There are spas for dogs. Places where you can take your canine companion to be massaged pampered and fussed to give them the comforts of life that some owners enjoy for themselves. There are pools where dogs can go for recreational swims. There is aroma-therapy for dogs, accupuncture for dogs, massage therapy (i.e. Tellington Touch and others), clothing to keep them warm and dry in bad weather, and many other products and services all designed to make life more pleasant for our dogs. I don’t know of anyone who would claim that there is a shortage of ways to show a wealth of kindness to our dogs.
There is an old saying about intentions and the road to hell. Just because we intend for any and all of these things to pamper our dogs, it does not mean that we succeed in being any more humane by providing them for our dogs. The same is true when we try to remove all unpleasantness from our dogs’ lives. We don’t say “No!” or we don’t tug on the leash while on walks. We give up “corrections” and we choose different collars or other equipment in order to avoid causing our dogs any discomfort. But does any of this make us into humane dog owners and trainers?
The flaw in the Golden Rule
We’ve all heard some variation of what people call the “Golden Rule” – “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” On the face of it, that sounds like pretty sound advice. The basic assumption is that all of us want to be treated well, with kindness, respect, and patience. We all like to be forgiven for our mistakes and cheered on for our accomplishments. Give to others those things that we would want for ourselves.
That “Golden Rule” stuff works until we run into another old saying, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” We don’t all want the same things and that is only more apparent when we are talking about dogs. They are a different species after all. We can’t rely on our own preferences when deciding what our dogs may or may not find desirable. We certainly can’t be expected to always cater to their preferences. I’m not going to sniff my dog’s backside to greet them just to make them more comfortable. I’m not even sure they would like that.
Being human and humane
The word “humane”, as defined in its most common usage, means to show kindness, sympathy, and compassion to another being. Since we find the word “humane” in the description of many animal welfare groups (sometimes even in their titles), it is common for us to refer to animals when we say we are being “humane.” But even that can make the picture more fuzzy than we would like.
In an article for The Journal, author Ginnie Maurer explorers the different interpretations that we can have when it comes to defining what “humane” treatment looks like. When is it more humane to euthanize than to prolong the life of a dog? What is most humane when we choose particular training equipment to use with our dogs? Are some training and husbandry practices more humane than others and how can we tell the difference? These are particularly difficult questions because we can’t just ask the dogs what they would prefer and putting ourselves in their shoes doesn’t take into account their very canine preferences.
I would suggest that looking for an objective measure of what it means to be “humane” to our dogs would be of little value to the dogs. On the other hand, it can be critical to our own human feelings. We want to feel that we are “doing good”; that we doing our human best to do right by our dogs. We try to be “humane” in order to show the best of what it means to be human. The good things that happen for the dogs in the process are happy by-products of our efforts to be “good people.”
Do unto others according to their needs
Massages, swims, ice cream, or a walk in the park might be things that we enjoy and it’s likely that our dogs might like these things too. But there is another level that we humans can easily overlook when it comes to showing kindness and compassion to our dogs. There are things so basic that we take them for granted. Things like feeling safe, the security of understanding our habits and routines, and the basic education of knowing what will and will not work in different situations.
All animals, including dogs, have basic needs. They need access to food and water. They need safe and rewarding social interactions, they need a sense of security, they need shelter and a general freedom from fear. Without these things, our dogs can become stressed, fearful, physically unwell. But there are some less obvious things that we need to include in our dogs lives if we want to be truly “humane” dog owners.
Our dogs need to feel a sense of control in their lives. Without some ability to determine what happens to them, we take away their sense of security. Training programs that suggest that owners restrain their dogs to demonstrate their “alpha” status can erode a dog’s sense of trust or confidence in their owner or living situation. Similarly, a dog who is scolded or reprimanded inconsistently can become confused and frightened about which behaviours are safe and which are not. Without the basic security that understanding brings, a dog can become fearful and even aggressive.
The kindest things we can do
It is the most basic thing that we do with our human children. We teach them. From the moment we bring them home we are constantly aware that our children are learning and that we have a responsibility to help them learn and understand their world. While our dogs are certainly not our children, we should not assume that they come with all of the knowledge they need to feel safe in our homes.
There is instinct, there is observation, and there is trial-and-error. The combination of the internal drives (basic needs) of our dogs and their experiences with us will shape the kind of dog they will become and how they will fit into our lives. Perhaps the kindest thing we can do for them is to take our responsibility as their teachers seriously. We need to see “dog training” as teaching our dogs how to live with us instead of just teaching them what NOT to do.
There is no standard of behaviour that every dog must be taught. There is no requirement that dogs learn to walk next to their owner while out on walks, no requirement that dogs learn to stay off of furniture, no requirement that dogs learn to sit or stay or roll over or come when called. Many of the things we teach our dogs we teach them for our own convenience. And that’s fine but different people will have different things they want for their dogs. No one should feel that they have failed or are less “humane” for not teaching particular behaviours. So long as we show them what they need to know to earn the good things and avoid the bad in their lives with us, we have done the most humane thing we can for them.
To understand expectations and to be given the ability to succeed at meeting or exceeding them often can be the best security of all. Good dog training minimizes confusion, eliminates fear, and promotes confidence that our dogs will make the right choices. All it takes is for us to take some time to consider how we want our dogs to fit into our lives and then teach them what we would like them to do.
In the end, being “humane” to our dogs may come down to simply doing our best to help them understand. Each time they are “naughty” or “bad dogs”, we should see this as an opportunity to help them understand what they should be doing instead of that unwanted behaviour. Being “humane” might be recognizing that our dogs are not “disobedient” as much as they “don’t yet understand” what we would like them to do and why they should do it.
Teaching instead of scolding. Is it possible that being “humane” to our dogs comes down to something as simple as that? I think it is an idea that is certainly worth exploring.
Until next time, have fun teaching your dogs.
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Photo credits –
watching – Xiomiele copyright 2008 from Flickr
watching2 – Joriel Jimenez copyright 2008 from Flickr
watching3 – Ezlo Melotti copyright 2011 from Flickr
Recent Eric Brad CPDT-KA Articles:
- The Dog That Changed My Life
- Keeping Your Dog Informed
- Teaching Your Dog to Not-Behave
- The Simple Complexity of Dog Training
- What The Dog Wants