Prague, Czech Republic – You only need to wander around Prague or any Czech city to notice one surprising fact: dogs are everywhere – idly resting under a tree, trotting alongside their master during their morning stroll or Sunday run, joyfully gambolling in the park or even taking tram 22 like a normal commuter. This is one of the lesser-known fact about Czechs: they’re monumental dog-lovers. And it’s also a character trait you wouldn’t really expect to find here. At least I didn’t.
Around a quarter of Czechs own a dog
Precise data about the number of dogs in the country are hard to come by. According to the year and methodology that was used (whether it only takes into account dogs in households, or also those in kennels), figures widely vary and span, approximately, from 2.3 million to 3.5 million dogs. Not bad for a country with slightly more than 10 million inhabitants. A recent GfK survey estimated that 38% of Czechs were dog owners. Despite diverging figures, it seems safe to say that at least 25% to 30% of Czechs own a dog (with almost as many of them thinking about buying one in the near future). This is a lot, but still lower than a few European countries (Romania, for instance) and twice as less as South American nations, which stand out as the world-leaders in dog-ownership.
But data doesn’t tell the whole story.
A canine-induced metamorphosis
We need to take a closer look at how Czech people behave with their pet. And regardless of how many there are, this is what surprised me the most when I first moved here. First off, it’s important to remind that Czechs have a reputation for being calm, somewhat detached and reserved people – if not cold or outright unfriendly – when they interact, especially with foreigners. Whether you agree or not with this opinion is a discussion for another day. What’s noteworthy is how much their behaviour can change when they’re with their dog – or, for that matter, whenever a dog can be found in a 5-mile radius.
Don’t be surprised to walk by a threatening-looking, massively-built punk guy with skull tattoos from head-to-toe (in other words, someone you wouldn’t necessarily want to run into at 3 am in a dark and empty street) suddenly going full-on gaga mode with his little chihuahua. Don’t be surprised to run into your supermarket’s cashier who makes a living out of barking insults at your face for forgetting to weigh your tomatoes, whispering cute words in her dachshund’s ear while lovingly picking up its poop. Don’t be surprised, either, to run into a suspicious, misanthropic and mean-looking old Czech suddenly turning into the world’s dorkiest man to keep his German Shepherd from running onto the busy road.
I could go on for ages, but you get my point: Czechs behave very differently with their dogs than in other daily situations. Many foreigners who just arrived in Prague can get the impression they treat their four-legged friends in a much nicer way than they treat them. It sometimes looks as though their canine partner brings out the friendly, spontaneous and good-natured part in them. Or, inversely, that Czechs save their dorky and softer nature for the comfort-zone of their man-dog relationship.
This is, obviously, quite a good business opportunity as well. For when it comes to their pet, no expense is spared: quality food, healthcare, body-care, clothes, haircuts… A number of dog-related apps have also started to appear in the last few years, with one of the most famous of them being Actijoy, which helps owners monitor at all times their dog’s activity, behaviour and health.
Czechs’ (objectified) best friend?
What are the hidden forces at play here? Experts say that the dog-ownership trends in the Czech Republic are very similar to that of its Central European neighbours, with whom it shares a strong pet-ownership tradition dating back to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Asking Czechs – who are rarely self-conscious about the magnitude of their dog-loving spirit, and for whom owning a dog can even seem as natural as owning a television set – might also prove difficult and inconclusive. Czechs own a dog for the exact same reasons as anyone else: to have a partner, someone to come back to at the end of the day, for the feeling of selfless love and unconditional support it conveys. Dogs also have the great advantage of… not being humans. The benefits of maintaining so-called “non-conflicting” relationships with another living being are also regularly mentioned by Czech dog-owners, apparently frustrated with the excruciating and painstaking intricacies of human interactions.
Another reason often brought forward, by young and older people alike, is that it’s a great way to meet other people. This can easily be seen in the streets and parks, where you’ll often stumble upon dog-owners starting up a conversation while their pets are enthusiastically sniffing each other’s rear end. One can often hear foreigners complaining about how hard it is to meet people in the country, saying they have to rely on networking events or, God forbid, meeting apps. There is another, less time-consuming (although slightly more committing) option: buying a dog.
Interviewed by Radio Prague reporters a few years ago, a member of the Czech dog breeders’ union gave a more practical reason: in the Czech Republic’s legal system, a dog “is qualified as an object, and therefore no one can tell you what you can or cannot do with it”. This applies to landlords, for instance, who may be at loss if they ever intend to have your dog evicted from the building or your apartment, but also to public transports, restaurants, cafés, bars and even some offices.
A way to fight loneliness?
Even if the legal system makes it somewhat more convenient for people to own a dog, the underlying reasons are pretty much similar to anywhere else. It all boils down to this: companionship. But that’s not a sufficient explanation. Czechs’ insatiable and overarching love for dogs might make more sense if they were particularly prone to suffering from feelings of loneliness or social exclusion. After further research, I found out that… the exact opposite was true. According to European data, the Czech Republic stands out as being the country with the lowest share of lonely people: less than 2% of Czechs said they didn’t have anyone “to ask for help”, compared to an EU average of 6%.
Another dead-end. Unless…
What if, when answering the survey, the respondents were thinking of their dog as “someone to ask for help”? In that case, the results would be faulty, and Czechs’ dog-loving nature would be a little bit less of a mystery.