The Sustainable Dog, Part Two

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By Jill Morstad

Read Part One

The Role of Domestication

In the social contract known as domestication, stewardship is perhaps the single defining aspect of our relationship to and our responsibility for dogs. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan argues that domestication of animals is beneficial to the domesticated species, including us.

He explains, “At least for the domestic animal (the wild animal is a different case) the good life, if we can call it that, simply doesn’t exist, cannot be achieved, apart from humans…”

Pollan sees domestication as a dynamic economic exchange whereby humans provide food and protection from enemies in exchange for milk and eggs, companionship, and the capacity for shared work (hunting dogs, herding dogs, and so on). Dogs are an especially opportunistic species; both Pollan and science writer Stephen Budiansky suggest that through Darwinian trial and error, dogs discovered they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own.

Domestication took the dog out of the ecological niche occupied by wild canines; their natural environment looks a lot like ours with one significant addition: Their experience with the natural environment is entirely mediated by us, controlled by us, navigated by us, and experienced by virtue of their relationship with us. Viewed from that perspective, a domestic dog’s relationship to its natural environment starts looking, well, rather man-made.

So, there’s a little bit of irony in the dog-breeding world. On the one hand, many favor energetic and self-confident dogs. But intelligence and independence in a herding or a field dog is quite obnoxious if not reined in anywhere else. Additionally, the evolution and selecting for intelligence and drive began when physical corrections were pretty much a cornerstone of some aspects of training, and the dogs themselves lived primarily outdoors.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and the trend toward prolonging juvenile play patterns and disrespectful puppy social behaviors through play groups (or “socialization”) with no discipline, or permissive training with no corrections allowed, and outright encouragement of uninhibited greetings in the name of promoting “friendliness” rather than promoting control and focus on owners has created a world of dogs who expect rowdy antics when they meet other dogs and belong to apologetic and ineffective owners who enable bad social behavior in the name of keeping the fur-children happy. Owners who are preoccupied with their dogs appearing to be happy and not nearly focused enough on their dogs actually being obedient may also believe their dogs are interested in attending community events like farmers markets, dog expos, humane society fundraisers, and the like.

The socialization period for dogs (ages three to eighteen weeks) denotes the optimum developmental window for acquiring neurological resilience, or bounce back. It can be done later, but things get a bit more complex. We humans have these developmental windows, too. Think of learning to ride a bike or learning to swim. Kids who get lessons when they’re young develop a comfort level in the water that is hard to explain. You can teach an adult to swim, but not only will it be a very technical process, they’ll have to overcome a lifetime of explaining to others (and by default, to themselves) why they don’t swim already. So, dogs can, and do, learn from their social experiences after the end of the socialization period, but I think wise owners are extremely thoughtful and proactive about what those experiences will be and what they want to teach (and hence, what they want the dog to learn); this is called training. I don’t term those experiences “socialization.” That’s over.

A lot of the owners I work with use the word “socialization” as if they believe that simply exposing a dog to something (more dogs, strangers, men in hats, kites flying overhead, cats, motorcycles) will automatically and all by itself actually teach the dog how to behave in the presence of those environmental phenomena. Not so. If it were so, you could take your dog to the dog park and without any additional effort or intervention on your part, the experience would automatically translate into a dog who refrains from lunging and barking at other dogs when she passes them elsewhere on the pedestrian path, wearing a leash. So when I poll a new class about why they’ve come, and an owner says to me, “We’re here for the socialization,” I presume they’re talking about themselves. Maybe they need to get out more or they read somewhere that you can meet girls at dog training classes or the like?

Meanwhile, I love my dogs and I love motivational training with games and toys and treats, but I started training dogs as a young person in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at a time when dogs were taken to obedience school to actually learn good manners, which included coming when called, not jumping on people, and leaving other dogs alone.

City Dog or Country Dog?

In this part of the rural Great Plains, the extraordinary mythology of “dogs need room to run” is a prevalent nostalgia, one that leads (all too often) to dead dogs. In my experience, this single phrase and the expectations that are its underpinning becomes the rationale for a great many misunderstandings-turned-failures on the part of dog owners, including failure to train a dog, failure to manage a dog, harboring a dangerous dog, the pervasive and persistent use of the flexi-leash, dropping off dogs in the country, and excusing their chasing of livestock, small children, or harmless middle-aged joggers. It is an excuse or rationale for permitting aggressively antisocial behavior at the dog park—indeed, it is offered as The Explanation for taking the dog to the dog park in the first place. But I have also heard it invoked, as synecdoche for the whole of the country dog mythos, as the reason why the dog is riding loose in the back of the pickup truck going eighty-five mph down I-80.

It is the explanation for why crates are “cruel”; for why we allow the three-month-old puppy full run of the house while we’re at work for eight hours a day and then rationalize the dangerous, invasive, and expensive surgery required to remove bottle caps, or jockey shorts, from his intestinal tract; for why the at-large intact male Dalmatian has to be redeemed at least once a week from either (1) a kennel at the shelter, having been picked up by the sheriff or (2) a kennel at the veterinary clinic, having been picked up by the sheriff and found to be injured. Does it matter that the Dalmatian’s owner has a PhD in behavioral psychology? It doesn’t matter to the dog or to the driver who’ll eventually run him down, not even a little bit. As a model for dog ownership, it’s unsustainable.

Yet a neighbor whose professional responsibilities include (in part) teaching the community about sustainability also lets the family dog run loose. I see this dog frequently on my morning run. He barks menacingly, stiff-legged and growling at my dogs as we pass by, and he’s often several houses away from his own, rummaging through someone else’s trash cans or using their yard as his toilet. At those times of year when it’s still dark at 6:00 a.m., I’ve witnessed the dog in several close calls with the garbage truck. For this dog, the stewardship element of both sustainability and domestication is forfeit, and an ethic of sustainability, as a metaphor, a model for responsible dog ownership, a cultural imperative, or a social and ecological necessity, seems absent as well. How to promote a sustainability-based reform? A fellow runner suggested that each time she sees the dog out loose, a case of empty plastic water bottles will go into the trash instead of into the recycling. A cynical observation, but it makes the point nicely.

Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and dogs can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations. If we each hold ourselves and our dogs to a that highest standard for selection, rearing, socialization, and training, the shared sidewalks, pedestrian paths, and other common spaces should remain accessible to everyone. In the breeding, raising, training, and long-term maintenance of the Sustainable Dog, we must strive to develop and implement the understandings and behaviors that balance the consumption of resources with the impact of that consumption on our—and their—environments. And we should do so in an economically responsible manner and one that enhances our mutual quality of life. Anything less is unsustainable.

 

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