can be found, such as Le Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques at Asnières-sur-Seine, near Paris. When one of our dogs died we were able to have her cremated and her ashes were returned with a certificate that it was an individual cremation, together with a small heart-shaped pad of flower seeds to plant where-ever her ashes were scattered.

But there are some down-sides which perhaps suggest the French have gone too far the other way.

Dogs are often allowed to roam freely, and pavements are fouled so that trottoirs become crottoirs.

And while dog-owners are delighted to be able to take their pets into the hotel with them, would you want to sleep in a room where the previous inhabitant had been a hairy German shepherd, especially if it had been a dog rather than a person?

Dog-lovers in a restaurant enjoy seeing a well-behaved dog sitting or lying quietly by its owner with just one beady eye fixed on the table in case there’s a chance of a tit-bit.

But would you want to eat your gourmet meal next to a Rottweiler who is clearly keen to share it with you? Or take you instead, come to that?

Perhaps after all the British have got the balance right by loving their dogs while also thinking of the needs of those who are not so besotted.

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