When I lived in London I remember hearing about a new ‘dog day spa’ opening up. It offered a range of pet pampering services, including:
Pet Pedicure: includes all the benefits of our regular pedicure, but with the added luxury of painted nails
Facial: a facial scrub to cleanse, soothe and balance, including a relaxing head massage
The Sparkle Treatment: your pooch will be red carpet ready with our special sparkle treatment. A choice of shimmer spray colours is available, along with a bow tie for boys or a pretty pink ribbon for girls
Life with my own mutt seemed pretty far removed from these options. The closest to a facial he’s experienced involved a self-administered coating of swamp water and fox poo during a walk. Despite this potent mix on the way home his enthusiasm suggested it was A Very Good Day.
This trend of creating humanised experiences for dogs may seem pretty innocuous. But as we book our canine pal into a doggie day spa or enrol in some doggie dancing lessons or dress them up as tiny cowboys…it can also be a good time for a bit of self-reflection. The three questions I like to ask are:
Who is this really for?
If my dog could choose, is there something else it would rather be doing (jumping in a swamp and rolling in fox poo for example)?
In what way does this activity allow my dog to exhibit natural canine behaviour?
But what IS natural canine behaviour?
Ah, the big question! Understanding what is natural for dogs can be complicated – mainly because of us. Close proximity to humans influences canine behaviour in a big way, particularly when behaviour is closely controlled. The lives of pet dogs are dictated by our whims, personalities, Google searches and ideas about what dogs should/shouldn’t do.
We’re generally in charge when it comes to:
Where they sleep and for how long
What they eat, how often and how to get it (eg. you must sit before you can have any food)
Who they hang out with (canine, human or otherwise)
When and where they can go to the bathroom
How long they have to be alone for
What they are allowed to chew/play/interact with
When they can go outside
Where they are allowed to go on walks
The pace they are allowed to walk at
How long they are allowed to sniff things before being dragged away
Which behaviours are acceptable/unacceptable to humans
How much pain they are subjected to when it comes to training and equipment (think electric shock collars – that thing is stuck on their neck and there is literally no way they can escape it if the human chooses to use it)
The fact they live with us in the first place is out of their control. We purchase them or adopt them and from that point their autonomy belongs to us.
If you’ve ever spent time with street dogs you’ll know they tend to live with much greater freedom of movement and are very independent thinkers. They learn to make good decisions and know how to avoid conflict. A colleague of mine is running an amazing project in India called Lives of Streeties which aims to examine canine behaviour when it’s not so heavily shaped by modern pet ownership. I’d highly recommend checking it out!
Luckily, dogs are great. They’re adaptable, smart, genetically built to please and endlessly patient. And they get a lot of benefits from the arrangement, particularly if they have gentle and informed humans. Things like food, healthcare, companionship, safety, fun and snoozes on the couch.
When we treat them like furry mini-humans, however, we risk detracting from their essential ‘dogness’ and getting distracted by the human tendency to reflect our own characteristics and needs onto our animals. This tendency has been commercialised into the multi-billion dollar pet industry. It’s no coincidence that it can be difficult to tell the difference between baby and puppy products sometimes.
Research suggests that humanising pets often stems from loneliness and a desire to control our environment when we feel we lack control. Around 70% of owners report that companionship is the reason they have a pet. This is shift away from the more functional purposes dogs used to fulfil, such as hunting, herding, guarding and pest control.
So how can we help our dogs live a doggier life?
5 ways to let the dogness in
1. Let them sniff. Let them sniff. Let them sniff.
This is the biggest. Dogs have kickass, stupefying, time-telling and adorable noses. They can smell cancer. And microscopic bacterial spores on beehives. Just think about it. Or better yet watch the video below. And the next time your dog is sniffing something and you feel the urge to drag them away, stop.
2. Value chill time
One of the findings from the Lives of Streeties project in India was that dogs don’t do much. This is pretty consistent with most free ranging dog populations. They hang out, sleep, wander around a bit, sleep, hang out. They’re horizontal most of the time. And it makes sense. Dogs are predators who share 98.8% of their DNA with wolves. Predators conserve their energy in order to expend it in short bursts while hunting. Herd animals don’t sleep much at all because they spend all day chewing and staying alert to avoid being eaten. Dogs are naturally lazy.
I speak to a lot of people who are concerned their dog is bored. And being frantic and obsessive modern humans we try to stuff as many exciting events in their lives as possible – hours of running, frisbee throwing, fetch, training exercises. Our own little doggie bootcamp. The dogs end up fit and pretty addicted to the adrenaline rush these things provide. And also pretty stressed and wired. Map out your dog’s weekly activities. Is there enough time given to rest and quality sleep? Dogs are innately social. They just want to be with us. Make sure some of that time is still.
3. Introduce command free days
When I studied with the amazing trainer Turid Rugaas in the Netherlands she tasked her students with spending a day noting down every time they asked their dog to do something. It could be as simple as ‘get off that chair’ or ‘sit’ or ‘walk time’. I’d recommend every dog owner do this. I was pretty shocked by how many times I was telling my dog what to do (and how many weren’t necessary).
So give them a day off. Make a conscious effort to have days where you talk less to your dog and just be. Dogs communicate primarily through body language. You may be surprised by how much they understand without you having to say a word.
4. Provide choices
Feeling you have no control over your life isn’t comfortable for any species. Give your dog space to use its brain and make decisions. Let them decide which way to go on the walk and how long they want to spend there. If they seem reluctant to approach something or someone, allow them the space to move away. Have a few different sleeping options around the house so they can move around. If they’re interested in something, let them explore.
5. Accept the gross
Dogs have some off-putting quirks. Crotch sniffing, possum obsessions, rolling in filth, underwear thievery, eating rotten things off the ground. When we invite an animal into our life there are generally a few gross bits that go with it.
Pick your battles. Breathe deeply. Laugh a lot.