Katz on Dogs : A Commonsense Guide to Training and Living with Dogs
Last updated: Feb. 28 2021 | 9 min read
It’s the question prospective dog owners should ask first, perhaps the most important in anyone’s life with a dog:
The most critical decisions about our lives with dogs are often made before we bring one home. Acquiring a dog in America is disturbingly
simple. You can trawl online, find a breeder, or take one of the puppies some kid is offering outside the supermarket (I wouldn’t advise it). You
might come across a stray while out walking or driving. Some people seek dogs for rock-hard practical reasons: security, hunting, therapy, search-and-rescue. But most of us, say psychologists and behaviorists, have more complicated emotional and psychological motives.
WHY DO I WANT A DOG?
The more trouble humans have connecting with one another, the more they turn to dogs (and other pets) to fill some of the gaps. We seem to need to love and be loved in ways that are uncomplicated, pure, and dependable.
Contemporary America is, in many ways, a fragmented, detached society. Our extended families have moved away; we often don’t know our neighbors; many of us hole up at night, staring at one kind of screen or another. Divorce is commonplace. Work has become unstable, uncertain for many, often unpleasant. Many people seem to find it easier to live and interact with dogs than with one another, and so the bonds between humans and dogs grow steadily stronger.
Yet this development in the relationship of these two species is one sided. Many dogs are well served by humans’ deepening attachment, but the dogs can’t make similar choices. It’s human need that has spawned the great canine love affair.
Humans have decided to bring dogs into the center of their lives. For all the fussing about animal rights, dogs have none. They don’t get to make consumer decisions. They’re dependent on us for everything they need to survive. They can’t talk back; they have no say about their environments or futures.
Although dogs have helped and worked with humans for thousands of years, it’s only in recent decades that they’ve come to be seen as something other than (perhaps more than) animals. Pet-keeping was popular among the wealthy and powerful in medieval times, notes animal ethicist James Serpell in the book Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives, but it didn’t acquire widespread respectability until the late seventeenth century, a time of growing enthusiasm for science and natural history and increased concern for animals’ welfare. Since then, our attachment to dogs has intensified significantly. We humans have never been closer to another species. We spend tens of billions of dollars on their care, feeding, and amusement; give them human names; talk to them as if they can understand us; believe we know what they are telling us in return.
This emotionalism often entangles dogs in our needs and wants. It is commonplace now, though it would have been shocking even a generation ago, to hear people say without apology or embarrassment that they love their dogs more than they love most people, that they see their dogs as members of their family, that they confide their most intimate problems and secrets to their dogs, who are more loyal and understanding than parents, spouses, lovers, or friends. Spending a few days in a vet’s office as part of my research for a book, I was amazed to hear one woman after another urge, “Look, Doctor, I can live without my husband, but you’ve got to save this dog!” Yet vets tell me they hear it all the time.
And not just from women. Behavioral research shows that women love dogs in part because they seem emotionally supportive yet complex, able to understand their owners in a profound though wordless way. Meanwhile, men love dogs because they are perfect pals, happy to go places and do things, but unable to hold or demand conversations. Like it or not, our dogs’ upbringings reflect our own. We tend to treat our dogs the way we were treated, or the way we wish we ‘d been. Either way, our own pasts profoundly shape our attitudes about dogs and the ways we train and communicate with them.
This is usually an unconscious process. Few owners bring much self-awareness to their canine relationships or reflect on their own families when they scream at their dogs to come, or coo at them as if they understood. One school nurse I know grabbed her dog by the ears every night when she came home, yelling, “Do you love me? Am I your sweet mommy?” She wondered why the dog tried to run off during walks.
So the motives for getting a dog become important, if you are worried about its welfare and want a good relationship. Is your answer to the why-a-dog question that it’s easier to seek companionship from a dependent animal than from a person? Do you want a dog because of subliminal messages from TV and movies? Are you more drawn to rescuing creatures than to training and living with them?
Do we discipline in ways we were disciplined, ask for the levels of obedience and perfection demanded of us, criticize them in the voices and words we heard? Are we reenacting old family dramas, trying to heal traumas? Can we honestly say that we or somebody else in our household is willing to take emotional responsibility for a dog, not only loving but training and caring for it?
A woman named Susan told me she wanted a dog because she felt unsafe in a gritty, impoverished neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. So she got an English mastiff so enormous that her landlord soon made her give him away, then a German shepherd named Thunder. The dog does effectively protect the house, charging the front door when strangers come by. But since Susan, who works as a New Jersey Transit conductor, concedes she is a poor trainer with little interest in working with the dog, she has to lock Thunder in the basement when friends or relatives visit. She ‘s come home to find countless pieces of shredded mail; the dog understandably sees envelopes coming through the door slot as a menace. She ‘s also had to replace scratched doors and broken windows.
By now, Thunder weighs ninety pounds and pulls Susan all over the sidewalk when she takes him out. The neighbors and their children are terrified of him, though he’s never actually bitten or harmed anyone. The dog doesn’t seem aggressive so much as conscientious; he is doing the job he was hired to do, a victim of his own effectiveness. But Susan, who says she loves Thunder, concedes that she never really wanted a dog for its own sake. She probably should have taken a self-defense course or called a security-alarm company instead. “It would be cheaper in the long run, and easier.”
Understanding the reasons we want a dog is central to choosing the right ones, training them properly, living with them happily. The more we understand about ourselves, the better choices we are likely to make for both species.
