*The thoughts and opinions in each post on this blog are those solely of the attributed author and do not necessarily extend to all program collaborators or to Ethics in Animal Care itself.*
We had our first real cold front of the year here in Austin this week and this post wrote itself in my head as my dogs and I goofed and wiggled our way through a particularly amusing walk. We were all feeling frisky from the weather and it seemed like an especially great day to grumble at squirrels and smile to ourselves in satisfaction.
When I first brought home my most recently adopted dog, Finnegan, it wasn’t exactly practical or enjoyable to walk him and his brother, Monkey, at the same time. Even after they were integrated, Finnegan’s general anxiety and 80-something pounds of limb-flailing reactivity required my full attention to create something resembling a successful excursion outside the house. Now though, the only point of contention we still have on a regular basis is Finnegan’s preference to travel as if on a mission as opposed to Monkey who has intensely important things to sniff every few feet. And while they still both often get individual walks, it’s really nice that we can all go out together.
Both boys were behavior fosters that our household couldn’t part with. They make great examples for this post because they’re so ridiculous in their personalities, behaviors, and even looks that they’d be perfect as a cartoon series. I swear that’s not just my opinion – ask anyone who knows them. Their ridiculousness is probably #1 on the list of reasons they went from fosters to adopted right here in my home and it’s not because no one else would have them. They are hilarious. Larger than life. And that’s not something I would ever want to diminish with my training approach.
This summer, we took a family road trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. It was a big deal. We’d taken the boys on their first trip to the beach last summer and while it had gone well, it was a much shorter trip that still had its moments of, oh good grief. This summer’s trip, however, was much longer and it went gosh darn fantastically. It was a great testament to where we’ve come. So was that frisky neighborhood walk. And so is the moment we’re sharing right now as they’re cuddled up on either side of me as I type this.
What we want from our dogs matters and it in large part dictates how we get there. We are making choices that affect their lives every single day and we owe it to them to be very clear and conscious of where those choices are coming from.
- TO BE HAPPY
It sounds simple but when one sentient species is near wholly dependent on another for most all aspects of their lives, the responsibility is immense. I want my dogs to have happiness on their own terms. Far too many people have this incredibly arrogant and limiting notion that dogs exist for us. They need to obey and guard and work for us simply because we said so. They need to suppress or extinguish their normal behaviors when it suits our needs. The human ego can be absolutely appalling and oppressive and our relationship with dogs often puts that on full display.
Dogs are so much more than what they are to us. Their bond with us runs deep but it doesn’t negate their status as separate entities with needs and wants all their own. They have the right to express normal and natural canine behavior. That includes appropriate outlets for the stuff humans may not like so much (see: Monkey’s favorite digging spot under the deck). Their lives should be as rich and full as possible and in a way that works for their individual personalities. When they communicate that something is a favorite, we can and should honor that. And when they communicate that something is scary or unpleasant or just lame, we should honor that too.
It’s important that I know how much Monkey loves to gnaw and sniff new sniffs, how passionate Finnegan is about food and affection, how my first dog Sedona needed to frolic outside for an extra long time whenever it was cold and how her stuffed turtle toy was not for Monkey to destroy. I need to know that all three think car rides are always a great idea and that Finnegan loves puzzle toys but Monkey only bothers with them under peer pressure. I need to know which dogs love to socialize and in what ways and I need to know what scares them and how I can best help.
It’s not actually that difficult at all to ensure my dogs are happy and that their needs are being met. But it does require that I know them. I have to be willing to watch and listen to the great many things they communicate every single day.
2. TO HAVE SKILLS AND KNOW HOW TO USE ‘EM
My dogs have tons of good skills partly because I happen to be one of those crazy dog behavior people and partly because they had to learn those skills to overcome some less than okay habits. I realize not everyone finds teaching their dogs new stuff or watching them figure things out to be a lifelong passion or even noteworthy hobby.
But even if you’re not a dog nut and even if your dogs fall somewhere at the easier end of the behavior spectrum, the responsibility to give our dogs the skills they need to successfully navigate the human world still exits. Seriously, being a canine in a human centric world isn’t easy. Sure, their food and shelter are covered but guys, we have A LOT of rules. And those rules are not things that come naturally to dogs. We have to teach them and because we’re asking them to discard many of their norms in favor of ours, the least we can do is teach them with kindness and compassion.
3. TO BE SAFE
When I adopted my first dog, I had no idea what I was doing. My list of important skills was limited to sit, down, and not pulling on leash. When I taught my dog to shake, I thought it was the fanciest thing ever. Since then, my notion of must learn behaviors has expanded to include a rockstar recall, drop it, leave it, and wait. Each and every one of those skills is related to safety, both keeping my dogs safe and keeping those around them safe.
It also includes behavior modification and management for any significant issues my particular beasts happen to have. Again, that’s related both to my dogs’ well-being and the well-being of others. Finnegan doesn’t have to learn to love other dogs but it’s important to his well-being and quality of life that he know they’re not all threats to him and that he’s able to go out in public and keep his proverbial shit together. While I dislike the way prey drive is often vilified, it’s not okay that Monkey kill the neighborhood small mammals, not even the adorable squirrels that taunt he and Finn while eating my succulents.
Just as they have tags and microchips should they get lost and follow leash laws when they’re out and about, just as they go to the vet regularly and eat a nutritious diet, so too is their behavior an important part of keeping them safe and happy and healthy. Those other parts seem to be common sense to most people and I hope that we’re moving towards a time when behavioral needs are considered much the same way.
In truth, what I want from my dogs isn’t complicated at all. I want them to be happy and to have the skills they need to live successfully in the world. I don’t care that they impress other people with their behavior. I don’t want them to act like furry robots. I just want harmony.
Our goals and our rules are all practical to our life together. I love to do yoga and for whatever reason, both boys think this is an important activity for them to participate in. Because my favorite yoga place is on the deck, Finnegan had the training goal of mastering deck zen. This meant being able to relax outside without pacing and fence fighting and looking for trouble. He mastered it despite a naughty neighbor dog who actually jumped the fence *into* our yard and now we all get to do #deckyoga (yeah, it’s a hashtag) together and it’s fabulous. What I want for my dogs is quality of life. And love.