Every Dog Every Day

Ethics of living with dogs

 

The ethics in dog ownership and training are sometimes confusing, I do not suppose ethics are ever straight forward. As I am poised on my 40 year ridge the ground is very much clearer than it was when I first walked in this land.

Take heed of your comfort bell. If the advice or a situation makes your comfort bell start to ring with alarm then walk away. Your bell should be listened to and although it may not ring loudly in the first instance, do not ignore it.

You have a LIFETIME contract with this dog

One passing stranger with a face like a smacked backside (because you’ve politely explained that your dog does not like their “friendly” dog’s inappropriate socialisation and they have been mightily insulted) is not worth trying to please at your dog’s expense. Just cross the road, step out of the way or block the dog’s approach.

There is no ethical justification behind causing your dog distress to avoid upsetting a stranger. We are reared to “be nice” to people and you can still maintain a polite but assertive attitude.

Embarrassment is a pressure that shapes the most peculiar, and often harmful, behaviours.

I listen to my clients and hear the confusion delivered from experts that contradict their own common sense and inherited responses. An endorsement of their decisions comes as a relief.

I had a client with a very much adored second-hand dog. Only a small guy he naturally spent a lot of time jumping up – feet gently reminding her of his presence. She felt very guilty at letting him jump up as she “knew we were not supposed to let him.” His feet may sometimes have been mucky, but he was not a flesh digger or causing demanding harm. Did she object to him jumping up? “Oh no, I like it”. Then do not worry about it.

Certainly he may need managing when visitors arrive, but if the behaviour is not a problem for you, causing future harm to the dog or is not reinforcing the dog inappropriately then the “rule” is irrelevant to how you wish to live with your dog.

Urban life, in particular walking out with your dog down the road or in the park, is full of conflict for many dogs and needs to be handled sensitively, with care and thought, to avoid a lifetime of stress and unhappiness for both or you.

Stand by your dog, they will always appreciate it, maybe not be able to express it, but the alternative has no benefit in your future relationship.

It only takes one dog

Abacab once in a lifetime dogI was fortunate to share 14 years with an amazing dog called Abacab. A very talented collie whose entire reason for living was to please me in any activity at any time of the day or night.

When he was about 12 weeks old, I remember popping him in the cage for his compulsory afternoon nap. If not made to nap he would spend every waking minute watching me waiting for activities. I was nearby, probably washing up and to be able to watch me he fell asleep sitting up leaning on the side of the cage. He only took time off his duty to please me when his eyesight began to fail at 14 years old.

I had only just begun training him and a simple transgression of mixing down with sit smacked me clean across the face – the epiphany moment had arrived. I clearly remember the location: a multi storey car park in an urban town (great dry, indoor training ground with many straight lines and corners), and the slap that woke me up was that a dog, whose only error was in trying too hard to get it right, should be taught how to be right, not punished for being wrong – that was all he asked, “what was it that I wanted?”.

The dog training community at that time had invested all its time, effort and energy into learning how to be very good punishers. The training paradigm was to punish everything we did not desire and put the responsibility of finding the correct behaviour on the dog’s shoulders. Abacab was keen, intense and devoted but not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so by taking the punishment route he was going to struggle to “find” the correct behaviour. Unfair. I began training him with toys and play for the correct behaviours and careful construction of the skills he needed to be successful.

Having a wide ranging choice of solutions gives our dogs a much higher chance of living a full and content life.

He may not have achieved the great heights that his grandsire, Bob, had done through the punish and praise route, but he was always exciting to watch, train and be with and I was very comfortable in asking him compete. It was very common to receive well intentioned advice on how to “school” him to success that was inevitably based on punishment. In later years I met a hill shepherd who described him as having “a heart as big as a bucket”. How could punishment ever be appropriate for a dog with that sort of heart?

Time, g-g-g-grandson of AbacabThe compromise you make for standing by your ethics may make other people feel uncomfortable (perhaps because it hi-lights their discomfort in their chosen training protocols?) and it may take longer, but it is followed by a good night’s sleep.

His great-great-great grandson Time (here) is currently participating in Heelwork to Music.

I do not use the term “compete” any more since the challenge is for me to refine my training, be creative and test my skills in a public venue. I do not value his performance by rosettes he achieves but by the way he works, his heart singing as we equally enjoy the experience.

Walk on sunshine, boys.

As our knowledge and understanding increases we can update our ethics accordingly. Today I do not use punishment because I know how to achieve excellent results without punishment. But when I did use punishment it was all that I knew at that time. Ethically I would not wish to cause my dogs stress, harm or confusion when I know how to communicate with effectiveness, pleasure and understanding. It is often unfortunate that a dog may not get any training at all since the ethical standing of the owner prevents use of the current advice and other alternatives are lacking. Having a wide ranging choice of solutions gives our dogs a much higher chance of living a full and content life.

