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3 Freedoms We Can Give Our Dogs

With all the gifts that dogs bring us, what can we give them?

Key points

  • It's easy to forget that pet dogs are captive in human homes.
  • We can offer dogs freedom to grow up, from fear and stress, and boredom.
  • Strategies to make our dog's life happier include providing long-lasting chew treats or life-size stuffed toys.
Oscar Sutton/Unsplash
Source: Oscar Sutton/Unsplash

At just 30 pounds, our long-haired mixed-breed dog, Bernie, fills our home with irrepressible, jaunty enthusiasm, plus a parade of fur bunnies under the couch.

Bernie answers our smiles with a thumping tail and greets jingling car keys with breakdancing and yodels. He is a canine antidote to lethargy and doomscrolling.

I am fairly confident there is real affection between Bernie and us, but on cynical days I recall Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages develop emotional bonds to their captors.

Maybe Bernie’s fondness for us reflects the premium food we feed him or his cushy shelter. We dote on him, but Bernie is still essentially a hostage, trapped in this modern human environment where we control his comings and goings, the times he can relieve bodily functions, who he socializes with, and what he eats.

Granted, it’s not always clear who is in charge. Bernie has been known to rouse me at five am, lobbying for surveillance of suspicious rabbits outside the window, and on walks, he is apt to scavenge free-range snacks. My husband and I are smitten with this animal, and observers might reasonably conclude that we are the hostages and Bernie the captor, but of course, in truth, we hold the upper hand.

It can be easy to forget that pet dogs are captives. Considering the many gifts they bring us, are there any freedoms we can offer dogs in return? Here are three to consider:

Freedom to Grow Up

Nature designed babies to be adorable so that they attract protection and care. Baby-face allure draws people to puppies and neotenic breeds that retain juvenile features-- short legs, big heads, snub noses, and big eyes--throughout their life.

Researcher Alexandra Horowitz, the author of the recently released The Year of the Puppy, reminds us that puppies age at their peril. Young dogs between the period of six months to two years run the highest risk of being surrendered to shelters. These teen dogs have crashed headlong into the accelerating growth, learning, and quest for independence that accompanies puberty. Endearing puppyness has been replaced by gangly rebellion and boundary-testing teeth, making this phase a trying period for human companions.

Giving our dogs freedom to grow up is largely symbolic. It’s a way of shifting our expectations to respect the natural laws of time and growth. Perhaps one day, we may rethink extremes of neotony in breeding programs. For now, in our own lives, we can offer dogs the freedom to grow up by supporting them on their journey to maturity. We can forgive their infractions and think carefully before casting them out; they may have shed that supremely cute and cuddly stage but are still vulnerable and need us.

Freedom From Fear and Stress

Fear and stress can disrupt a dog’s health and ability to learn. Yet we are often oblivious to the signs of an animal’s unease. Some “tells” are obvious, such as when a dog is visibly trembling or has a tucked tail, but it’s easy to overlook more subtle signs of stress like averted eyes, extreme panting, or lip licking.

Animal researcher Kristina Spaulding Ph.D., author of The Stress Factor in Dogs, suggests being alert when a dog refuses food or a favorite activity because this signals worrisome toxic stress. Especially concerning is if it takes a long time before the animal recovers after being removed from the stressful situation.

To dramatically improve a dog’s ability to cope with stress, Spaulding recommends giving dogs as much choice and control as possible. This could mean allowing distance from the stressor or allowing them to approach in their own timeframe. We can also notice and take steps when our body language is causing them stress. For example, instead of grabbing a dog to hug and love on it, we can give it time and space to approach us voluntarily.

Freedom From Boredom

Have you ever been stuck in a tiny waiting room, bored silly without a book, electronic device, or someone to talk to, counting the minutes until you can leave? What if you were forced to spend hours like that daily? You could become depressed, start banging on the door or pulling open cabinets and get into mischief.

Some dogs spend much of their life like that. Their tiny “waiting room” may be a crate, kennel, or apartment where they’ve been left alone to amuse themselves for hours, alone.

Some simple options are available, such as providing long-lasting chew treats or life-size stuffed toys. One strategy recommended by Allie Bender and Emily Strong in their book Canine Enrichment for the Real World is to replace an ordinary food bowl with a foraging game that requires the animal to extract kibble from a puzzle device. Additional sensory and social enrichment options to engage a dog’s mind can be found in their newly released companion workbook.

Best of all, by carving out more time to walk or play together, we can free our dogs from boredom and give the gift of our company.

Hidden risks dogs face by sharing our human lifestyles.

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