“It’s a dog’s life” can have many different meanings
“The more you generalize about dogs–saying they can’t do this or they don’t do that–the more you find that generalization is false…Dogs will fool you every time; they’re much more capable than some people give them credit for.” (Mark Derr)
August 26th, National Dog Day, is a very special day for our canine companions, and it’s also the year of the dog. I’ve been thinking about what sort of tribute to write about, and for, these amazing beings, and rather than have readers sit and spend too much time reading rather than hanging out with their dogs, I decided to make a few points that I hope will help dogs enjoy this special day. There is a large and growing literature on the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs, so we know what they want and need to feel content and safe (see also “Dog Smarts: The Science of What They Think About and Know“). Dogs come to us with active minds, senses of humor, and multiple intelligences. It’s essential to distinguish myths from facts. Knowing about and honoring their cognitive and emotional lives is a step in the right direction for improving their and our lives, a win-win for all. And, of course, I also hope that whatever people do to make August 26th a special day, they’ll continue doing it each and every day of the year.
A good starting point is to emphasize that we are not necessarily dogs’ best friends nor are they unconditional lovers. Not everyone considers dogs to be their friends, and dogs can be rather picky themselves. So, claiming that dogs and humans love each other more than anyone else is very misleading and doesn’t capture the reality of the great variability in dog-human relationships. And, despite the best efforts from entirely right-minded and big-hearted humans, numerous dogs have hard lives, a fact that eludes many people (for more discussion please see “Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them,” “Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us,” and Dr. Hal Herzog’s essay “Hurting Pets to Get Attention and Drugs: A Growing Problem“).
It surprises many people to learn that numerous companion dogs, including those who are fortunate enough to share their life with a human(s), are highly stressed. However, 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.
Psychology Today writer, bioethicist 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.”
In many ways, homed dogs are highly restrained captive animals. “It’s a dog’s life” is sometimes used to describe days filled with laziness and pleasure. All a dog must do, after all, is sleep, laze around, eat, and hang out with friends, and what could be easier, especially when someone reliably plops down a bowl of food for you at every meal? However, the lives of homed dogs aren’t necessarily all fun and games, and living as the companions of humans comes with some important compromises on the part of dogs. Looking at dogs as captive beings isn’t a negative judgment because being “captive” doesn’t mean that a dog is ill treated or unhappy. Rather, it is the crucial starting point for understanding our relationships with, and responsibilities to, our furry friends, relationships that very often favor us.
Think about it: 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. It’s interesting that many free-ranging dogs actually are less stressed, have many more freedoms than homed dogs, and form close bonds with humans.
What if we weren’t around to help dogs celebrate National Dog Day?
As I was writing this essay, I began thinking of how dogs would feel if weren’t around to celebrate National Dog Day with them — what would they do without us. It’s estimated that approximately 80 percent of the world’s dogs are free-ranging, and many are almost completely or totally on their own. Some are friendly toward humans, and others are not, just like homed dogs. In one study of street dogs in Bangalore, India — called “streeties” by the locals, Sindhoor Pangal observed: “I found the dogs that I studied to not seem stressed at all. They showed no signs of elevated stress levels in their body language. When approached, all of them were relaxed, cautiously curious (like most street dogs) and very friendly once they realized I was no threat. When awake, they seemed to spend most of their time perched on an elevated surface if they could find one, and just watching the world go by.” Please also see “Nuances of social interaction in free ranging dogs for a video of ‘Streeties.‘”
All in all, it’s highly likely that many dogs likely wouldn’t notice our absence and some who live with humans might also do fine without us. It’s very interesting and challenging to think of how dogs would respond to a world without humans. Some dogs would do better than others, however, there are no “easy” answers to this wide ranging thought experiment. Jessica Pierce and I are outlining a book dealing with this topic. For more discussion please see “The Minds and Hearts of Dogs: Facts, Myths, and In-Betweens,” especially the discussion of Markham Heid’s essay called “How Dogs Would Fare Without Us,” with a subtitle that reads, “If humans disappeared tomorrow, domestic dogs would have to call on their wild side in order to survive.”
A field guide to freedom: Some ideas for unleashing your dog and letting them be dogs
Here are a few suggestions for celebrating National Dog Day with your dog or another dog with whom you have contact. A first step is to become fluent in dog and learn the basics of dog behavior and the idiosyncratic personality of your dog (for more discussion please see “New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior“). There is no “the dog,” so learn about each individual’s uniqueness and honor it in your interactions with them. Clearly, to know what a dog is feeling and what they like and dislike, it’s essential to know them as an individual. Not all dogs love to play or be hugged, for example, but many do (see also “Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care” and when done on their terms). If your dog does not like these or other activities, kindly spare them the pain of having to endure them. There are many other activities they can fully enjoy.
