Being Able to Choose Your Own Destiny: Who Wouldn’t Want That?
When I swapped the lovely green fields and cobblestoned streets of Germany for the rugged and sun-torched vastness of Australia almost twenty years ago, I felt an immense sense of freedom. Goodbye loveliness. Hello adventure! The grass may not have been greener on the other side but, as it turned out, it was more to my taste.
Not everyone is able to enjoy this level of freedom in their lives, most notably those who are fully dependent on others. We assume young children and companion animals are not aware of their restricted lives. We also assume that decisions are made in their best interests by those who care for them. I’m not sure how much I agreed with this when I was a child, but there was light at the end of the tunnel: one day, I would be grown up and free to live my own life. Our menagerie of animals, on the other hand, remained stuck with us. They would never be free to leave and they had limited control over their own lives.
Looking back now, I wish we had done a better job. I’m confident we gave our dog a better life than she had at the rescue shelter she came from. But there was so much more we could have done and so much we shouldn’t have done. Keeping animals as companions has always created a dilemma for me: How can I claim to love animals if I take their freedom away? Freedom, of course, comes in many forms and while dogs are not concerned with life-changing decisions such as moving to another country, they are aware of the choices they have—or don’t have—in their day-to-day lives.
We can make dogs’ lives happier by giving them more choices. A greater sense of freedom has the potential to counter all those common behaviour problems which result from dogs being physically trapped as well as thwarted in their efforts to satisfy their wants and needs.
Creating Successful Multi-Species Societies: Trending Towards Less Freedom for Dogs?
Life is, of course, full of constraints and dependencies. The requirements I had to satisfy to call myself a citizen of another country were a bureaucrat’s dream. If I was a bird, I needn’t give a hoot about borders. But then, I also couldn’t call for help if I was robbed or vote to get puppy farms banned or expect to find a sign on a remote beach telling me I had just hiked ten kilometres more than I intended and that the nearest campground was twenty kilometres to the north. Oh, and strictly no firearms in the national park. Thank you, I wouldn’t be here otherwise. And no dogs and cats either. (Who brings their cat into a national park?) Fair enough. Bringing a predatory species doesn’t exactly increase my chances to spot a koala or have a wallaby hop across my path.
Social societies demand a certain level of restraint from everyone who wants to benefit from them and putting restraints on our dogs is just another piece in the population puzzle. As our numbers grow, so does the number of dogs but also the number of complaints about dogs. With one pet dog for every five humans in Australia, the political power of our dog-loving citizens should be significant. However, it can be easily crushed by a single well-publicised dog bite incident or even a sleuth councillor, using the hard evidence of dog poo to keep dogs out of his city.
Dogs in our cities still have access to a wide range of off-leash parks, with some being huge and covering wilderness and waterways while others are footy ovals where you can walk the perimeter or be social and join a cluster of people swapping dog lore. The beautiful beaches, however, are gradually being whisked away from our canine citizens, leaving only a few time slots for early birds and night owls or crowding everyone into small sections, effectively banning dogs—and people—who need more personal space.
It’s good to see many dogs out and about on weekends. Australians love to be active outdoors and take their dogs along to cafes, farmers’ markets, sporting events and festivals. Setting foot and paw indoors is a different story. You won’t find dogs in most restaurants, pubs, shops, hotels, office buildings or on public transport. Even the taxi driver who quickly accelerated away when he saw I had a dog in tow wasn’t an exception. Allowing more dogs in rental accommodations and apartment buildings may have been given a boost by recent legal changes in some states, but owners and owner corporations can still say no. And as for taking your dog to work: Your employer might be willing, but a co-worker with a fear of dogs or an allergy could easily put a stop to this.
Creating successful multi-species societies adds to the challenge of creating successful multi-cultural societies. At least, unlike our dogs, we are free to participate in making and changing the rules of our society or we can find a society that suits us better. And, if that doesn’t work for us, we can always follow in the footsteps of Prince Leonard in Western Australia and establish a sovereign nation in the middle of nowhere to make our own laws. At times, this sounds extremely appealing to me!
Positive Communication and Learning About Each Other Pave the Way for Harmony Amidst Diversity.
Not being ready to throw in the towel and become a hermit just yet means I have to be sensitive to the feelings, opinions and culture of others. One of my early adventures took me to a remote Indonesian island where a group of women inquired why I was travelling without a husband and why, at the ripe age of twenty-plus years, I still didn’t have any children. Plenty of smiling and nodding, a largely universal language among different human cultures which has helped me through many potentially awkward and sometimes even dangerous situations, was my ticket once again.
