August 26 is a very special day for dogs because it’s National Dog Day. Being a companion dog carries significant costs to dogs because they’re essentially captive beings. Being “good dogs” requires a continual stream of limitations to their natural dog-ness. Dogs have have very little choice in the numerous human environments in which they live their lives, and far too often they have very little control over what they’re allowed to do.
There is a crucial asymmetry in the human-dog relationship: we enjoy many freedoms and our dogs don’t. Dogs have only as many freedoms as we give them. In her book Love Is All You Need, Jennifer Arnold notes that dogs live in an environment that “makes it impossible for them to alleviate their own stress and anxiety.” (p. 4) According to Ms. Arnold, “In modern society, there is no way for our dogs to keep themselves safe, and thus we are unable to afford them the freedom to meet their own needs. Instead, they must depend on our benevolence for survival.” It’s an asymmetric, one-sided relationship, one that many of us would not tolerate with another human.
If dogs had a Ralph Nader-like global canine “Great Walkout,” what would they ask of us?
“In a court case in Nova Scotia last week, a man was sentenced for animal cruelty after it was judged he had caused his dog ‘undue anxiety. ”’CBC reports that the man repeatedly whipped the dog with a leash, and although there were no physical injuries, the court’s judgment rested on the psychological harm caused…The recognition that animal cruelty can involve emotional as well as physical harm is an important step in protecting animals from abuse.” (Dr. Zazie Todd, “The Role of Emotional Harm in Animal Cruelty“)
If all, or as many as possible, of the estimated 800 million to one billion dogs in the world got together to tell us what they want from us, what would they ask for? This would include homed dogs and all sorts of free-roaming dogs, the latter of whom comprise an estimated 85% of all dogs. In his remarkably original book Animal Envy, Ralph Nader proposes, quite plausibly, that a programmer has created a “digital translation” app by which animals of different species, from insects to whales, can speak to one another, and through a “hyper-advanced converter” these animals can then also speak, both collectively and individually, to humans. They decide that there will be a global assembly called “The Great Talkout.”
A handy fact-filled field guide for giving dogs what they really need to maximize their well-being in a human-oriented world
I hope the following list of canine requests makes it easy for you to get an idea of what dogs want and need so you can spend more time with your canine companions(s). It’s not exhaustive, however, it gives a good idea of what dogs need from us so they can be dogs, rather than somewhat canine captives, many of whom really are treated as if they’re canine slaves.
— Stop making up myths about who we are, because they produce false expectations. Myths, assumptions, and expectations based on false beliefs spread like wildfire and becomes memes, and can harm, rather than help us coexist with you all, and you’ve got to get it right.
— Are you really ready to take me into your life? If you’re not sure, wait until you are, because it could be a life-changer for both of us. We’re not objects, but rather feeling sentient beings who need a lot from you.
— Raising a puppy can really change your life, but it’s also important to give puppies some extra socialization, because it can benefit them.
— We need more than a soft bed and food in a bowl.
— We’re not jerks who selfishly manipulate you to get what we want. We have needs too, and we too can suffer from emotional cruelty.
— When we growl we’re not always upset or aggressive.
— If you decide to share your home, and we hope your heart with us, learn about who we are and what we need and become fluent in dog or dog literate. This really isn’t asking too much. And take the time simply to watch us when we’re free to run around and be dogs.
— Please let our walks be for us, not you, and let us sniff to our nose’s content and exercise all of our senses, including our eyes and ears. Allowing us to sniff can make us more positive, we need to be able to see what’s out there of interest, and we have 18 different ear muscles for good reasons.
— If we like to play, let us play to our heart’s content and don’t bud in. We know what we’re doing and play very rarely escalates into real fighting. Let us also “go crazy’ and engage in frenetic zoomies.
— If we like to play with you and you like to play with us, it’s okay for you to get down and dirty with us.
— We are individuals, there’s no “universal dog,” so treat as the unique beings we truly are. Talking about “the dog” is very misleading because of the enormous amounts of individual variation in behavior and personality we display even among littermates and siblings. Sweeping generalizations such as “Dogs do this or that” can be highly inaccurate.
— When we’re running free, don’t blame us for things we didn’t do or you allow us to do when you’re supposed to follow guidelines or rules, including bothering wildlife some of whom might also live where we’re allowed to run free.
— It’s okay to nicely challenge us from time-to-time to enrich our lives and make life an adventure to relieve the boredom.
— When you come home please say “hello” and when you leave, please say goodbye. We’re not unfeeling beings and our feelings can get hurt.
— Why do you continue to make more dogs, including those who are doomed to have bad lives from the get-go, those who have trouble breathing, mating, and giving birth, when there are so many of us to go around right now?
— Close down puppy mills.
— If you need help in controlling us, use positive training.
— We don’t like being shocked, choked, or pronged.
— Please pick up our poop. In many places you’re not very good about doing this and we get punished. There is no excuse, pick up the poop.1
— We need together time and alone time, so when we go off on our own, don’t take it personally.
— We don’t all like to be hugged, but if we do, hug us a lot on our terms.
— If we like dog parks take us there, and if we don’t, don’t. If you like them and we don’t, go on your own.
— Please understand that we often know what you’re thinking and feeling, because we’re rather skilled at reading you.
— Don’t kill us because we’ve become too much of a burden. You should have thought about what it takes when you bring us into your life.
— We don’t need to be perfumed or have our toes painted. Just give us love.
— Don’t give up on us. We have bad days just like you do.
The bottom line is simple: dogs need more freedoms.
When dogs talk with their ears, eyes, tails, faces, mouths, bodies, and hearts it’s best to listen to them very carefully
Every day should be National Dog Day and let them feel the love. If you think they need more, then err on the side of “too much,” because it’s likely that they can handle all of the positive energy you give to them. The bottom line is to spend lots of time with them, let them snuggle if they want to, have a nice chat, show them how much they mean to you and how important they are to you, and let them feel boundless love. Sometimes when I hear people say how much they love their dog and then mistreat them, I say I’m glad they don’t love me.
Work hard to have a mutually tolerant relationship in which there’s give-and-take on both ends of the leash or when they’re running free. Let them be a dog, try to tolerate some dog-appropriate, but not human-appropriate behavior, let them know they’re really loved by giving them lots of attention and affection, teach them to thrive in human environs, give them lots of choices and provide variety in feeding, walking, and making friends, and be loyal to them. This makes their and your life as good as it can be, a win-win for all. Living with a dog is good if it’s good for you and the dog.
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. We also can ask, what if we weren’t around to help dogs celebrate National Dog Day? All in all, it’s highly likely that many dogs wouldn’t notice our absence and some who live with humans might also do fine without us.
I hope that whatever people do to make August 26th a special day for their canine companion, they’ll continue doing it each and every day of the year. Stay tuned for further discussions of the behavior of a fascinating nonhuman being with whom many humans share their homes and their hearts and look to for wisdom and sage guidance.