Of course, be sure that the individual dog likes to partake in the activities you offer them or do with them. For example, if they like to play, let them play to their heart’s content and then some, and zoom around frenetically with friends (for more on allowing dogs to “go nuts” running here and there please see “It’s OK For Dogs to Engage in Zoomies and Enjoy FRAPs“). One way to relieve stress, your dog’s and perhaps your own, would be to get down and dirty with them, and show your dog how much you love them and want them to enjoy themselves as much as possible. Give them good food and what they like to eat, give them lots of hugs if they like them, take them to see their canine buddies at a dog park or wherever they can have fun (please see “Dog Parks Can Be Fun Places To Go, But The Dog Has To Agree“), take them for a swim if the weather allows and they savor some time in the water, and let them sleep near you if this is something they want to do (please also see “Should Young, Old, and Sick Dogs Be Banned From the Bedroom?“). The bottom line is give them the freedom to make choices and exercise some control over their lives by partaking in activities they enjoy.
It’s also essential for them to exercise their senses as well as their brains, hearts, lungs, and muscles, so let them sniff to their noses’ content and fill their nasal cavities with all sort of odors, including those we find utterly disgusting (for more discussion of research on dogs’ brains please see “16 Things We’ve Learned From Scanning Dog Brains,” “How Dogs View the World: Brain Scans Tell Us What They See,” and links therein). And, if it’s not too distasteful, let them sample some yucky goodies you know won’t hurt them and let them roll in stinky stuff when they’re so inclined.
One way to have them feel safe and at peace is to say “good dog” when they’re just being who they are. Preliminary data show we say “no” or “don’t” far more than “yes” or “good dog” (for ore discussion please see “For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don’t Balance Scolds and Praise“). I often find myself saying “good dog” just to be nice, when dogs are being nice to one another or to a human or when there’s no apparent reason for the praise. On a number of occasions, people ask me why I said it — perhaps they had missed something — and I explain that I said it because giving praise and being nice and showing affection and love are okay even when a dog is just walking around or sniffing and isn’t doing anything in particular. I also often praise dogs when they’re playing fairly and allowing all of the players to frolic and have fun. Spontaneously and unexpectedly letting them know you appreciate who they are can go a long way toward building and maintaining a strong and reciprocal long-term social bond, a win-win for all.
Make every day National Dog Day: Spend lots of time with them, have a nice chat, show them how important they are to you, and let them feel boundless love
“Like all relationships, this one is destructible, and it requires attention and care. But as with all relationships too, if we put in the love and put in the work, it can provide us enormous rewards.” (Markham Heid, writing about dog<–>human relationships)
Being a companion dog carries significant costs. Being “good dogs” requires a continual stream of limitations to their natural dog-ness. Regardless of whether dogs have “chosen” to evolve with us, they have very little choice in the specific human environments in which they will live their lives, and far too often they have very little control over what they’re allowed to do. There is a crucial asymmetry in the human-dog relationship: we enjoy many freedoms and our dogs don’t. Dogs have only as much freedom as we give them.
Let every day be National Dog Day and let them feel the love. Far too many dogs don’t get enough respect and love. Let’s make more of them our best friends because not all are our BFFs. Give them lives in which they feel safe and at peace. It is the obligation of every dog guardian to reduce the daily deprivations experienced by our dogs as they try to adapt to our homes and neighborhoods. We can do this through paying careful attention to who dogs really are and what they really need. And, as you do this, pay close attention to their unique personalities, their idiosyncrasies, and to the distinct individual each dog truly is. To sum up, let’s give dogs the freedoms to be themselves, to express normal and dog-appropriate behavior, to exercise choice and control, to frolic and to have fun, and to have privacy and “safe zones.”1
The bottom line is to spend lots of time with them, let them snuggle if they want to, have a nice chat, show them how much they mean to you and how important they are to you, and let them feel boundless love.
When we love and respect dogs for who they are, it is a win-win for everybody. A healthy dog-human relationship has to be good for all of the individuals who are involved. We are most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are fortunate to have us in their lives, too.
1Bekoff, Marc and Pierce, Jessica. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. Novato, California, New World Library, 2019 (in press); I thank Dr. Pierce for help in developing some of the ideas in this essay.