By Sean O’Shea
So how come things have gotten so much more dicey with our dogs? How come there seems to be far more ill-behaved dogs than the “good old days”? How come there’s so much aggression, resource guarding, possessiveness, separation anxiety, reactivity, and so on?
Am I just out of touch and remembering romantically those past days when dogs seemed to be dogs and humans seemed to be humans – and both seemed to be the better for it?
I’m not so sure. I’m 48. I was born in the late 60’s. I remember very clearly the way our dogs lived with us (and the way most of my friend’s dogs did as well). Our dogs were far from perfect, but I don’t remember hearing much about many of the above issues. There was “dog world” and “human world”. Dogs were mostly outside, had special privilege days or hours when they got to come inside. They were companions we enjoyed during outdoor adventures or ball throwing and family time in the yard. We saw them as dogs, and for the most part, lived with them emotionally and physically like dogs. And that separation seemed to create some very clear boundaries between the two species. There was clarity.
But boy how things have changed. 🙂
These days, most dogs live inside. They share our personal and intimate space freely. But that’s not all that’s changed. Along with the physical access, they’ve also moved inside our hearts and minds in a way that never existed previously. Not that previous generations didn’t love their dogs, I’m sure they did, but the role our dogs play in our emotional lives today seems much different than that of the past. Today’s dogs have access physically and emotionally to places that weren’t typically up for grabs prior. And because of this new dynamic – this dynamic of compete sharing, complete access, and complete emotional integration – we’ve blurred lines. We’ve created a lot of confusion and mixed messages, and we’ve set our dogs up to make natural assumptions and decisions based on those messages. Those assumptions and decisions have created a lot of negative fallout for our dogs, and for us who share our lives with them.
Now let me be clear about a few things. I love having my dogs inside. I’d hate to live with my crew outside. My guys are allowed on furniture, sleep on my bed, and roam the house pretty much as they please. We share the space. My guys are also very important to me emotionally. They’re still dogs, but they hold a special place in my heart, and I think that’s pretty clear to them.
So this begs the question: with this new dynamic of near total integration and sharing, how the heck do you keep your dogs balanced, respectful, polite, and well-behaved in the face of all these mixed messages? My feeling is this. Once we took our dogs inside, once we made them our daily physical and emotional companions, it changed what was required of us. Our parents (or maybe you if you’re of that older generation) could probably get away with not doing as much training. They likely didn’t need to create a ton of structure, be uber-pack leaders, or use the same tools and strategies to keep their dogs balanced. Their dogs were dogs. But for us, the ones blurring the lines, we’ve got a different reality.
Because we’ve shifted our dog’s perceptions of us, because we’ve integrated them so deeply into our lives, because we’ve leaned so hard on them emotionally – many becoming surrogate children, spouses, or friends – we’ve got a whole different reality. A reality where we have to work a heck of a lot harder to keep them balanced.
Once we brought them into our world in this more intimate fashion, it all changed. Our jobs as dog owners got harder, more complex. Our responsibilities, if we’re to have healthy, balanced dogs, got heavier, and more challenging.
The upshot is this, we’ve fundamentally changed how we live and interact with our dogs, there’s no getting around it, and I don’t think it’s changing any time soon. Our dogs have become central players in our lives; family members we cherish and adore. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing…IF we’re prepared to do the hard work that come with that. With this new way of living comes greater challenges; the possibility of neurotic behavior, feelings of entitlement, boundary pushing, disrespect and lots more. For me, the answer was to make sure that as deep as I loved, and as much freedom I granted, that I shared equally firm, unquestionable discipline. While my guys know I love them deeply, they also know that any monkey business is met with firm, immediate, and valuable consequences. That balance of love and leadership is what allows me to have the best of both worlds.
It’s work my folks and their friends likely never had to do, at least not at this level. For the most part, they chose to have their dogs be dogs, and that meant an easier human/dog lifestyle path in many ways. But that might also have meant the absence of intimate dog companionship, and perhaps lonely outdoor lives for many dogs. So there’s trade offs in both. But for those of us choosing to live in the more integrated fashion, remember that that freedom, connection and enjoyment comes at a cost – if we want to have happy, healthy dogs we can enjoy. And that cost is more awareness, more responsibility, more effort, and the willingness to share as much discipline as we share love.
With every gift comes an equal responsibility.
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