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Ethics and Morality

Are You Really Sure You Want to Share Your Life With a Dog?

A wish list about ethics and etiquette dogs would like guardians to follow.

You can't love a dog too much

I recently did an interview with Channel 9 news in Denver, Colorado for what they called "woof week." I talked about what humans need to do to keep themselves and their dogs happy. The editors at Channel 9 did a masterful job at summarizing my interview and came up with a wish list and guidelines of five one-liners. Paraphrased, these include: dogs are a huge responsibility, their walk is for them, know them as individuals, become fluent in dog, and they don't all love us. The final message is you can't love a dog too much.

I've received a good number of emails about this short interview from people asking excellent questions about what's entailed with deciding to bring a dog into their lives and what dogs expect from them, so I figured I'd write a bit on these ideas and add some more details because paying attention to them will surely benefit the dog(s) and their humans—a win-win for all. They also lead to many more important questions that need to be considered when a human takes responsibility for the life of another individual. I write extensively about these and other guidelines in Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and, along with Psychology Today writer Jessica Pierce in our forthcoming book called Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. The items on the wish list that Channel 9 put together include:

Dogs are a huge responsibility: Here, I simply mean that when one assumes responsibility for the life of a dog or other non-human animal, including a companion with whom they choose to share their homes and their hearts, it can be a significant and challenging game-changer in how they have to budget their time, energy, and finances. The humans are obliged to work to develop and to maintain a respectful relationship based on mutual tolerance that works for both of them. There has to be give-and-take, and the dog's wishes need to be given careful and serious attention. Most people who have made this choice know that a dog can often push the envelope and test their patience. The learning curve can be rather steep for both the human and their dog, and it can also be a lot of fun to get to know one another's needs and quirks.

Don't rush the walk: A dog's walk is for them, not for their human. Dogs need to exercise their senses as well as the bodies. For example, when given free rein, they sniff around 33 percent of the time (please see "Secrets of the Snout: A Dog's Nose Is a Work of Art"). So, rushing them along and forcing them to keep up with you deprives them of taking in the information they need to discover such information as who was around, when they were there, and perhaps if a female was in heat or how they were feeling. And, whenever possible and if they like to play, let them play to their heart's content (for more discussion please see "The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun").

Know your dog as the individual they are: Every dog is a unique individual, so thinking about a being called "the dog" shortchanges them. What might work for Henry or Sally might not work for Harry or Marie. When one respects dogs as individuals, it helps both the human and the dog.

Become fluent in dog: When a human decides to bring a dog into their life, it's mutually beneficial for them to become fluent in dog—to learn to speak dog—so that they can understand and appreciate what their dog is trying to tell them about what they want and need (please see "iSpeakDog: A Website Devoted to Becoming Dog Literate," "How Well Do You Know What Dogs Do, Think, and Feel?", and "New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior" for discussions of how knowing what dogs are saying to us can help us learn if they're in pain). So, for example, say "hello" and greet them enthusiastically when you come home and say goodbye when you leave (for more details please see "Should You Say Goodbye to Your Dog Before You Leave?"). It's perfectly ok to challenge a dog, because doing it reasonably and ethically can enrich their lives and yours. Research shows puppies benefit from extra socialization. It's also a lot of fun to become fluent in dog. For example, watching dogs at dog parks and other places where they can make choices about what they do and with whom is a great way to become dog literate and is good for them and their humans (please see "It's Important and Fun to do Field Work on Free-Running Dogs").

Dogs are not unconditional lovers: A myth that harms dogs is that they love humans without conditions. This isn't so and dogs and humans would benefit from realizing that dogs are rather selective about the humans who they trust and come to love. Dogs have great memories about how different people treat them. We're also not their best friends (for more discussion please see "Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?").

You can't love a dog too much: We are our nonhuman companions' lifelines. They totally depend on us and we have the power to do anything we want to them. Of course, we must love them lavishly and give them all the love they need.

Another tip is that when you decide to bring a dog into your life, do some research to learn whether that specific individual is the right dog for you and will nicely fit into your lifestyle. A dog's past experience will influence its behavior—they do not live in the present—and dogs of the same breed or mix are not necessarily the same, nor are littermates. When choosing a dog, it's essential to remember that each dog is a unique individual with a unique personality.

Paying careful attention to these guidelines will help to make your relationship with a dog the best it can be. The relationship must work for both of you for it to be healthy and long-lasting (for more discussion please see "Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog" and "How to Give Dogs the Best Lives Possible in a Human World"). Unfortunately, far too many dogs don't get what they want and need (please see "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us"). If you need to seek the help of a dog trainer/teacher, educator, do so as carefully as you'd choose a neurosurgeon. In the United States, anyone can be a dog trainer and you need to be sure that the person who you choose knows what they're doing. Many do not.

When you choose to bring a companion animal into your life, there are many important ethical responsibilities from the moment you become responsible for their well-being until the time when we might have to make end-of-life decisions. Paying careful attention to what each individual wants and needs will help to develop and to maintain a healthy and long-term relationship that works for you and your dog. When we make the choice to share our homes and hearts with another being, we must do no less, and they depend on us to do all we can to give them the very best life possible.

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