Blurred Lines

IMG_3179By 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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5 comments
  1. Aquila said:

    Having thought about it, I have to agree. Things have changed with how we live with our dogs. The changes in having our dogs live indoors (something that was the norm for my family for many decades) and in much closer proximity to us does beg for proper discipline. It seems that not only dogs are being poorly served by their owners, children are being poorly served by their parents by the same lack of proper discipline. I have watched family members treating both their dogs and children with a decided lack of respect then fly into a rage because there were no boundaries and behaviors were not stopped or modified when those behaviors were first exhibited. It seems too that because of the pervasive use of technology humans have become disengaged from the living beings around them, become irritated and angry when they must pay attention to a dog or child when they would far prefer to be paying attention to their computer screen or smart phone. I’m not condemning the technology nor the people who use it, I certainly use technology but I value the interactions with those people who share my life and space as well as the dog(s) who do so as well. Discipline and boundaries are necessary, paying attention to behavior of children and dogs is necessary. My parents and grandparents had indoor dogs, those dogs were taught the boundaries of living indoors, they were taught to behave and do as they were told, much as the children were. There was much love and gentleness in the training, but there was firmness and the expectation that all family members, two and four legged would follow the house rules. The adults were in charge, that does not appear to be the case in many homes today. The children run amuck, the dogs do as well. It is failure on the parts of people who seem to think that there should be no discipline, then everyone suffers, human and dog.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Appreciate it. And a good example that not everyone back in the day had outdoor, untrained dogs. Sounds like your folks and theirs as well had a good handle on things. 🙂

      • Aquila said:

        They did. We also were blessed with wonderful dogs. When I was a kid none of the neighbors walked their dogs, my parents didn’t either. Dogs were let out, came home and nobody thought much about it. I can’t remember anyone being bothered by any of the dogs either. No way I’d do that these days. I think that being willing to discipline your dog or child is definitely one of the most loving things you can do for them.

  2. Armand Rabuttinio said:

    I’m 63, our dogs always lived inside but we recognized them as dogs not children. People today lack common sense and do not spend enough time with their dogs as dogs or not enough time at all. Many people should not own dogs.

  3. Beth said:

    When I was a youngun and dnosaurs roamed the earth so did our dogs. In the morning my mom would open the back door to let our dog out. Out he’d go with his dog friends to return in the late afternoon. During summer my friends and I and my dog and his dog friends would all roam together. The other town dogs taught the younger dogs how to be dogs and my parents taught them inside manners. You are right, now dogs lives are governed by humans….so dogs think they are us and we are them. We over love, over protect, over expect and under train creating neurotic confused angry creatures. Thank you for teaching me how to teach my dog to be a good dog and me to be a better human.

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