In December of 2010 I wrote a piece called A Million Ways To Love A Dog. In that piece I talked about how dogs are integrated into all kinds of lifestyles for all kinds of reasons. Dogs live on farms, in high rise apartments, suburban homes, and even on the road with their humans. We love our dogs in all of their various shapes and sizes.
But can we love them wrong? Can we love them too much? It’s an interesting question. There are currentlly over 78 million dogs living with people in the US alone. Genetically, their lives are much shorter than ours. Most dogs live very happy, comfortable lives. Some die too soon due to disease. Some die at the hands of ignorant human cruelty. And I am dismayed at how many die in loving homes because of improper care and management. These dogs are literally “loved to death.”
Fat Dog Walking
A few years ago some friends asked us to look after their new puppy for a week. When they dropped him off, the little guy was enormous. While puppies tend to be pudgy and carry some extra “puppy fat”, this dog was dangerously overweight. Of course we cut back his food and he lost that round waddle while with us. When our friends came to pick him up, we asked how much they were feeding him. They told us that they were feeding whatever it said on the dog food bag.
What our friends didn’t realize was that dog food companies have a vested interest in you overfeeding your dog. The more they eat, the more you buy. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that recommendations for feeding amounts on your dog food package will be at the higher end of normal for the dog’s size. They want you to buy more and buy often.
Obesity is a very real problem in dogs. According to veterinarian Dr. Donna Spector, approximately 50% of dogs in the US are overweight. That’s more than 38 million dogs if we use the Humane Society statistics as a guide! Overweight dogs have lives that are 15% shorter than their counterparts that are kept at an ideal weight for their breed. Assuming an average lifespan of 12 years, overweight dogs die at just over 10 years old – 20 months sooner than they should.
We love our dogs. They get meals and treats and snacks and handouts from humans in all kinds of situations. Heck, they’re cute and they make us smile. Many times we don’t see any harm in just giving a bit of extra “goodies” to our best friend. But we might just be treating them to an early grave. We have full control over their food. We should feed them responsibly.
The Price of Freedom
It is estimated that over 1 million dogs are killed by cars each year in the US. That is a staggering number. For me the first question I have to ask is why are 1 million dogs playing in traffic each year? I think that the answer is complex but that it comes from a simple idea. Many people believe that having your dog off-leash is an ideal that we should all be training towards.
As humans, I think that we find the idea of being tied to another being too restrictive. We would prefer to roam free and monitor our own movements. And we try to transfer this ideal onto our dogs. Yet no responsible parent would allow a small child to roam the neighborhood or run loose in parks without an ability to control their movement. It’s a matter of safety.
I am still surprised by the number of dog owners and even professional dog trainers that judge the quality of their training by their ability to control their dogs while off-leash. The simple fact is that, no matter how well trained, any off-leash dog could decide to chase a squirrel or run off to greet another dog and there may be nothing the owner could do to stop it. The minute you remove your dog’s leash, you give up any real control over their movement, where they go, and what they may do.
Anyone who loses a dog this way quickly changes how they manage their dogs. It’s just a fact that our society has changed pretty drastically in just a few generations. There are more roads and cars than ever before. For many of us, the risks to our dogs are much greater than they were when we were children. We have a responsibility to keep our dogs safe and no amount of training can provide the security of a leash attached to a harness or securely fitted collar on our dog.
Yes, dogs need exercise and there is no better excercise for them than to run freely and play. But, just as we would with small children, we need to choose safe places for that to happen. We need to manage our dogs effectively no matter where we take them. Whether it is moving a dog in and out of the car on shopping trips or going on outings with them, safety should be our first concern. As much as some trainers would like to tell you otherwise, you cannot stop a dog with your voice alone 100% of the time. Choose wisely and use the tools you need. Leashes are not a punishment or sign of failure. They can save your dog’s life.
Dog training means different things to different people. For some, once the usual behaviours (e.g., sit, down, come, stay, etc.) are taught to some proficiency, training is done for that dog. In many cases any kind of regular, formal training is finished for the average dog before they are 18 months old. As long as the dog doesn’t get into trouble or become a nuisance, that’s all that is required. If we expect our dogs to fit into our modern lifestyles, is that kind of training really enough?
Management behaviours are important so that we can, for example, get our dog to sit still while we put on their leash for a walk. But there is much more we expect of our dogs. They will encounter new people, new situations, and they will be asked to cope with a variety of things that we can’t even predict when we first bring them into our homes. I think we need to teach our dogs something more than behaviours. We need to teach them how to cope.
This is the mental work of dog training. Just as our schooling was intended to teach us more than just information, training a dog should teach them how to cope and how to learn. A dog that is not exposed to strange environments, dogs, or people cannot be expected to behave appropriately. Similarly, a dog that is not taught how to manage it’s time and activities around the house in an appropriate way is likely to find it’s own sometimes unacceptable alternatives.
Dogs who don’t receive enough regular training to keep their minds active and occupied are often the ones that act out and become “problem” dogs. Dogs get bored and they get frustrated. The latter is especially true when the dog is punished and, because of a lack of training, they do not understand why. And a frustrated dog is much more likely to lash out.
This can come as a surprise and a shock to the dog’s owners. I don’t have a statistic on how many frustrated or confused dogs are labeled “aggressive” or “dominant”. I do know that the number is far too high. And it’s likely that these dogs will be sent to shelters or put down. Cases of true aggression in dogs are much more rare than you might think. Too many dogs find themselves frightened or frustrated in a situation and only believe they are trying to defend themselves. For this they are sent away, sometimes to their deaths. Training and time spent with the dog teaching them how to cope can prevent this.
Let dogs be dogs?
Dog owners often say that they just prefer to “let their dogs be dogs” to justify how they manage (or don’t manage) their dogs. They believe that they are showing affection by slipping their dog a bit of extra turkey from the dinner table or giving them a nice off leash run at the park. And because they haven’t spent the time to train with them, their dog may nip or bite an unsuspecting child while running at that park because it squealed with delight at the sight of a cute dog. Days later that dog might be put down due to local dog laws. Another dog is loved to death.
A lot has changed in the past 50 years. Society has become more complex and more crowded. We have become busier people in our daily lives and we must be smarter about how we care for our dogs. The world can be a dangerous place for a dog that hasn’t been taught how to cope. And extra treats and scraps from the dinner table won’t make up for the time and companionship that all dogs need.
We know more about dogs today than ever before. The importance of training and keeping our dog’s mind engaged has been shown to correct or prevent many of the behaviour issues people have with dogs. We have the tools at our disposal to give our dogs long and happy lives if we take the time to manage them. It’s easy to get a dog and it’s also easy to get rid of a dog too. The shelters are crammed with dogs looking for another chance. There is no excuse for loving a dog to death. We owe them something more. We owe them a happy and healthy life.
Until next time, enjoy your dogs!
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