Is it time to stop calling your dog your “fur baby”?

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By Drew Webster, CPDT-KA

Hand me my soapbox please.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that people are not in tune with the animals with which they share their life and home. There seems to be tremendous emphasis on the dogs’ personality, the dog being disobedient or stubborn meaning they are not bending to the owners will. Consider if you will the concept of “obey”, obedience training, housebreaking… this is the culture dogs exist under.

Miriam Webster’s Dictionary (I’m sure she and I must be related) defines Obey/ Obedience as;

  1. To follow commands or guidance of…
  2. To conform to or comply with…

-intrinsic verb: to behave obediently: The dog does not always obey.

Even the dictionary expects dogs to comply with our human will but, what if this is at the heart of the problem. What if our approach to dogs sets them up to fail, what if the way we have tried to create a life for them is flawed. I suggested in my last blog, “freedom near the fringe” that dogs may not enjoy their walks but crave free-time to be a dog.

We hide behind this facade of dogs being spoiled and loved but there is a deep imbedded sickness in that we don’t give them the dignity of “dogginess”. When dogs were working alongside nomadic tribesmen, herding flock animals, pulling carts and sleds there was more cooperation between human and non-human animal than exists today. Two sentient beings working side by side with a common goal utilizing species specific skills. These people appreciated dogs for being dogs. There is something moving and powerful about two different species with independent traits and needs having a shared purpose. To me this is at the core of the human-animal bond. There are those who “get their dogs” and those who project a flawed common knowledge culture onto their companion.

Consider doggy daycare and dog parks. This is built around the “pack theory” concept that is commonly misinterpreted to mean dogs need to be socialized in a group of stranger dogs. In actuality, this is a very stressful and a risky environment for your dog to have fun and safe social interactions. There are people who seem to add a dog as more of an accessory to their lifestyle? Simply examine how many college students at the University of Washington acquire (and relinquish) a Husky or a Bulldog at the University of Georgia. Everyone loves the idea of owning “the mascots”, how hip.

Today in the “modern world”, there is very little room for a dog to be a dog. The majority of behaviors labeled “behavior problems” by owners, trainers, vets, experts are really describing species specific dog behavior. Digging, barking, pulling (against oppositional pressure), protecting, biting, urinating and defecating for scent purposes. Dogs are supposed to perform these behaviors, they just don’t go over well in our human environments. I am not here to questions peoples’ affinity for dogs or their devotion to caring for their animal rather, to point out that we have a deep cultural acceptance for mastery over animals that drives the culture for pet keeping in our homes.

Dogs don’t have much say in the matter of their existence. We breed them, relinquish them, adopt them, foster them, pair them, house them, train them, walk them, vaccinate them, wash them, feed them and on and on. Life seems to happen TO them not WITH them. Although we can say we carefully select a dog to join our home, they have zero input, who’s to say they would select the same environment for themselves. The dog has very little say in the choices that will define and shape their life, environment, stimulation, enrichment, nutrition, companions, experiences, etc. The modern dog is almost more akin to a life of an “in-slaved” creature rather than a faithful companion. Would too far to think of many dogs as “pet slaves”, unable to have any control over their livelihood (think how many dogs you see in your neighborhood behind a fence who you have never seen leave for a walk).

If you consider suffering to mean a lack of control or say in one’s own life, many dogs are indeed suffering a great deal. What if we could shape training, enrichment, everyday feeding, exercise, social interactions to cater to a process where by the dogs have a sense of autonomy while moving through their world.

The family dog can be both uniting and dividing in a household, certain family members might be less tolerant and willing to help the dog learn desirable behaviors. Imagine coming together in a profound way as a team, a family unit, with one goal of improving the quality of life for all members of the household. This could serve as the model for the other relationships in the house and create empathetic responses to stress.

Punishment is easily derived out of frustration against the one who commits the “moral transgression”. If the home is of a “us versus him” or “us versus them” mentality it is a divided household. Empathy and species understanding is the key. You simply don’t need pain to train. There is a cultural acceptance of punishment based methods especially with domestic animals. “They need to learn who’s boss” is a common one I hear to those apposed to more humane training techniques. Teaching animals how to be successful and REWARDING desirable outcomes is a more cohesive approach based on creating understanding and compassion for all members of the household.

“Just because dogs and other nonhuman animals display dominance, this does not mean we should dominate dogs when we are trying to teach them to live in harmony with us and other dogs. We should always work in partnership with dogs with whom we share our homes and hearts to achieve a win-win for all. ” Marc Beckoff, Psychology Today Blog: Dogs, Love, Rejection, Dominance, and Breeding. 

All or nothing often leads people to do NOTHING. If they can’t fix the behavior instantly, there is this “why bother starting” mentality. Training relies on repetitions of successful outcomes. Patience is key. Let your dog help you be a better animal and learn to partner with your dog to achieve the same goal.