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Animal Behavior

How to Give Dogs the Best Lives Possible in a Human World

Researchers and trainers weigh in on how we can make the world better for dogs

It always seems to surprise people when they learn that numerous dogs who live with well-meaning people still live stressful lives as they try to adapt to a human-dominated world.1Psychology 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.”

Our relationship with dogs is an asymmetric, one-sided relationship, one that many of us would not tolerate with another human. Simply put, dogs want and need more freedom. 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.

When I spend time at various dog parks, talk with people on hiking trails and occasionally around town, or receive emails, I'm often asked questions that center on how can they give their dogs the best lives possible. Thus, I was really pleased to see a posting by Dr. Zazie Todd on her very informative Companion Animal Psychology website called "How to Make the World Better for Dogs" in which 18 researchers and trainers weighed in on how to give dogs the best lives possible. I was glad to be part of the survey, and since all of the responses are available online, I decided to highlight half of them here. To choose the ones to include, I put pieces of paper with the numbers 1-18 into a hat and below are the responses that came up. Because my number came out, I'm providing half + 1 responses. Dr. Todd also capsuled each of the responses as a very useful "one-liner," and information about all of the respondents can be found in the original piece. Please keep in mind people are responding to Dr. Todd wanting to know "How to Make the World Better for Dogs."

I simply wrote, “Let dogs be dogs. Let's appreciate them as individuals with unique personalities. Let them exercise their noses and all of their senses when they're home and out and about. Let them play with their friends and do zoomies to their heart's content. To appreciate what it's like to be a dog, we need to understand how they see, hear, touch, taste, and most of all, smell. We're most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are most fortunate to have us in their lives. In the long run, we’ll all be better for it.” (Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do)

We also read:

"I think the one thing that would make the world better for problem dogs would be if their owners could take a page from the youth LGBT movement: namely, recognize that it gets better. ...So if things are tough and what you’ve tried isn’t helping, reach out now. It gets better." (Kristi Benson, Coach and Mentor at The Academy for Dog Trainers)

"If people stopped to consider things (all the things!) from the canine point of view." (Mia Cobb, PhD Candidate at the Anthrozoology Research Group, Monash University, director of Working Dog Alliance, and blogger at Do You Believe in Dog?)

"Think Dog!...many owners/guardians continue to treat dogs either as wolves or little people and/or fail to understand and acknowledge what dogs actually are." (Sam Gaines, Head, Companion Animals Department, RSPCA)

“Proper socialisation and habituation when young; this simply cannot be emphasised enough." Naomi Harvey, (Research Fellow, Itchy Dog Project, School of Veterinary Sciences, University of Nottingham)

"I'd love more dog lovers to become aware of the problems with how we breed dogs." (Jessica Hekman, Postdoctoral Associate at the Karlsson Lab in the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT)

"Let them sniff... Their world is made of scents more than sights." (Alexandra Horowitz, Barnard College, Columbia University and the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab)

“If every dog owner understood that their dog’s behaviour, good and bad, is motivated purely by consequences, not their dogs desire to be 'leader of the pack.'" (Kate Mornement, Pets Behaving Badly – Solutions with Dr. Kate)

"We are capable of making choices; choosing to train dogs with kindness and generosity is an important one." (Reisner Veterinary Behaviour and Consulting Services)

“One thing I think would make the world better for dogs is if they all got taken for an off-leash walk every day." (Carri Westgarth, Tenure Track Research Fellow at the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, Institute of Infection and Global Health and School of Veterinary Science, University of Liverpool)

Some repeated themes

Some repeated themes that emerged from the responses include the importance of knowing basic aspects of dog behavior for people who choose to share their lives with a canine companion, letting dogs be dogs, paying attention to the dogs' point of view, giving dogs adequate physical exercise and allowing them to exercise their senses -- especially their amazing noses, using positive training, having high standards for dog training2, and putting an end to bad breeding practices.

I hope that Dr. Todd's survey will receive a wide readership. The information is presented clearly for a broad audience and will be very useful for those people who already share their home with a dog and for those who are thinking about doing so. I can easily see how the responses could form the basis for courses on dog behavior and dog-human interactions. Thanks to Dr. Todd for putting this piece together and to all of the contributors for partaking in her survey.

Using the information that the 18 respondents provide will surely be beneficial for dogs and their humans. I also look forward to studies that focus on all individuals, human and nonhuman, who are part of an on-going special social relationship. When it's a two-way affair, it's win-win for all, however, far too often it's not. Let's be sure the nonhumans benefit as well.

We are most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are most fortunate to have us in their lives. In the long run, we’ll all be better for it.

1Please see "Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them," "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us," The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, and references therein).

2In the United States, anyone can call themselves a dog trainer. For more discussion please see "Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It," "Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon," and references therein.

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