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Have Our Dogs Changed or Just Us?

Over the last 10 years of being in the pet industry and studying dog behavior. I hear an echoing statement from clients that haunts me. The story goes like this:


These are often clients over 50 in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. They come to me with young typically poodle mixes (not all but many). They are struggling with training these young rambunctious companions something they have never experienced before. These are experienced dog owners and have been raising and living with dogs most their life. They grew up with dogs, they had a dog in their early adulthood, raised a dog along side their children... but now they can't seem to understand why they are not able to get control of this newest member of the family.


The behavior issues these clients are facing very from excessive and uncontrollable barking, reactivity to other dogs, tire chasing, aggressive or startling reactions to strangers or children.


I have a tendency to flip back and forth in my head on the topic. Maybe we should just revert to old ways, would I have more success in helping these people if I utilized more direct and harsh methods? I spend hours researching, watching videos, and trying to understand the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of old-school "broom training" or "newspaper training" methods vs. the more gentle positive reinforcement approach of training dogs.


In the next breath I see the fear and stress in the dogs eyes, the frustration and anger in the human, and the eventual relapse of the unwanted behavior. I can't look past all the material and knowledge we have about learning to date, the quality of the dog-human relationship, and what we know about instinct and unconscious mechanisms at play inside every life force (genetics, hormones, blood chemistry, gut health, and more.)


Yet, there is still mounting complaints from my elders that their dog owning experience has changed. What has changed?


I am going to attempt to describe my outlook on the matter and various elements that may be impacting our modern pet owning experience.


Breeding

There are some incredible projects out there like the Functional Breeding project that I think are on to one piece of the puzzle. I have been seeing a huge push for these "designer dogs" and specifically doodles. Among my colleagues it's pretty clear that we all antidotally are experiencing a decline in these dog's health, physically and behaviorally. Personally, doodles are some of the most socially frantic and stressed out dogs I work with. Of course this does not apply to all doodles, I know a few stable and calm doodles, but those are often working service dogs, selected for their collected personality and work ability.


Again this entire article is based on my opinion and antidotal experience. I am in no way saying this is the sole cause of the issues we are seeing but a potential player in the game. We are not selecting and breeding dogs with the whole dog in mind. We are near-sided for non-shedding "friendly" dogs and anyone can breed them by crossing favorite breeds with poodles.


Change of Human Lifestyle

Next up, we can't blame everything on the dog. Our issue could be that our lifestyles are changing rapidly, exponentially in fact. In just one life time we now have access to technology that was the product of science fiction in the past. Even old dogs, I mean humans, can learn new tricks and have been! We live in smaller and more crowded spaces, we spend more time on screens and stationary, and we are addicted to immediate results and high production.


Our dogs (like us) are biological animals that move at biological speed. After years of evolving together humans have, it appears, diverged from our shared evolution dramatically! Where dog's lives are changing they are not in the drivers seat but being dragged along. They just can't evolutionally keep up.


Dogs have been our companions and assistants. Used for caring our burdens, protecting our families, hunting, food production, and transportation. Today they live much less eventful lives, get far less life experiences, and don't really serve the needed purpose of the past.


Even when we didn't need them they were still granted much freedom and experiences because we spent more time outside, so did they. Dogs and children everywhere are not getting the same amount of exposure to nature as those just 60 years ago. Our lifestyles have changed and I think it's having a massive effect on the behavioral health of our dogs.


Because of this, I think that more people should abandon dog ownership and realize that our canine companions are just not needed and don't thrive in this new world we are moving to. My heart sinks at the thought of all those abandoned dogs, and potentially the dog breeds that will likely go extinct if we were to abandon dogs on our evolutionary road. Please know I'm not saying we should give up on dogs currently in our lives or that no one should own dogs. I'm thinking on a much larger scale, in the decades to follow, I think dogs should only be owned by a few dedicated dog enthusiasts (those who train and compete), working farms, hunters, police and military and service dog organizations placing dogs wisely with people who can benefit from their service.


I think we should take a hard look at our selves and our lifestyle. No longer accept "Just because I want a dog" as a reason for bringing a dog into our home.


