The Sustainable Dog, Part One

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By Jill Morstad

Sustainability, the wikis tell us, reflects the capacity to endure. In our human communities and cultures, sustainability refers to the long-term maintenance of well-being, including environmental, economic, and social well-being. Stewardship is a foundational element of sustainability, asking us to define and then to decide how we will responsibly manage resources, but sustainability is not just an environmental issue, it is also an issue of economic practices: each interdependent on the other.

Where do our companion animals fit in the cycles and categories of sustainability? A quick Google search of the term “green dog” provides shopping guides and consumer advice on environmentally friendly pet foods, pet products, pet-related services, and even lines of human clothing aimed at convincing friends and neighbors just how green you, and your dog, really are. Sustainable living is about making lifestyle choices in the modern world, but the notion of a sustainable dog stands in direct relationship to our distinctly human choices.

Robert Klein Engler has noted the size of the canine footprint (Prairie Fire, October 2014), and his frustrations regarding the excesses in Omaha’s Turner Park acknowledge that although dogs play many roles in our human family, one thing they are is a public health nuisance. Dogs at large, dog bites, and dog waste all constitute a threat to the quality of public health and safety in our communities, and suggest something about why animal control is housed in city or county departments of health.

The sustainable dog I have in mind is the ideal outcome of making informed and responsible decisions as an ethical consumer of both goods (that would be the dog itself along with accessories like leashes and

collars, crates and food) and services like veterinary care, training, grooming, and so on, having considered the social and ecological consequences of individual consumer behavior and its impact on the economic activity. Ideally, the sustainable dog has the capacity to endure as an active and contributing member of the family and can enhance the quality of life in his home, neighborhood, and the community.

Goods: Consumer Behavior and Its Consequences

Joel Sartore has written that people only save what they love. But how much do people really “love” dogs? Sartore reminds us that every time we break out our purse or wallet we’re saying to the seller that we approve of the manufacture of this product, but dog-as-consumer-commodity exists between a rock and a hard place. The “rock” is the direct and immediate availability of dogs and puppies via pet store, commercial breeder, and Internet presence. Here, the health issues that are ignored, the stacking of dogs on top of each other in wire cages, the ignorance or indifference of the breeder to the importance of early social experiences for young puppies, the implausibility of claims made about “designer” mixed breeds, and the breeder’s refusal to stand behind his or her product are cloaked by cute pictures and flashy websites. The “hard place” is the sense of bewilderment experienced by shoppers who have been pandered to for so long that they have a set of completely unrealistic expectations about what will happen when the dog comes home.

Pandering is how I describe the marketing mix from the big-box pet supply stores, which has altered the conceptual metaphors that organize our relationships with, and to, our dogs. It is a powerful and pervasive message where owner is replaced by “pet parent” and dog is “fur-child.” And nobody buys a dog anymore. They’re all “adopted.” The necessity of basic obedience training is replaced by a more ambiguous emphasis on “socialization,” and what tumbles out from there is not a deeper understanding of the rich and intricate history of dogs and humans but a shopping list that encourages and sustains “pet parent” as indulgent spectator. And most of what’s on that shopping list are good and services that no dog has ever actually needed, starting with clothing and daycare.

Unexamined consumer behavior driven largely by emotion can all too often result in an unsustainable dog: Buyers take home the product, and when it does not conform to unrealistic expectations of appearance or behavior, they take it back, throw it away, or have it killed.

In a year-long study done in twelve shelters across the United States, the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) found that on a national scale, 70 percent of people who acquire companion animals end up giving them away, abandoning them, or taking them to shelters. Forty-seven percent of surrendered dogs were between five months and three years old. What the study doesn’t speculate on is what happened after the surrender. Do these owners recognize the role they play in the closed loop of the pet industry? Do they care? The study further indicates that 96 percent of the dogs surrendered had never received any obedience training at all. Many puppies, likely revered for their mere adorableness, don’t get trained, and therein lies a cautionary tale: nontrained puppy = future shelter dog. It would be a useful exercise to write down all the behaviors for which people have given up their dogs. Each of those behaviors has a history, and when a competent trainer can see how it evolved, that trainer can design programs and work with owners to short-circuit many destructive patterns.

In truth, we know that top reasons that dogs are surrendered to shelters are all within the owner’s capability and responsibility to understand and resolve. Dogs pee in the house. Dogs bark. Dogs get out of the yard. Some owners just don’t want to pay the fees associated with licensing or medical care; some just grow tired of the dog itself. Such a dog has become, I suppose, unsustainable. But he is not unsustainable due his own actions—dogs can be counted on to do doggy things like bark and chase and potty in inappropriate places. It’s far more likely that the dog owner, having watched the cute puppy develop into an untenable young adult, simply drops the dog off at the shelter. Some drop off the first dog and weeks (or days) later get another cute puppy, hoping for a different outcome. These serial dog owners will have six or eight dogs to our one. They start but don’t finish them, doing the same things over and over again, hoping for a different outcome. The term serial dog owner may one day become as common as “puppy mill.” While “puppy mill” speaks to the poor quality of care during breeding and whelping, serial dog owners are another real culprit to overcrowded shelters. The vast majority of dogs in shelter kennels had homes, and lost them.

The social and ecological consequences of individual consumer behavior and its impact on the economic activity with regard to the sustainable dog show us an unsustainable model: Despite the good faith efforts of a few responsible breeders on the front end and humane sheltering and rescue on the back end, the dogs just keep coming. Raising dogs like factory-farmed chickens is unethical; failing to select for traits and/or failure to qualify breeding stock is irresponsible. Selling or placing dogs without a return-to-breeder or buy-back clause in the sales contract lets the producer off too easily. Acquiring a dog on impulse, or failing to teach and train the dog what he needs to know to remain safely in his original home, are just two ways the dog winds up on the public dole, adding to the load of an already overburdened rescue and sheltering system. All notions of stewardship fall away, and the dog itself, as material goods, cannot endure the vagaries of consumer preference toward the trendy or the new. As a business model, this is unsustainable.

Our impulse is to identify a singular source of the problem, or to use contemporary vernacular, “pin it.” But paraphrasing economist Alfred North Whitehead, it makes no more sense to argue over which is more important—supply or demand—than it does to argue over which blade of the scissors does the cutting. That said, it’s quite unlikely that breeders who are engaged in unsustainable practice are reading this critique. It’s more likely that the consumers who support them might be.

The Sustainable Dog is (1) acquired from an ethical and responsible breeder who screens

for health problems, pays attention to temperament as a feature of good breeding, and who stands behind every dog she produces for the lifetime of that dog; (2) the Sustainable Dog’s education begins in early puppyhood with thoughtful social exposures and socialization that recognizes and respects the canine developmental sequence from neonate to adolescence and young adulthood, and (3) whose obedience training also starts early and continues in some kind of formal way (meaning that the exercises themselves have form and require physical and mental discipline on the part of dog AND owner) until the dog reaches social maturity at around age two. Only when all three factors come together is true sustainability achieved and the dog lives a long, happy and productive life in his ORIGINAL home, where he is an asset to family, neighborhood, and community.

Part two of this piece, to be published next month, will discuss domestication, socialization, and training.

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