No matter how cushy their lives, dogs live on our terms. They compromise their freedom and instinctual pleasure, as well as their innate strategies for coping with stress and anxiety, in exchange for the love, comfort, and care they get from us. But it is possible to let dogs be dogs without wreaking havoc on our lives, as biologist Marc Bekoff and bioethicist Jessica Pierce show in their fascinating new book, Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. They begin by illuminating the true nature of dogs and helping us “walk in their paws.” They reveal what smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing mean to dogs and then guide readers through everyday ways of enhancing dogs’ freedom in safe, mutually happy ways. The rewards, they show, are great for dog and human alike.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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One of the most important messages in Unleashing Your Dog is that there is no universal “dog.” Each dog is a unique individual with unique needs and a unique personality. As Ray Pierotti and Brandy Fogg note in their book The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, the word dog is difficult to define and “domestic dogs are a grab-bag assemblage of individuals.” Of course, there is no universal “human,” either, and trying to understand the motivations and perceptions of the human side of the dog-human equation is also essential.
Trying to think and feel our way through our dog’s daily life from the dog’s perspective is a useful exercise. As our dog’s companion, we can train ourselves to be attentive to our dog’s experiential world, to walk in their paws and imagine what’s happening in their head and heart. As with parenting, love is not enough. We also need logic. We need to become dog literate and understand who dogs are, what they need, and what their behavior can tell us about how they are feeling.
We also need to remember that dogs are not people. Yes, this is obvious. But it’s also easy to forget, especially when our dogs form such close friendships with us that it feels like we do speak the same language and share the same understandings.
We need to tailor enhancements to fit the needs of our specific dog. A dog is never too young or too old for us to be thinking about ways to enhance their freedoms. Socialization is an especially important freedom enhancer for puppies. When puppies are not socialized, their freedoms are curtailed for the rest of their lives because they don’t learn how to be “normal,” well-adjusted dogs. As ethologist and dog trainer Ian Dunbar suggests, puppies should be introduced to a hundred dogs and a hundred people before they’re twelve weeks old. Of course, this is virtually impossible to do, but it’s sage advice to ensure that puppies have plenty of contact with other dogs and with people other than their human companion. Also, puppies and dogs of all ages need to be cognitively challenged, and this extends well into their sunset years. Cognitively challenging work can have positive effects on the canine brain throughout the dog’s lifespan. For example, lifelong training appears to be linked with increased attention span in aging dogs.
Giving Dogs the Best Possible Lives
Bringing a dog into one’s home is a decision with far-reaching ethical consequences. In adopting, buying, or otherwise acquiring a dog, we become responsible for the well-being of another living creature. We have a great deal of control over how much freedom our dogs experience, and to a large extent, our daily actions determine whether our dog enjoys a happy and full life. Yes, choosing to share your life with a dog is an awesome responsibility.
If you are already a guardian to a dog, think about what kind of human companion you ideally want to be for your canine friend. As you read this book, consider the ways that you can give your dog the very best life possible. None of us is perfect; no one ever lives up to their ideal all the time. But try to see the world through your dog’s eyes (and their nose, tongue, paws, and skin!), and imagine all the little and big ways you can help your dog thrive. This is, after all, what you signed up for.
Our relationships with dogs are grounded in and guided by personal values. Sometimes these are openly acknowledged, and sometimes they are unstated but reflected in our actions. People differ in how they choose to live with their nonhuman companions, but it is useful to make these values explicit if you have invited another animal into your life or plan to do so. The first question is the one we pose above: What do you consider to be a good life for your dog, and how can you help your dog achieve this kind of life? Make a list of your goals; write them down.
As we’ve said, “unleashing your dog” is both literal — dogs need more time off leash — and metaphorical. We need to continually work toward increasing the freedoms that our dogs experience, thereby unleashing their potential to live life to the fullest. And with that, let’s unclip the leash and begin enhancing the lives of the dogs we love so much.
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Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado. He is a former Guggenheim Fellow and has received the Exemplar Award for long-term Psychology Today and has written thirty-one books, including Unleashing Your Dog andThe Emotional Lives of Animals. He lives in Boulder, Colorado. Find out more about his work at www.MarcBekoff.com.
Jessica Pierce is a faculty affiliate at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical School. She is the author of nine books, including Unleashing Your Dog. She has published essays in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian and is a regular contributor to Psychology Today. She has a PhD from the University of Virginia and an MTS from Harvard University and now lives in Colorado. Find out more about her work at www.JessicaPierce.net.
Excerpted from the book Unleashing Your Dog. Copyright © 2019 by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.