Man’s Best Friend?

accessory-dogsBy Becky Benoit

Dogs have been “man’s best friend” for a very long time. Research suggests that man first domesticated dogs more than 30,000 years ago. The idea of Fido trudging alongside a fur-clad caveman might seem a little far-fetched, but when you think about the traditional role dogs have played in the lives of humans, it makes perfect sense.

We have always cultivated a relationship with dogs, because dogs make human lives easier.  In 2011, a dog skull was found dating back 31,500 years, with a mastodon bone still clutched determinedly in its fossilized jaws, suggesting that man’s best friend played a role in hunting.

More recently, most of the dog breeds popular today were bred for a particular reason. The silky-eared cocker spaniel was bred as a hunting dog, valued for its ability flush out game from underbrush. The doughty little Scottish terrier, with its short, stubby legs, was bred to catch vermin, prized for its determination in digging rats out from their hiding places and dispatching them with a quick shake of its powerful jaws.

Magnificent Malamutes and Samoyeds were bred for their ability to pull heavy loads on a dogsled and withstand extremely cold temperatures. The elegantly-coiffured poodle was originally bred as a hunting dog whose water-resistant coat made it a superior swimmer, but it was also valued for its ability to dig up and retrieve truffles, the edible fungus highly prized by gourmet chefs.

Dogs have always had a purpose in our lives, and until fairly recently, only the rich could afford to keep a dog simply for companionship. For the regular folk, dogs served a valuable and important purpose in a family, whether that purpose was herding sheep, fetching duck carcasses from a pond, or protecting livestock or property. Dogs were trained early – they had to know how to behave properly and what was expected of them, in order to do their jobs and provide value to a family.

And in this atmosphere, dogs thrived. They loved the routine and order of their days, the clear rules and expectations that enabled them to learn their jobs, do them well and bask in their owner’s praise and affection. Exercise wasn’t a luxury; it was a reality of everyday life as dogs went about their business, close at their master’s heels. Commercialized dog food wasn’t readily available until the early 1900s; prior to that, dogs ate what their human families ate.

Recently, I had a surreal experience that made me question where we’ve gone wrong in our relationship with dogs. In downtown Edmonton, as I made my way down a busy sidewalk, I happened to notice a woman pushing a stroller next to me. I turned to admire her baby – and came face to face with a bored-looking Chihuahua. This unlikely scene was made all the more farcical by the fact that the poor creature had been stuffed into a tee-shirt studded with rhinestones and a sparkly pink tutu, and its claws had been polished a violent shade of magenta.

Admittedly, I perhaps wasn’t as diplomatic as I could have been. Instead of cooing over the creature like the women next to me, remarking on the poor pooch as if it were a baby, I went with my first knee-jerk reaction, “Are you serious? I mean, really…is this a joke?”

Never mind the fact that dogs don’t need clothes; they are born with clothes. It’s called fur. Even a three-year old knows that. And never mind the fact that dogs don’t need to be pushed around in strollers. Unlike babies, they are fully capable of walking on a leash within a few months of life. They have legs – four of ‘em. Unless your dog has some kind of spinal disability that prevents it from walking, you don’t need a stroller. And a word to the wise – if you’re pushing a perfectly healthy dog around in a stroller, you look much more than eccentric, and you shouldn’t be surprised when people treat you as such.

The problem here is the whole attitude towards the canine species that this woman was so obviously displaying. She was preening in the reflected limelight of the spectacle she’d created, all at the dog’s expense. Certainly, it would have been much happier on the ground, walking on all four of its legs as nature intended. For this woman, the dog was more of an accessory than a living creature.

The rise of such absurdities as the “accessory dog” is just another example of how our relationships with dogs have become unhealthy. Dogs aren’t accessories, any more than babies are. They are living creatures, with needs not all that dissimilar to our own. They need exercise, consistent rules, and love (in that order, according to many notable dog trainers). They need to have a valued role, a place in our families where they feel like they have a purpose, even if that purpose is to provide us with companionship and a jogging companion. They no more belong stuffed into a purse than you do.

And purchasing a dog on a whim only for it to languish in a backyard or a crate for hours and hours on end is essentially the same dog poo, in a different pile. A dog that receives no attention, no exercise, no love or companionship is simply an accessory, minus the designer bag. It’s no life for an animal that was bred to be useful, that wants and needs to have a real and valued place in a family.

Thanks to the availability of puppies through online websites, people can pick up a puppy on a whim, without any real thought on whether the dog is right for their family, or indeed whether they really have the time or the inclination to care for a dog, taking it out for walks in the freezing cold or the heat of summer, brushing its high-maintenance coat, taking it to vet for costly vaccinations or neutering.

Our relationship with dogs has become dysfunctional. But like all things, this isn’t the case with all dog owners. I only have to consider my dear friend Crystal and her charismatic four-legged friend, Zeus. Since his puppyhood, Zeus has always occupied a valued place in his family. He’s an indefatigable exercise partner, a watchdog who provides his owners with peace of mind at night, a friend to snuggle with during thunderstorms. Well-trained and dearly loved by his human family, he’s a perfect example of that wonderful relationship that can develop between a dog and a human, one of mutual respect, deep affection, trust and perfect loyalty.

It gives me hope for the repair of a relationship that existed between man and dog for untold millennia, and for the unending tide of unwanted and unloved animals that fill our SPCA every year.