Dogs have their own affiliative behaviours which we often see when they try to communicate with us. Just like my nodding and smiling told people I was neither a threat nor aloof, dogs are doing their best to be our friends. But where another dog would immediately get the message and respond according to canine etiquette, we humans act more often than not like that red-faced, hypertensive traveller who abuses the local tour guide for not making him feel like a colonial ruler.
We don’t have to behave like dogs to communicate with dogs. We just have to understand what they are trying to say or what their behaviour may mean. When dogs find themselves in a group, such as village dogs or in multi-dog households, they have their own social rules which we are still trying to fully understand. But thanks to modern research, our knowledge of dog behaviour has matured well beyond the stereotypical pack ideology.
We are learning to nod and smile more rather than yell and command. The move away from confrontational and militaristic dog training methods and continued research into what it means to be a dog helps us to be better members of the cross-species societies we have created and to foster greater harmony. Our companion dogs will never enjoy the same freedom as wild dogs or village dogs, but we can respect their culture and identity by not riding roughshod over their social and emotional needs and expressions. The freedom to be a dog and behave like a dog, even within the constraints of a human society and its rules, goes a long way to give dogs a greater sense of freedom and less reason to feel trapped and stressed.
Being Free to Pursue Your Own Version of Happiness is What Makes Life Worth Living.
The point of having a choice is not about the result. We all make lousy decisions at times. The real kick we get out of decision making is the feeling of control over our own lives. Beyond keeping life and limb, every single one of us—from accountants to zebra fishes—is driven by one thing that is both common and unique: The pursuit of happiness.
Self-determination, autonomy, personal freedom—whatever you want to call it—is a core ingredient for a happy emotional self and the lack of it can be devastating. One of my deeply implanted childhood memories involves a caged black panther in a 1970s Frankfurt zoo. That pacing, panting creature with frantic eyes put a first major dent in my little girl happiness. Just how mind-destroying such a complete loss of freedom must be, I can hardly imagine.
Our dogs may not all fare so badly, but what happens to an individual when they find themselves trapped in a life so different to the one that evolution has prepared them for? Kennels and backyards instead of the great outdoors, perfume and pedicures instead of rolling in mud and rubbing against branches, and dry biscuits in a bowl instead of juicy prey, freshly caught. And even if enrichment is on the menu, it is often sanctioned and sanitized. We tightly control our dogs’ entertainment, from fitness regimen to social calendar.
I don’t know what it feels like for a dog not to have choices, but, oh, how I would miss my first cup of coffee in the morning or the beer I share with friends on a summer night, the wind in my face as I drive along a winding coastal road and through the tea trees and eucalypts, the feeling of sand under my bare feet, the smell of rain. I can seek out all these seemingly small pleasures in life because I have choices. It makes a world of a difference to my happiness. My personal freedom is what makes my life worth living.
Modern Dog Training Without Force and Fear: the Business of Making Dreams Come True.
Not in my faintest dreams would I have any desire to take someone’s freedom away. And yet, I’m a dog trainer. By definition, am I not someone who helps people curb the natural behaviours of their dogs? Do I not belong to a group of professionals who have apparently made it their business to squash the rights of dogs? Traditionally, this may have been an accurate job description and it is the reason I didn’t enter the profession earlier. Now, I count myself as one of the growing number of dog training & behaviour professionals who solve their clients’ problems by putting the focus on the dog’s happiness. We use neither force nor fear to make dogs do things.
I see it as my job to find ways to give dogs more personal freedom, so they can be happier. If dogs had dreams about a better life, I’d like to make those dreams come true. Although my clients usually need specific problems solved, they also have dreams. At least when they first get their dog, most people have a vision of what life will be like with their dog. They have certain ideas of the companionship and activities they want to share with their dog. When it doesn’t work out as expected, they seek help and unwittingly, more often than not, end up with a nightmare: A breed of dog trainer who still instructs to hit, kick, yank, spray, choke, shock and yell at the dog in the name of dog training. Fortunately, people rarely want their dog to be mistreated in order to solve a problem, so those trainers are increasingly met with anything from scepticism to hostility to eviction from the client’s home. Those trainers are, sooner or later, facing extinction.
Rather than restrict a dog’s freedom to combat behaviour problems, I want to give them a bigger sense of control over their lives. If everywhere you turn you are met with barriers, be they physical or psychological, how would you feel? I assume, you’d become frustrated. You would try to break those barriers, maybe argue at first, then shout and even escalate to violence when you get truly desperate. Eventually, exhausted, you give up and become sad and depressed, possibly to the point of serious mental health problems. Is it so hard to imagine that other creatures suffer through similar emotions, given the similarities of our brains and judging by their behaviour?
