Originally published July 2013
At the end of June, I had the great opportunity to watch the SPARCS (http://caninescience.info/) conference on the web, and heard some terrific speakers. One of the speakers discussed the different perceptions from around the world about how people ought to live with dogs. I want to start out by saying that I have a way I live with my dogs and it is likely different from the way that you live with your dogs and that is okay. In fact, how I live with my dogs is actually different from the way that John, my husband lives with our dogs. The fact is that every relationship is different and there are some great advantages to those differences.
The way that I live with my dogs is that they have time alone in their crates for eating and then they have time in their yard with each other and the rest of the time they spend with me. If I am going out to do chores, I take a dog with me unless it would be dangerous to do so. If I am going to have a nap, a dog accompanies me. I use a service dog, so if I am going grocery shopping, my dog goes with me too. In the car or the truck, my dogs are in crates for their safety. Living on the farm, I don’t tend to walk my dogs as much as I used to, although I still do enjoy that if we have a chance to do that. Mostly they get enough exercise accompanying me while I do things like feed the horses and check the fences and weed the garden.
In order for my dogs to do what they do with me, they must have some skills. This is part of what drew me to training in the first place. When I am mixing gasoline to put in the tractor or the chain saw, I cannot be chasing a dog around if he is running too close to the road, nor can I have him sticking his nose into what I do. I teach my dogs to come when called, to lie down and stay, to lie down at a distance, to bring things back and to follow when I walk away all in order to be able to do the stuff I want to do with them.
On the surveys that the scientist speaking at SPARCS was showing, there were some marked differences in attitudes about how dogs should live with us. In the Caribbean for instance most people felt it was cruel for dogs to be kept indoors. In North America, it was felt to be cruel for dogs to be left outside. In some parts of the world, dogs are kept strictly for work. In other places dogs are kept strictly as companions. Some dogs live free much as raccoons and squirrels live. Which is right? To quote the inimitable Suzanne Clothier, ask the dog. When you ask the dog, you do need to be ready to turn the world inside out.
I think that if you asked my dog D’fer, he would tell you that his life is pretty good. Meals are predictable and he knows the ebb and flow of my schedule. He is “helping” me to write now, by lying quietly by my chair and sleeping. Sleeping is a good thing to do if you are a dog and nothing else of interest is happening. He has had his breakfast, he has been out to pee after breakfast, he helped me to get my morning started and supervised me making coffee. Until I get up and do something else, he is pretty much off duty and can do what he pleases and what pleases him seems to be sleeping next to me while I write.
What about the dogs who are kept strictly for work? I am thinking here of herding dogs, some Search and Rescue Dogs, some Police and Military dogs; is it fair to them that they come out of a dog run and go to work for a period of time and then go back into their kennel? My dog Eco would like that very much. He is intense and he loves to work hard, but he also appreciates his unstructured down time. He is quite happy to spend more time in the kennel or the yard than D’fer is. He was bred from police and military lines of German Shepherds, so in a way you could say that his genetics fit that kind of a life; work hard, play hard, learn hard, and then rest hard. He is not the kind of dog who would make a lot of people happy because of the level of intensity that he brings with him. When he works he works hard. When he is not working, he can be in the house with us happily, but I think he is equally happy with down time alone, provided he is getting enough work. Enough work for Eco is about eight to ten hours a day.
And how about the dogs in the Caribbean who live outside? Is that fair to them? The consensus was that people in that part of the world felt that it is not only fair but unfair to do otherwise to them. They live in a hot climate, and that is an area of the world where dogs are not often used for things like herding sheep. I imagine that if you asked them, the dog would be quite happy. One of the really intriguing things about dogs is their level of flexibility. They adapt to a very wide range of situations and they seem to succeed and thrive in these situations. It does not mean that every individual will succeed in every environment, but when the environment matches the background of the dog, it can work very well. In the Caribbean, one of the most common dogs you will see is the “Potcake” or village dog. These dogs live on the beaches, they live in the yards of people and they scavenge for food. When they are made into pets, they have the right kind of coat and structure to live outdoors and the perception locally is that this is the most appropriate place for them. These dogs also have skills that allow them to be successful. They stay close to particular parts of the community, but they don’t try and push themselves into the house. They may attach themselves to particular people and follow them around, but they aren’t usually living within the house with people.
Then there are the truly feral dogs. More and more often we are seeing advertisements for these dogs, rescued off the dumps in the far north, or off the streets of Asia or South America or India and transported here. In Moscow, there is a well known population of dogs who are extremely successful at using the city to find food. These dogs will even use the subway to get from one place to another. This report from the Wall Street Journal shows healthy dogs in good coat who are of good weight or even slightly overweight. Where you to ask these dogs if they were comfortable and confident about their existence, I be they would say yes, they have a good quality of life. When we capture these dogs and take them into our homes, we often decrease their quality of life at least for a time because they don’t understand the environment that they are transported to. The skills that are required to live on a dump or to live in the suburbs of Moscow and commute in during the day to beg food from Moscovites are not the same skills that are required to live in a home with humans in Toronto Ontario, or on a farm in the north of Scotland or a sheep station in the outback of Australia.
Dogs are flexible in both their ability to cope with a huge variety of environments, and often in their ability to cope with new environments. Many dogs make the transition from one situation to another. This is why when dogs are abducted off the streets of a city in India and transported to a suburban home in Canada, they often make the transition, even though they may have difficulty. The dogs who are most successful at making transitions are the dogs who have two important things going for them. The first is a genetic “recipe” for resilience. If the dog is overly vigilant or nervous, then the dog is not going to be able to cope with the variance of environment that he will encounter. These dogs work out in homes that are very consistent and very careful about what they expose these dogs to. And the second thing that successful dogs have is a successful exposure to a wide variety of people, animals, vehicles and flooring during their critical socialization period in puppyhood. As was pointed out in the SPARCS lectures, we are learning more and more all the time about when and how this developmental period occurs. Those dogs who get a great role of the genetic dice and a good socialization period, are great not only with the skills they need in a given environment but also in new environments.
|These healthy dogs live on the street. They look relaxed, in good body condition and good coat and they are minding their own business. Do they need rescuing? Is this a bad existence for a dog? Or is this their natural environment? If you asked the dog, would it be less stressful for him to be on the street, or to be captured, transported and then rehabbed to become a pet? Dogs live in as many environments as we do, and thrive in those environments. This environment is a normal environment for a dog. Rabies vaccination campaigns and sterilization campaigns may do them good, but catching them and homing them may actually deteriorate their welfare instead of improve it. Image credit: supereagle / 123RF Stock Photo|
When we look at how a dog is living I think we need to really look carefully at the environment from the point of view of the dog. Is the dog in the kennel actually unhappy? How do you know? Is he frantically trying to escape all the time? Is he spending all day stress panting or pacing? Is he relaxed and resting in his kennel? How about the dog living on the 16th floor of an apartment building? Is he happy or unhappy? Is he relaxed for most of his time? Is he licking his feet all day? Or is spending all day resting or interacting appropriately with the people he lives with? How about the feral dogs? Are they of good weight and good coat? Are they any less happy than the other wildlife they share the environment with?
When we look at the many environments that dogs have successfully lived within, we will find many individuals who are perfectly happy in the most unusual circumstances, and when we ask the dog, and we look at what they are doing and how they are doing it, we often find dogs who are perfectly happy living there. When we are looking at how dogs are kept, we need to not think about how we like to live, or even how we like to live with our dogs. We need to think about how the dog likes to live-is he happy and well adjusted in his environment, and keep him there.