Take responsibility for your choice

The second element of your ethical considerations are whether you are “up to the job” of rearing a twenty-first century dog. It is not easy. Societies’ demands, our work and lifestyles are fast moving away from being dog-friendly. Successful rearing takes more knowledge, skills and understanding today and your lack of competency may be at a cost to your dog.

Society is generally less tolerant of dogs, housing is less suitable for dogs and our recreation areas are becoming less welcoming. I am in serious admiration of people who live without a garden, such as an flat or apartment, and keep their dog fit and content. For 3 months I lived with Dickon in a flat and did not enjoy needing to take him out for the 11pm night-empty, driving to parks at 6am before setting off to work. I now enjoy the luxury of working and being able to view my dogs at play in their space – my garden.

All the dogs, with due consideration to the weather for certain Gordon Setters, love their outside time. They love to shoot the breeze, chew the fat and wonder which Chaffinch is having multiple affairs in multiple bushes. It seems an integral part of their contentment which I whole heartedly share.

In the old days of urban life I used to pack a picnic and good book and set off to the woods to de-compress, finding a comfort-tree to settle under for a couple of hours. It was inevitable that I would migrate to country life. It did not take me long to realise that an environment that is dog-comfortable is also Kay-comfortable although my wish list is longer than theirs.

Taking responsibility for the choice we have made is part of sharing our lives with a dog. The breed we have chosen with such skills as guarding, hunting or herding need particular knowledge and understanding and that breed may only be able to adapt their skills to certain life styles. If our life style is not compatible with their adaptability then we need to take responsibility for the outcome – the stress to the dog, or the additional work we may need to undertake to keep their level of contentment.

a dog paradise

In my wonderful dog paradise I have to carefully consider whether a terrier or hound would actually be highly frustrated in the rat, rabbit and fox surroundings. They would not be allowed to free hunt, but they would be exposed to the hunting stimulus round the clock. Any working dog will often find employment for their own sanity, and this may not be acceptable to the local school children, joggers, or cats.

When choosing your dog-friend take very careful consideration. Some of the recent breeds to become available, or into our sitting rooms, have no history of living indoors or in urban environments. The are often only one or two generations from living on the mountain or out in the woods. The transition can be heartbreakingly difficult for them to achieve.

I had a client with a lovely, energetic, friendly Labrador. On further enquiry this dog was of generations of outdoor bred dogs and had all the admirable characteristics of a Good Labrador. But the breeders had no appreciation of how difficult this dog would be to live with in a house and neither did the inexperienced new owners. To be able to watch the evening news we trained this lovely boy to lie down watching a treat on each paw and wait until the news had finished. To say he went several times around the light bulb at the thought of visitors would be an understatement. Despite the superb temperament, appropriate health checks he should not have been sold to a home with an indoor lifestyle. His energy level was not compatible with sofa-life.

Look for a breed that has a long history of pet dogs living in the same lifestyle as yours. Then within that breed choose a house bred puppy with at least four generations of pet dogs behind them.

Equally a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel with 90 years of pet breeding is not going to be comfortable living outdoors in cold weather or away from people. You may desire a Cocker Spaniel, but it is neither fair or ethical to buy a pup from working breeding and expect it to behave as a pet dog and vice versa. You may be lucky and your working dog has at last found the luxury life it has dreamed about, but if you are unlucky, then the frustration level for both you and the dog will be long lived.

Function as a pet dog is as important, if not more, than function as a working dog. Shop by your ethics, not your ego. I have enormous admiration for people who recognise their lifestyle is not suitable for a dog, but yearn to have one. I changed my life, career and choices so that I could live with dogs.

Function as a pet dog is as important, if not more, than function as a working dog.

Choose your training advisor carefully

Your local resources in training facilities may not meet your expectations. Many training classes are run by well intentioned folk who may be re-generating the same material year after year and this often appears to suit their clients.

Visit the classes without your dog to observe and gain a feel for the learning quality. Assess the level of contentment in the room for both dogs and people. Many people enjoy the social aspect of a class but you must also question whether the dog is benefitting from this interaction as well. Social proximity and interaction for humans is not the same as for dogs.

~ Are the dogs focussed on their owners or the other dogs?
~ Are the owners focussed on their dogs or socialising with other people?
~ Is the class an ego trip for the trainer or instructor?
~ Does the individual dog and person get the support and help they need?

Is the passing of awards and certificates meeting the needs of the individuals?
Is there someone excluded from the class and training their dog in the car park?

If your local resources do not suit, search online and seek for personal recommendations. There is big money behind marketing to pet dog owners. Even in poor economic periods the pet market is seen as a soft touch. Be aware that marketing through a plethora of certification is often for the benefit of the certifiers, not your dog.

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