Change in Prospective

With technology, education, and the spread of ideas we have more research and understanding about brain function, behavior, and biology. Science and personal experiences with dogs as companions has changed our prospective. Now that our life no longer depends on the dog to do his job we have started becoming aware of the dog's experience. We are opening our eyes to how they feel, their emotions, comfort, and well-being.


They are our companions and family members after all, they deserve a life of comfort. Dogs no longer hold the space of a tool or farm equipment, they are our friends. This shift in perspective and gains in science that support the fact dogs feel emotional distress, social pressure, and have preferences has made us soft.


It might be natural to take this "softness" as weakness but I don't think its a weakness at all! It's an awareness and an openness to the fact that our dogs are subject to many of the same life struggles humans are. As we broaden our prospective about the dog experience it is normal to feel a little helpless and overwhelmed by all the information.


Now we see there is a behavioral issue that we were blind to with our past dogs but the path to resolving the behavior issue is no longer as straight forward as it was when we had narrow vision.


Change In Expectations

One more piece of this puzzle I cannot conclude without addressing. What if, with technology priming us for immediate and specific results, our "too busy" lifestyle, and our constant consumption of information changing our prospective have skewed our expectations. Media does a really good job of seeping it's toxic potion of the ideal life into our minds. We see a Subaru commercial with a happy family and a shaggy (non-shedding) muddy dog bouncing into the car with it's family. No leash, no training, no information about how this family got to this moment or what happened after.


We imagine the dog walking obediently at our side, comforting us when we are sad, protecting us when we are afraid. Our expectations and ideals don't include the fact dogs have a lot of needs beyond food, water, and shelter. They experience trauma and mental illness. They are subject to stress and anxiety. Our expectations are all about us and don't consider them!


Rarely, do we plan for how we are going to provide emotional security, accommodate for the dogs natural impulses (i.e. chasing, digging, barking, biting, and more) , teach the dog how to respond to and cope with stress, empower them to have agency and obedience at the same time. Then I ponder, how can we prepare our dogs in this way when we can hardly do this for ourselves.


Did humans of the past really used to have all these expectations of dogs? From what I can tell we only had a couple: do your job and don't harm our families. Dogs were then left to be dogs. To chase dear, sleep, dig, socialized with other dog family members, etc.


This goes without saying, we are also under more pressure than ever to own "well behaved" dogs in the public eye. The fear of coming in contact with people and their judgement is becoming impossible to avoid. Then to top it all off we don't want our dog to get us sued or start a legal debacle with our neighbors. We have pressure from all sides to have quiet soulless obedient dogs. Maybe it's time to get a robot.


Individual Selection

Now I think that this is a very real problem of the day. If you narrow our focus to the dog in front of you. How did you select them and what were you selecting? I see people adopt dogs purely on looks with out consideration or assessment of personality, preferences, tendencies, or sociability. In many cases families have selected the wrong dog for their ideals.


I have clients who are active adventurers they bike, hike, and cross country ski they were hoping to get a dog that would match their enthusiasm for the outdoors. They select a breed/look of dogs, that is large and athletic, that they imagined would enjoy those activities only to find out the dog they selected is afraid to leave the house, hates going outside, and thinks every shadow, human, and dog it meets is a threat to it's safety.


Another case, couple adopt a small mixed breed puppy hoping for casual dog walks in the neighborhood and a cuddly lap warmer in the house. Friendly with the adult children and grandchildren who come to visit. On the contrary the dog they adopted is a fierce resource guarder, highly intelligent (always getting into trouble) , and does everything with over the top intensity. They got the opposite of calm.


It's not 100% the fault of the owner, because many of these pet parents didn't have the information to make a better decision. They were also influenced by media, breeders, friends, and rescues. In the end for many of the reasons I have already mentioned the pet owner selects an individual dog that is ill matched.


I think we could do better about informing dog adopters about the individual and how they can better assess personality or hire a professional assessor before adopting a dog/puppy.


No matter the reason, all of or none of the reasons I listed, the dog owning experience has changed in recent years.


What do you think is the driving cause of this change? I'm really curious to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below.








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