When we think about dogs, we rarely think of them in the cold, detached and objective eye of a biologist or a zoologist. We don’t watch them in our homes like a nature documentarian, who stares in wonder and fascination at these creatures in their natural habitat without any intention to intervene or manipulate. In fact, dogs, canis lupus familiaris, are so normal in the Western cultures that we hardly give it much more thought than a piece of furniture. Even the most devoutly devoted “fur mommy” still doesn’t see the animal in their home as a formidable toothed beast, nearly as apex a predator as humans, but rather as natural and everyday as their own children. This absence of zoological appreciation for the species we affectionately call “dog” is the foundation of nearly every reason a trainer gets a call from a desperate family needing help with behavioral problems they are having.
We don’t view dogs through the lens of science. We view them from a psycho-social eye. That is, we view and interact with dogs more-or-less as if they were humans. We see dogs as dogs, but as such a natural part of a human family that they are more-or-less human in a different body. In other words, when we bring a dog into our home, we don’t see them walking across the house with the combination of awe and caution as if it were a bear or a wolf, distinctly aware that this creature we have chosen to bring into our homes does not naturally belong there, and requires immense accommodation. Instead, we see them walking around and feel happy that we have given them a comfortable and safe environment, the one every dog hopes and dreams of! A bowl for food and water, a comfortable bed and lots of love and treats. That certainly is a comfortable and easy life for a dog, but it is not what they have evolved to live in. They do not require these things, they don’t look for them, they are foreign to a dog before it is accustomed to it. We project this feeling of delight onto the dogs as if they were humans, because we do seek these things out. But dogs are no more human or normal than a bear or a wolf. We forget this because of the normalization of keeping dogs. The same can be said for rodents, parrots and reptiles. It is not to say that these accommodations are not healthy and appropriate for these animals, but they are not what they always dreamed of. What a dog requires is a woodland environment with animals to hunt, land to run and the freedom to express their personal psychosocial dynamics, ones that often involve teeth and blood and things that humans will not tolerate. When we instead bring them into our homes, we have to understand the burden of responsibility is upon us, and not them. They didn’t ask to be in that environment, and so it is our duty to make it work for them.
Why is this so important to understand? Because if we do not have the healthy respect for these animals and understand that their true nature, how they interact with the world based on their personal psychosocial dynamics, is vastly different than our own and that it is a huge ask for a dog to understand and assimilate into the 21st century Western home of a human, the experiment will fail. This is a task they are not designed for, and so it is our responsibility to provide the instruction, patience and respect that they require to assimilate. This assimilation is not without compromise. Most of us understand this to an extent, as bringing a dog into the home automatically requires an adjustment of routine to allow the dog to eliminate outside, needs to be fed at specific times, you cannot leave food out on the coffee table any longer, etc. But the truth is that the compromise should reach far beyond these obvious requirements.
Bringing a dog into our homes is a luxury, one that brings an incredibly rewarding change in our lives, and it is not one that places the burden of acclimation onto the animal itself. We wouldn’t neglect to baby proof a home and then blame the toddler for chewing wires or picking up razor blades left around. So why would we expect a dog to walk on a leash or to stay off the dinner table without setting up the environment to prevent such a thing? Fortunately there are many tools and resources at our fingertips on exactly how to navigate this new partnership and there is no hurdle to keeping dogs that does not have a well-researched and effective solution.
But because we are humans, and it is in our nature to relate to other things in our environment as such, the information in this project will be taken from a human psychosocial perspective. It is in this way that we can best learn how to appreciate and work with these remarkable creatures we can “Dogs”.