There are approximately 1.85 million dogs in The Netherlands and not a single one of them is homeless. The Netherlands is widely credited with being the first country in the world with no stray dogs, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the wonderful Dutch dog culture. If you are a dog lover, then The Netherlands is a great place for both you and your pet.
We moved to Haarlem almost 20 years ago, bringing 2 cats and a large, hyperactive, German Short-Haired Pointer with us. As you can imagine, it was a stressful trip. When we gathered the pets from the oversized luggage kiosk at Schiphol airport, Sage was barking furiously and the two cats were screeching like banshees under a full moon. We pushed two baggage trolleys stacked full of luggage and pet carriers in front of us toward the exit. Our hopes and dreams for a new life in The Netherlands were now at the mercy of the imposing Dutch custom agent who blocked our path into the arrivals hall. We had a mountain of paperwork for the pets: health certificates, stamped testaments, microchip registrations, vaccination history. Everything was in triplicate as advised by the United States embassy. A bead of sweat appeared on my brow as I handed the agent the first set of documents. He took the folder and looked at me. He leaned over and looked at our unruly heap of luggage, wincing as Clyde let loose with a particularly high-pitched scream of discontent. Then the agent opened the folder, scanned the title page, closed the folder, and nodded us through. He didn’t say another word nor check a single other document. The whole encounter lasted less than 10 seconds. It all happened so fast that I was almost disappointed. Almost. But that was the moment that I knew in my heart that The Netherlands was my kind of country.
There are plenty of pundits who write plenty of articles about the pros and cons of dogs, dog behavior, dog owners, dog toys, dog food, dog breeds, dog hair, and the abject horror of dog poop. This article is not about any of those things. Dear reader, let’s take a giant leap of faith together and assume that the world is made up of rainbows and butterflies and that all dog owners are responsible individuals who clean up after their pets, have at least a basic understanding of dog behavior, and have properly trained their four legged friends to be social, slobbering, happy members of society. With that bold assumption in hand, let me tell you about my experience with owning a dog in The Netherlands.
Coming from the wide open countryside of America to this crowded urban corner of Europe was terrifying to me as a dog owner. Sage wasn’t trained to walk civilly on a leash, had never seen a bicycle before, and frequently mistook the local pigeon population as a wild game birds that needed summary elimination. How would I keep this high-energy hunting dog from driving me insane in this type of environment?
Well, it turns out that the Dutch have a very simple solution: Losloopgebieden. These are designated areas where dogs are permitted to run off-leash and freely interact with their environment. These are not isolated patches of dirt secured by chain link fences like the dog “parks” found in many other parts of the world. They are integral to the open space planning of the community and are used by everyone who enjoys the outdoors. This means that not only can your dog find other furry friends to run and play with, they can also interact with all the other trappings of Dutch life, including kids, bikes, horses, squirrels, trains, planes, and automobiles. Losloopgebieden are the heart and soul of Dutch dog culture and range in size, from a small corner of the neighborhood park, to large sections of municipal forests, and even entire tracts within national parks, including the beach. They are everywhere!
While dogs are certainly the primary beneficiaries of losloopgebieden, dog owners find great health and social benefits from them as well. There is definitely an inherent connection between people with dogs that makes it very easy to strike up a conversation with others in the park. However, in practice the owner has very little control over the social aspect of the park. It’s all about the dogs and who they choose to play with. You can find yourself in some very interesting conversations with some very interesting people because your dog has no social or cultural filters. Dogs do not care about age, race, sex, wealth, poverty, gender-identity, fashion, bad haircuts, body piercing, nationality, political affiliation, or any other aspect of human cultural bias. They just want to sniff butts and play. As a dog owner, you should embrace this behavior and never underestimate the opportunity to make new friends for yourself or your pet.
I remember an early encounter I had in my local park. It was dusk and I rounded a corner to come face-to-face with a giant of a man. He stood 190cm with massive arms and a thick, muscled neck. A tattoo of a spitting snake ran the length of his arm. Every fiber of my being screamed to step to the side and quickly continue my walk, but my dog and his dog were having nothing of the sort. It seemed that they were long lost friends, reunited for the first time in years and they had some serious playing to catch up on. So the tattoo guy and I stopped and watched them for a while as the two dogs ran wild circles around us. Then we started to talk. Jan and I now have a long-standing friendship under our belts, even though both dogs passed away many years ago. And this is by no means an isolated incident. I have made many friends in the local losloopgebieden. For example, I am also a member of the 17:00 group of dog walkers which is comprised mostly of little old Dutch ladies. Panda and one of the dogs from the group had an instant click, chasing each other like hellions around the small park. I couldn’t have walked away if I wanted to. They welcomed me in and two years later, Anki, Marianne, Debbie, and Hans are helping me improve my Dutch and enthusiastically text me when they will be in the park so that we can meet up, talk, and let the dogs play. I count them as true friends.
Here are a few of Panda’s favorite losloopgebieden in and around Haarlem:
Molen van de Schoterveenpolder. This is my local go-to park. You can walk the entire perimeter of the polder off leash, although the section along Marnixstraat can get busy so I usually put Panda on a line here. A great little play area for the dogs is right behind the mill.
Zannenpark. Another local favorite. Only one section of the park is officially a losloopgebied and it can get busy with kids playing. But it’s also a great place to meet the locals and make new friends.
Burgemeester Rijkenspark, Santpoort. This is the municipal forest in Santpoort and almost the entire forest is designated as a losloopgebied. If you zig-zag through the numerous trails you can easily get a 40 minute walk here with your dog. There are plenty of other dogs in the park, but it is also big enough that you can get some quiet time in nature as well.
Beeckestijn, Velsen. One of the largest losloopgebieden in the area, Beeckestijn is a weekend favorite. It has a bit of everything, from thick forest to broad formal paths. The large field is almost a guarantee for finding other dogs to play with on a weekend. Between Beeckestijn and the surrounding other parks and woodland, we used to jog for 6K here with that hyperactive German Shorthair Pointer I told you about. She still didn’t get tired. It’s really a wonderful park.
Caprera, Bloemendaal. This is a paid entry park, but it is entirely fenced for dog owners who are still training their pet. It’s where we started with Sage. The park is very large and adjacent to the Kennemerduinen National park, so you can get a true feel of nature and dunes with your dog.
There are dozens more in the area and hundreds, if not thousands, across the country. Find the losloopbegied in your neighborhood and get out there on a regular basis. Say “hi” to the others walking there. Let your dog run. Stop, talk, and have an interesting conversation.
Dutch dog culture is a great equalizer and can help you feel more at home in you adoptive country.