“According to traditional Judaeo-Christian philosophy, an absolute moral and conceptual barrier exists between our species and the rest of animal creation” (Serpell, 1995).
Dogs enjoy a unique relationship with humans unlike any other domesticated species capable of serving our many whimsical and utilitarian needs and according to Serpell (1995), “[d]omestic dogs are unusual or exceptional in so many different respects,” pointing out they were the first domesticated species creating a “revolutionary change in human affairs.”
To this day we are still uncertain exactly how the dog evolved and with little archeological evidence its uncertain the significance of any relationship between our early ancestors and early proto-type dogs. However, the information we do have seems to signify the dog was “highly valued” and the burial site in Ein Mallaha seems to suggest an “affectionate” attachment rather than an “exploitive” relationship.
Theories abound on why humans gravitated to keeping dogs and why dogs in turn attached themselves to humans but the answers to these questions can have a profound affect on dogs’ future welfare. Aside from different cultural views for keeping dogs, the purpose of this essay is to concentrate on the keeping of dogs by modern man and the relationship issues that arise as a result.
Canine and Human Conflicts
There is no question concerning the benefits dogs provide us as willing companions, but my concern is how these relationships in turn affect the dogs’ behavior and subsequent welfare. When sufficient conflict arises in the human-dog relationship, many of these positive associations are quickly dismissed with owners choosing to surrender the dog to rescue organizations, shelters or worse euthanasia.
According to Hart (1985) there is little known “how environmental factors may influence the prevalence of behavior problems” however she suggests “owner attitudes and behavior” are likely influences. Hart cites a study of 308 dog owners in Australia indicating 35% of the households never disciplined the dog, only 2% included training as a responsibility and a large majority (46%) lacked understanding of municipal laws regarding “chasing people” and 32% unaware of laws against roaming.
In addition, behavior problems affect the social lives of owners, preventing them from travel and social opportunities including friendships. Owners who unwittingly place too much responsibility on dogs for their emotional and social well-being put dogs at risk when behavior problems arise.
Owner personality – an analysis of the human-dog bond
According to O’Farrell (1985) “anecdotal evidence…seems to demonstrate a connection between owner personality and dog behavior” along with empirical evidence she suggests “a basis for speculation that there are relationships between owner attitudes and personality…and dog behavior” and this association can be a “causal” relationship. She also emphasizes other factors such as genetics and hormonal influences be considered and the need for more research to determine any links between an owners behavior patterns and the problem behavior of the dog.
Because the following section included by Lindsay (2000) is important to making my point concerning dog welfare; I have included the following in its entirety as it will be explained in more detail following.
Yi-Fu Tuan, in Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets (1984), analyzed the urge to
keep and domesticate pets from the perspective of an enhanced sense of power. The
ultimate significance of pet keeping according to Tuan is intertwined with a more fund-
amental urge to dominate and control nature. To domesticate is to dominate, control, and
modify an animal according to human interests and design. Although the earliest intentions
motivating domestication cannot be explicitly demonstrated, Tuan argues that the main
motivations from early antiquity through the modern period for keeping and breeding dogs
were largely utilitarian. These functions included hunting and guarding roles, but many other
uses of dogs can be found, ranging from pest control to shepherding. The modern view of
pet keeping based purely on affection and companionship became possible only with the
advent of industrialization and the widening schism between humans and nature. As dogs
become progressively divorced from a practical function, they could be more often concept-
ualized and used solely as an object of affection and play. The emergence of modern pet
keeping brought with it conflicting urges and sentiments between dominance and benevolence,
between cruelty and affection, and between ownership and friendship. The history of pet
keeping is one of glaring incongruities and antithesis spawned by these conflicts inherent to
pet ownership, training, and breeding.
According to Lindsay (2000), “understanding the nature of these motivational conflicts and how they impact on the human-dog bond is of considerable importance” even though he admits much of the literature is speculative and “often difficult to defend on scientific grounds” it does offer “valuable philosophical texture” for understanding some of the more “pathological and destructive facets of human-dog interaction.”
How owners contribute to dogs’ behavior
In many cases dogs fit somewhere in between being treated as children and often as toys creating unnatural boundaries that include both behavioral and psychological and in turn provide dogs more latitude than might be given a human child. Often when owners suspend these psychological boundaries, the dog often becomes simply an object of affection that tends to promote a “relationship that is decidedly one-sided, selfish, immature, unrealistic, and dysfunctional…aimed at providing the dysfunctional owner with some degree of psychological equilibrium” (Lindsay, 2000).
The result is when problems arise from this relationship “some owners choose denial” with others choosing to explain their dog’s bad behavior as “spitefulness, stubbornness, stupidity, and other convenient anthropomorphic interpretations” and in this state of “confusion and irrationality”, these owners will experience a “variety of interactive problems with dogs.” Their poor perception is further clouded as the behavior becomes worse and in some cases, “owners may unconsciously approve and unwittingly perpetuate the very behavior they are seeking to eradicate” (Lindsay, 2000).
There are acceptable cases when “dogs may be employed by some individuals as a psychological crutch” to assist in managing “personal emotional conflicts and anxiety” but when inconsistencies between reward and punishment are applied according to an “owners shifting moods and psychological needs” dogs often develop “displacement activities” i.e. jumping, barking, digging, chewing and often times aggression (Lindsay, 2000).
The dog’s paradox
This is what I have come to term “selective caring” on the part of many dog owners and can best be described using the following two examples.
Shear numbers of dogs and money spent
The following are numbers reported by Lindsay (2002) concerning dogs in the United States and serve to emphasize the disparagement between the selective caring attitude of the public concerning dogs and their subsequent willingness to relinquish ownership when problems arise.
