Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them

A recurrent theme about our companions is that we need to do much more for them.

Posted Aug 27, 2017

A message we don't want to hear: Companion animals are more highly stressed than we realize in a human-dominated world

A recurrent and disturbing theme about the companion animals (aka pets) with whom we choose to share our homes and our hearts is that we need to do more for them. In a previous essay called "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us" I noted that numerous nonhuman companions live highly stressed lives. In this piece I wrote, "I recently learned about a video called "Downward Dog." I thought it was really well done, and the comments I received when I shared it with people echoed my views. My humble suggestion is to watch it, and while you're laughing, take into account what the dog is really saying, namely that, while things are sort of OK, they surely can be much, much better." 

Not only are homed pets highly stressed, but so too are individuals making their way through shelters and humane societies. The last essay I posted called "Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats: Messes We Make With Companions" about a new film by Hugh Dorigo of the same title clearly shows how individuals looking for homes also don't have especially good lives. This film is a must-see for everyone who who has chosen to live with a nonhuman companion or is thinking of doing so.

"We Need to Change the Way We View Our Pets, Here’s How"

A recurrent theme about our nonhuman companions is that we need to do much more for them. So, I was not surprised to learn of another essay about the stressed lives of companion animals by Angela Horn titled "We Need to Change the Way We View Our Pets, Here’s How." It follows up on the theme that our nonhuman companions need much more from us, and it's also well worth the time to read it carefully. Ms. Horn's piece is available online so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more.

Early on Ms. Horn writes, "... in spite of our seemingly close bond with them, there’s still a disconnect." She goes on to note, "It starts with the words we use: we see ourselves as ‘pet owners’ and we refer to certain species (goldfish, birds, etc.) as ‘starter pets’. It reveals itself in our actions too: we’ll ‘tug’ on a dog’s leash to get them to move or ‘push’ a cat off the sofa or coffee table."

The words we use to refer to other animals matter. We also must refer to them as "who" or "whom," not "that," "which," or "it." (For more discussion on the words we use please see "Is an Unnamed Cow Less Sentient Than a Named Cow?" and links therein. Please also see the website called "Animals and Media: A Style Guide For Giving Voice to the Voiceless".) 

There is no "the dog" or "the cat": Individual differences matter in how we treat each of our companions 

Ms. Horn is right on the mark here. We don't own these individuals -- they really are our companions -- and we need to let them be the individuals who they are. This means we need to learn about the unique characteristics not only of the species in which we are interested, but also about each and every individual, for each individual has a unique personality and needs. So, for example, there is no "the dog" or "the cat" or "the goldfish" and we need to factor this into how we treat each being as a unique individual. When we honor their uniqueness, it helps them and it helps us coexist more peacefully, a point I stress in my forthcoming book Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.

Ms. Horn goes on to provide some very useful tips for improving the lives of our companions and also the relationship we have with them. They include, Educating Our Kids, Talk Through the Details, Investing the Time, Sharing Space, and Adopt, Don't Shop. She concludes her essay, 

"We need to treat them with the respect they deserve. At least as an entry point, that means dropping the notion that we own them."  

It might surprise people to learn that numerous companion dogs who are fortunate enough to share their life with a human are highly stressed, but when you think about it, they're always trying to adapt to a human-oriented/dominated world in which their wants and needs are secondary to those of their own and other humans.

So, for example, we teach dogs that they can’t pee or poop wherever they want. To eliminate, they must get our attention and ask for permission to go outside the house. When we go outside, we often restrain dogs with a leash or fence them within yards or parks. Dogs eat what and when we feed them, and they are scolded if they eat what or when we say they shouldn’t. Dogs play with the toys we give them, and they get in trouble for turning our shoes and furniture into toys. Most of the time, our schedule and relationships determine who dogs play with and who their friends will be.

Psychology Today writer Dr. Jessica Pierce provides an extensive discussion about this in her excellent book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. And 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 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. Simply put, dogs want and need more freedom. (For more discussion on this point please see The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age.) Ms. Arnold also notes that we abuse our power over dogs when we impose our will on them without considering their thoughts and feelings. Ample research shows that dogs are deeply thinking and feeling social beings. 

All in all, we impose a lot of demands imposed on dogs and other companion animals, day in and day out. We need to do all we can to reduce them to a minimum or to try to eliminate them totally. When we accept each individual for who they are, it's a win-win for them and for us. And, giving them this freedom, is not only educational, but it's also incredibly exciting to watch other animals do what they do as individuals and as members of a wide variety of fascinating species. 

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.