What Is It really Like To Be A Dog?
Each week as you read about me, I’m sure that some of you are able to step away briefly from your daily human journey and live vicariously through the eyes of an old and very fortunate dog. Living a “dog’s life” certainly looks easy. From the vantage point of your comfortable armchair, this handsome, (modest), Labrador Retriever would seem to be living the ideal life. I’m not complaining, mind you, but I was one of the ‘lucky ones,’ and even in my world, there are many aspects to being a dog that you don’t usually see.
Being a dog does have some disadvantages. We are not totally colorblind, but we do fail to see and recognize several colors on your color spectrum, so, to us, ‘the blush of spring,’ is visually just ‘the end of another monochrome winter.’ Since most of us live close to the floor, certainly no higher than your waist, our visibility is much more limited than yours. We see more of your belt buckles and kneecaps than we do your smiling faces. Since we generally have no real sense of time, well intentioned punishments for sins committed over the last 5-10 minutes are rarely understood and are thus interpreted by us as unprovoked human aggression. Praise and reward pay off over punishment by a ratio of fifty-to-one. We can thank your Dr. Pavlov for uncovering that fact. We do remember praise for a long time. Because punishments are usually too late, thus exacted at inappropriate times, very little is learned from them. The source of our behavior falls somewhere between that of instinct, training and habit, so we are rarely able to craft responses to new situations. Our attention span varies with the stimulus; if you are holding food, our attention span can be infinite, and if you are verbally demonstrating the positive merits of some new trick, our attention span can be momentary. We dogs don’t perspire like human beings do, so we find hot weather most difficult. Subsequently we pant and often drool. If we are not brought up with small children, many of us are instinctively still very territorial. Even the best of us tend to react violently if someone tries to take our food or favorite bonding toy.
As dogs, humans gauge our intelligence by our ability to meet or exceed YOUR specific expectations, not some other more valid facet of intelligent behavior that we might exhibit. Some of our human masters are easily pleased by small tricks, while others are disappointed with our inability to perform fundamental algebraic equations; go figure!
I am definitely not a puppy. I have been around the block a few times, and I have seen it all. Every dog that is born and subsequently adopted, is raised under a different criteria; the criteria set at the whim of the new owner. Somewhat subjective, I would say. Humans, discovering that they are going to give birth to and raise a human baby, also discover that there is no instruction book defining the steps that must be taken to nurture and raise the child properly. If there was such an instruction manual, the human race probably would not be supporting such a large prison population, and you could walk safely on our streets. Raising and nurturing your young obviously isn’t an exact science. That being said, you can easily comprehend that raising a pup to meet its true potential in this world is merely a crapshoot, at best! Some people go out and buy puppies like they might buy baby chicks and ducklings at Easter. Puppies are really four-legged guests who come to stay for up to 18 years, so it is usually a mistake to adopt them on impulse.
Set a criteria. For many folks, the only criteria they set when searching for the pup of their dreams are designation of breed, and it must be “gentle and smart.” With those criteria, there are at least 50,000 pet shops and breeders out there ready to ‘fix you up’ right now. I’ve never admitted this to anyone before, but when you humans are born, to me, you all look alike. And, you all definitely sound alike. The same also seems to hold true of puppies, and, speaking objectively here, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an ugly puppy.
At six weeks, we are all still pretty tiny, drop-dead adorable, and we all sound pretty-much alike. But after puppyhood, all bets are off, things change quickly, and we mature super fast. You can rarely predict what your puppy will eventually look like, but you think you can. In human-speak, I have often heard it said that “if you want to visualize your wife when she gets older, just take a look at her mother.” Boy, that should bring a lot of marriage plans to a standstill! There are some really nasty mother-in-laws out there. Same thing with adult dogs.
Size really matters. Unfortunately, that adage is rarely considered when folks go out to find their first puppy. All you seem to see is ‘the cute, tiny puppy.’ The fact that this twelve-ounce puppy appears to have paws the size of a St. Bernard doesn’t seem to give anybody a clue to the fact that this dog will someday grow up to consume his own weight in dog food at each meal. You happily take him home and are shocked a few short months later to discover that he doesn’t fit on your (ever expanding) lap anymore! <grin> About six months later we start to hear Mom saying “please get that big, filthy dog out of the house, he is destroying everything in sight!” This, many times, is the “death knell” to the continued tenure of a would-be ‘indoor dog.’ You can see why it’s easy for a puppy that has been selected without any forethought to start his new life with two strikes against him.
Intelligence is rarely recognized. Most dogs at maturity achieve the intelligence and social aplomb of a human four-year-old. We begin our human bonding process early on, and we accept and establish you as our alpha role model during the first few months of our lives. When we bond with you, we aren’t looking for a friend or a ‘buddy.’ Just like human offspring, we require a leader, a role model, and a ‘benevolent disciplinarian.’ If you tolerate, but don’t correct our bad or aggressive behavior we can easily interpret your silence as approval and expound on that undesireable behavior, becoming totally unmanageable and possibly dangerous later on. Without you setting some limits for us, your ‘alpha’ staus will erode, and we will readily establish our own limits. You will probably not relish the result. We really have to be like chameleons to fit behavioral paradigms imposed on us right from the beginning of our early interactions with you. With a childless couple, we may be treated like variants of a house-trained human child. For retired empty nesters, we must sometimes replace the children who have left home to start lives of their own. For singles, we must become the faithful, dependable, platonic partner and listener they could never find. To adapt to a young family with children, we must have endless patience, a high pain threshold, a maternal/paternal instinct and a naturally high self-esteem. Like you, we retain our ‘play’ component well into our old age. As we grow older all of us begin to lose our patience and sense of humor. We run the risk that, as we get old and cranky, we might suddenly lose our tenure.
Outdoor dogs. Unless we were born Malamutes, Huskies or other outdoor working dogs, we are not really any longer equipped for full-time outdoor living. Many of us start out as indoor dogs and later become “out-the-door dogs,” as a result of some innocent doggie faux pas. These “out-the-door dogs” are our brethren whom I truly pity. At least human prisoners who receive solitary confinement do get some sort of climate control, and most of those in solitary are not chained. Most dogs that are penned or kept on tethers become starved for human attention and feedback. Some dogs get spoken to, or petted through the fence and are fed and watered regularly, but for many dogs this is not the case. Rain, shine, sleet and hail; summer or winter, it makes no difference; outdoor dogs don’t live life, they endure life. But all kinds of dogs have been known to adapt to this existence. Personally, better you shoot me instead of putting me on a chain or inside a chain-link enclosure!
Regardless of our breed, size or disposition, most of us dogs are genetically ready to bond with, live with, and please you for the rest of our lives. If you become our alpha model, we constantly yearn for your continued respect and attention. You may think that you ‘own’ us, but we ultimately end up owning you. That’s really not a bad deal in most cases, because we have so much unconditional love to give, and we’re not ashamed to give it.
If and when you decide to share your life with a new puppy, please give your decision some thought. Can you fulfill his need for exercise? Do you have free time to spend with him? Do you have space indoors to devote to him? Can you afford to feed him and see to his health needs? Think ahead, and realize that you are not the only player in this game. With just a little foresight, your new relationship can become a great, long term win-win scenario. Then, have a wonderful life!