- According to the Pet Food Institute (1999), estimates dog ownership in the U.S. at 57.6 million dogs.
- Households keeping at least one dog was estimated at 37.8%
- The American Veterinary Medical Association (1997) estimates the U.S. dog population at 52.9 million and an increase of nearly 400,000 dogs since their last estimate in 1991.
- According to the Pet Food Institute (1999) $5.6 billion was spent on food alone
- The AVMA (1997) says another $7 billion is spent on keeping them healthy
- The AVMA’s Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook (1997) suggests these expenses are on the rise citing the average cost of veterinary care increasing from $132 per dog-owning household in 1991 to $187 in 1996.
- Another startling statistic is the cost of veterinary care has risen by $2.08 billion, while the mean number of veterinary visits has declined by 3.5% during this same period between 1991 and 1996.
There is no question about whether dogs have enjoyed a mutual co-evolution along side of man, but contrary to all the mutually exclusive relationships existing between man and dog, there does exist an opposite “disregard and insensitivity” toward them as well, particularly when behavior problems interfere with the bond.
According to a study by Arkow & Dow (1984) “64% of all dogs obtained as puppies…are disposed of by their owners within a year of acquisition (Hart, 1995). A survey in North Carolina (Anderson, 1992) found “approximately 76%” of all dogs entering shelters were euthanized. In addition, the Arkow and Dow (1984) study revealed 42% of dogs obtained from shelters are relinquished as opposed to other sources, and in a community in Colorado 40% of dogs and cats changed homes annually indicating a possible recycling of behavior problems within shelters. Further, the Humane Society of the United States reports, “approximately 20 million unwanted or abandoned pets (dogs and cats) die annually as the result of euthanasia, exposure, starvation, or trauma” (Lindsay, 2000).
This picture may appear bleak but coupled with research by Salmon and coworkers (1998) indicating “only 4%” of the surrendered dogs had received any obedience training with a modest 1.2% actually receiving any professional training it seems apparent lack of any training is a leading indicator for relinquishment. In addition, they found that one third had never been to a veterinarian (Lindsay, 2000).
In addition, various owner samplings and studies have revealed, “the vast majority of dogs exhibit some need for behavioral training” during their lifetime and Lindsay (2000) cites Hart and Hart (1985) as saying, ‘behavioral problems in dogs and cats are so common that it is perhaps unusual to have a pet with no problems.’
According to Lindsay (2000) “[b]ehavior problems are not only a nuisance” but a “serious risk to the welfare of dogs” citing estimates anywhere from 50% to 70% of dogs surrendered and euthanized due to behavior problems. In 1997 Overall “estimated that at least 7-8 million animals die in shelters each year…with an equal or greater number of animals being euthanized in private veterinary practice for similar reasons” and Riech and Overall (1998) “claim that ‘abnormal or problem behaviors kill more pets annually in the U.S. than do infectious, metabolic, and neoplastic disease combined.’ A startling statistic according to Lindsay (2000) is that “only half of 1%” of the dog, cat and horse owning population utilized veterinary behavior counseling during 1996 (AVMA, 1997), which suggests “behavioral intervention may be an underutilized treatment modality” among veterinarians who simply opt for euthanizing as a resolution to the behavior problem.
These numbers have been challenged as to accuracy by studies conducted by Salman et al., (1998) and Line (1998) indicating owners relinquishing pets due to behavior problems are less than 30% and is supported by the Arkow and Dow (1984) study reporting only 26% of pets being surrendered to shelters due to behavior problems (Lindsay, 2000). In spite of the differing numbers on why pets are so often relinquished there still remain a staggering number of animals given up for what may be resolvable behavior problems.
Contrary to these numbers, many dog owners opt to keep dogs in spite of behavior problems and Voith (1981a) found 55% of owners attributed “affectionate attachment” as their reason for keeping the dog with 16% citing humanitarian reasons with many others suggesting it was never a consideration.
We can reasonably assume the longer behavior problems go unresolved the more at risk the dog becomes of losing his owners patience and tolerance and becoming a victim of either senseless punishment or worse euthanasia.
Appreciating dogs for who they are, not what we want them to be
Contrary to what is often portrayed as a picture perfect relationship between man and his dog it’s evident this relationship is not always harmonious or one that is mutual in love and respect. Not only do the previous statistics show how humans seem to selectively choose when and why we maintain our relationships with dogs but we often condemn them to live lives with “chronic pain or ill health” due to the “propagation of inherited physical disorders” that are designed to suit our own opinions on canine beauty (Serpell, 1995).
In spite of lavish lifestyles many owners indulge on their dogs many are equally disgusted by normal dog behaviour consisting of “gluttony, sexual promiscuity, olfactory preoccupation, toilet habits, and occasional naked hostility toward strangers and visitors” causing embarrassment to many of these owners. Serpell (1995) even suggests “the dog’s characteristic loyalty, its fawning eagerness to please” can be “construed as sycophantic, servile and obsequious” the same sort of behavior we often equate to humans who are constantly sucking up to others.
The consequence for our part in this means the “dog is rarely accepted and appreciated purely for what it is: a uniquely varied, carnivorous mammal adapted to a huge range of mutualistic associations with people…rather it has become a creature of metaphor, simultaneously embodying or representing a strange mixture of admirable and despicable traits.” In the process this animal “that voluntarily allies itself to humans…seems to lose its right to be regarded as a true animal” (Serpell, 1995).
Lindsay, Steven R. Handbook of applied dog behavior and training. 2 Vols.
Iowa: Iowa SP. 2000. Vol. 1.
Serpell, James, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behavior, and interaction with people.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1995.
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Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC, ACCBC
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