When you think about it, you probably know plenty of people who complain that their dogs are too active or too sedentary, too interested in chasing squirrels or too distracted to come when called, too protective of the house or so nonthreatening they’d help carry out the valuables. Though the dog usually gets the blame, as often as not the owner made an unfortunate or ill-considered choice. Consequently, the dog is under pressure to be something other than what it is, while the humans have their hands full. With a little thought and research, the lives of dogs and their people can be a lot easier and more satisfying. But that does require some understanding of one’s own psychology and emotions, some thought about where we are in our own lives and how our dogs fit in. Jim, a hunter who lives near me in upstate New York, keeps three beagles in a large kennel 360 days a year. They emerge for a few morning hours on the other five days to track game. They spend a lot of time waiting, but when their time comes, they shoot out of the kennel and into the woods. “They are great dogs,” says Jim, who hasn’t even named them.
Does he like having them? I asked him once. “When they do their jobs I do,” was his response. I feel reflexively sorry for the dogs when I drive by, especially when I consider my own dogs’ pampered lives, but Jim’s dogs, while they’re loud, don’t seem to know they are deprived. Not all dogs could live that way. But Jim’s beagles demonstrate the startling adaptability of dogs. They’re there to hunt, period. Jim has a wife and four children to whom he’s devoted, and he’s busy with his construction firm; he doesn’t need dogs to be his hobby or his confidants. Once a day, he heads out to the kennel with a bucket of meat and leftovers and tosses the contents into the kennel. At Christmas, he adds a bucket of biscuits. They get all their shots, and see a vet if they’re ailing. The beagles have never been inside his home. He speaks of them proudly and fondly, but they’re tools, like a drill or a new rifle, not little people, not even really pets in the contemporary sense. Yet the dogs seem content and healthy. Jim knows precisely why he wants them. They understand the simple rules and, since dogs lack human awareness of the passage of time, don’t know how long they go between hunts. It may not be the way many of us would wish to have dogs, but his clarity about the kinds of dogs he wants and why seems to work well for everyone involved.
Then there’s Andrea, an artist who lives on a fifty-acre farm in Vermont. For various complex reasons, she’s given up on the idea of men, marriage, a family; instead, she sought out a collie rescue group. She, too, understood exactly why she wanted a dog, and the bond she’s formed with hers appears to make them both happy.
“I have not been fortunate with relationships, at least not yet,” she says. “But Whisper and I adore each other. I have so much fun with her, and she gives me so much comfort and love. I hope she ‘s a bridge to another relationship, but if she isn’t, I’ll be okay.”
It isn’t for me to say and in truth I can’t really decide whether Andrea made a wise or healthy choice. But she thought about her motives, about how a dog would fit into her life, and she made a considered decision.
“Because my kid’s been begging for one” is, on the other hand, usually a suspect reason to acquire a pet. It’s a common refrain, but dogs bought as Christmas surprises for demanding children often have a rough time of it. Promises get made and forgotten; interest in the newcomer peaks, then wanes.
Not always. A twelve-year-old neighbor of mine asked for a golden retriever last year for Christmas and his parents agreed, on the condition that Jeremy take responsibility for it. Perhaps they had confidence that he actually would because he’d already proved his commitment by feeding his fish and cleaning out hamster cages.
In any event, Jeremy does take care of Clancy. He walks him before and after school, feeds him, brushes him, takes him to training classes every Saturday. Each day after school, Jeremy and Clancy train together. The dog has learned to come when called, to sit, stay, and lie down on command. People in rural areas familiar with 4-H programs know how healthy it can be for children to take responsibility for animals. People in child- and dog-crazed suburbs where the rule often seems to be, the smaller the yard, the bigger the dog know how unusual it is. For Jeremy, getting a dog does seem like a positive thing; he kept his word, or perhaps his parents took the unusual step of insisting that he keep it. Either way, I’ve encountered few kids like him. Parents, beware: somebody in a household has to take primary responsibility for a dog, and if the kids don’t, Mom or Dad has to step in.
Parents often give their kids things they think are good for them cell phones, computers, dogs without much thought about how these things will be used or treated after the purchase.
So why do you want a dog?
If the answer, in part, stems from a complex emotional history (as is certainly the case with me), make sure you understand and think through just what it is you are asking of a pet. Despite our habit of anthropomorphizing dogs, they don’t understand what we ‘re thinking and can’t possibly grasp the nuances of the emotional roles we sometimes ask them to fill. They can’t even behave amiably by our definitions if not properly chosen, exercised, and trained. Since our expectations are usually much too high, we become easily disappointed or angry. There’s substantial evidence that we’re creating problem dogs biters, chewers, barkers, neurotics in need of antidepressants. This happens partly because so many people get the wrong dogs at the wrong times for the wrong reasons. There’s a moral component to taking on a dog. Though they aren’t capable of higher-level thought processes, dogs certainly have emotions. They experience pain and loss, fear and affection. This has given them and other animals some moral standing among people of conscience. It may not make them the equivalent of children, but it does obligate us to think about how we treat them. But every dog isn’t for everyone. I don’t accept the growing, politically driven notion that every dog is equally deserving of rescue, that all dogs are essentially alike in their adaptability to our tense, crowded, litigious human environment. I don’t find that to be true. Dogs are ferociously idiosyncratic, varying wildly depending on breed, genetics, litter experience, treatment, and environment. Some are genial and calm, bred for temperament, and some are violent, bred and trained to hunt or fight. Few of us have the training skills or time to alter all of those behaviors. The wrong choice of dog can prove a nightmare for you, your family, and your community; the right one, a joy.
Some dogs need to work, some don’t; some will hide from thunder while others won’t even notice it; some hate people in hats and others chase bikes. You can’t always know these oddities in advance; all the more reason to proceed with caution.