There was this old Rottweiler I once looked after. I still remember our early morning strolls to a small park around the corner. For many blissful minutes he would roll and rub his back in the fresh cool grass. That and stealing carrots from the guinea pig who shared his home—a small paved backyard with a kennel that barely covered his large and weary body—were the highlights of his day.
In my dreams, this Rottweiler had grass—real grass!—in his backyard so he could roll and scratch whenever he felt like it, had a dog door to the house so he could choose the most comfortable place to rest on hot and cold day and had a range of food-stuffed puzzle toys so he could munch and chew. And, perhaps most importantly, he had more company, beyond his guinea pig inmate who probably wasn’t too keen on deepening the relationship.
No More Master and Commander. No More Helpless Pet. Let’s Listen to Our Dogs and Seek Happiness Together.
Being stuck and alone in a backyard is certainly not conducive to a dog’s happiness, and neither is choosing their friends for them. The wide-eyed pug clutched tightly in a woman’s arms and presented close to the nose of the Labrador at the next table surely thought he was becoming someone else’s lunch rather than having lunch. Other attempts at socialisation or being social have dog lovers of all ages drumming on the heads of hapless, immobilized dogs, hovering over, grabbing, hugging and mugging them, with no regard for that quivering upper lip and southward tail or those panicky eyes.
Not listening is a good strategy for not being listened to. Ignoring a dog’s body language, especially when that language has all the signs of being afraid or uncomfortable, can erode their trust in us. If the dog learns that we deliberately put them in situations they experience as threatening, that they are not safe with us, they are less likely to follow us or turn to us for guidance. No amount of training can override the urge to avoid a threat. Ironically, training itself is often a source of real or perceived danger for dogs. Punitive methods, incessant commands and micromanaging a dog’s life promotes avoidance, frustration, aggression and depression, potentially triggering a cascade of troubling behaviours in the dog.
We can pre-empt all this by not forcing dogs to do things they are not willing to do. Do I hear dog trainers of old howl in disbelief when I say a dog does not have to follow his master’s every command? No matter how much the claws of tradition try to slow the advance of kindness and reason, the era of masters and commanders has already come to an end. Many formerly disadvantaged, suppressed and persecuted groups in our midst have achieved freedom and equality as our societies have matured and, despite the current sorry state of world affairs, that trend continues. Dogs and other animals can never have equality with humans before human law, but there is no reason they can’t have more rights and more freedom.
Will You Open That Door?
We can all help to create more successful multicultural and multi-species societies. To gain greater acceptance of dogs in public places, we need to lobby our political representatives, but we also need to be respectful towards the members of our communities who are not quite as enamoured with our dogs as we are. Education of the public, especially how to behave around dogs, and training dogs with reward-based methods, so they behave in a non-offensive manner, are essential, if we want more freedom for dogs in public spaces.
If we can take our dogs with us more often and leave them home alone less, they will be less lonely and anxious, can develop better social skills and subsequently become happier. Not every dog is social or comfortable in all situations and we have to cater for that, but just like we accommodate a diverse range of human personalities and cultures in our society, we should try and make room for a diversity of dogs.
Starting right now, everyone can abandon confrontational dog training methods and train with rewards instead, learn about dog behaviour and body language and especially how to recognize fear and anxiety, not overpower a dog, but encourage and motivate them to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, allow them to vote with their feet rather than force them into situations, and let them enjoy the little pleasures in life that make a dog happy, like running, sniffing, playing, chewing, digging, swimming, eating or rolling in something you’d rather not identify. All of this will work towards giving dogs more personal freedom and better mental, emotional and physical health. And we can only benefit from the resulting drop in behaviour problems and the effect a happy dog face has on our own happiness.
Luckily, our dogs are not aware that they can’t ride on a bus, book an overseas holiday or order their own meals at the Mexican take-away, but they do notice when the grass is greener beyond their reach. They longingly look at the large field that would be perfect for zoomies, they feel drawn to the mud hole or the pile of leaves or the ducks over there, swimming in the river. They catch a scent and are stopped by a leash. They feel afraid or concerned and wriggle to escape from that tight hug or pull away from that scary stranger. They get lonely and wait for hours for you to come home. They watch you through the glass door, wanting to come in.
Open that door. Let your dog take part in your life. Teach them skills, without force or coercion, so they and others can be safe. Give them choices that work for both of you, but don’t ignore your dog’s nature. Let them follow that scent. Let them splash in the elements to their hearts content. Let them be dogs.
Editor’s note: Go to Sylvie’s follow-up post in which she offers practical suggestions on how to give your dog more freedom.
Sylvie Martin, Christian Mueller/Shutterstock.com, otsphoto/Shutterstock.com, sashafolly/Shutterstock.com.