We can help our dogs thrive in human environments by letting them be dogs.
During the research for our book Unleashing Your Dog, ethologist Marc Bekoff and I asked a bunch of people who love their dogs what they consider their essential ethical obligation toward their canine companion—what it means, to them, to be a responsible dog guardian and their give their dog a good life. Almost without exception people had two answers: “I want my dog to be happy.” And, “I want my dog to be able to “be a dog” as much as possible. These two values almost always came together, and this makes sense because they are closely linked: dogs are happy when they can engage in as many of the natural canine behaviors as possible.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy for dogs who live as pets to just “be dogs.” Being “good dogs” requires a continual stream of limitations to their natural dogness. Although most pet owners don’t think of their dog as a captive animal—what usually comes to mind is a wild animal behind bars in a zoo—dogs are captive in important respects. The shape and rhythm of their daily life is largely controlled by us: where they can go and at what pace, who they get to see, when and what they get to eat. They often have limited opportunities to run free, roam around, interact with other dogs, pee in interesting places, take their time and smell each and every scent that they pass on a walk. Research on the physical and especially the psychological effects of captivity on animals shows that welfare compromises are almost impossible to avoid. Animals in captivity suffer from boredom and frustration because they cannot engage in the full range of natural, species-specific behaviors.
Because of the various constraints we place on the natural behavioral repertoire of our dogs, all pet dogs are behaviorally challenged to some degree. They are struggling to adapt, even when it seems as if they aren’t. Every dog guardian can make this struggle a little easier, by minimizing the costs of captivity and reducing the daily deprivations experienced by our dogs as they try to adapt to our homes and neighborhoods.
Each dog guardian can do this through paying careful attention to who dogs really are and what they really need. Your daily commitment to your dogs can be very basic: give them the freedom to be a dog (and not a furry human), as much as possible, as often as possible, and with as much patience and goodwill as possible. As you do this, pay close attention to your dog’s unique personality and idiosyncrasies.
As the Beatles said so well, we all get by with a little help from our friends. We sometimes forget that the human-dog friendship is two-sided. We need to hold up our end of the friendship by being proactive in providing a good life for our companions. We need to find ways to adapt ourselves and our homes to our dogs.
People often report that their dog is their most important source of emotional support. The reason? “My dog loves me for who I am,” people often reply. When we love and respect dogs for who they are, it is a win-win for everybody. We are most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are fortunate to have us in their lives, too.
Here is a basic blueprint for those striving to have a happy and content canine companion.
TEN WAYS TO MAKE YOUR DOG HAPPIER AND MORE CONTENT
- Let your dog be a dog.
- Teach your dog how to thrive in human environments.
- Be open to what your dog can teach you.
- Be attentive to the unique challenges faced by your dog
- Make life an adventure for your dog.
- Give your dog as many choices as possible.
- Make your dog’s life interesting by providing variety in feeding, walking, and making friends.
- Give your dog endless opportunities to play.
- Give your dog affection and attention every day.
- Be loyal to your dog.
This blog is adapted from Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, co-authored with Marc Bekoff. Thanks to Marc for his collaboration!