Friday, March 14, 2008

rethinking ownership + working dogs

Janeen + Mark @ Smartdogs have a great post about dog ownership, potential infringements on private ownership by animal rights groups, and the relationships we establish with our pets (and the language we use to describe that).

Their post references an article by Jon Katz at Slate about whether we consider ourselves pet owners or guardians. Both Katz and the folks at Smartdogs express concern that we may be, in fact, doing our pets an injustice if we decide to realign our thinking and language. As Katz says:

"Seeing them the way we see ourselves—as having human thoughts and needs, human rights—is another kind of abuse and exploitation. It is cruel to crate a child, but it's often helpful and soothing to crate a dog. No human would want to spend five minutes in a kennel, yet good kennels, much maligned by deeply attached pet owners, are often the safest and best places to leave dogs when we leave home."

My own opinion is out about the degree to which animal rights groups are subtly altering our relationships, emotional and political, with our dogs. But Katz's article made me think about the training session I need to conduct with Momo, our older dog, to keep his retrieve on task. In an older post by Pat Burns, he roasts Mike Derr and National Geographic for their castigation of Cesar Millan for his use of mild coercion when necessary. As Pat summarises: "Mr. Millan's point is NOT that dogs need to be bitten or beaten to get them to behave. Mr. Millan is a very civilized trainer and not a violent man. His point is simply this: almost every dog has within it the capacity to be submissive to a true leader."

And keeping his retrieve on-task will, unless Momo has already reconfigured this set of tasks and his + my relationship differently now that Bob isn't here, most likely involve duress for both of us. Again, he knows what he has to do. He has done most of it for me -- and all of it for Bob -- and he has done all of those things with a wagging tail. But I am anticipating using his e-collar a lot, even for this first session.

It struck me as interesting that Jon Katz's first dogs at his farm were border collies, in effect working dogs... dogs who perform specific tasks in our lives because they can do them better even if they rely on us for some direction. While I would dispute one worn adage that a working dog gets soft living in a home with its owner, I am coming to realize that we may have been fortunate to own two great pets who work well in the field -- and that at least one of them needs to go through the transformation into reliable working dog who is also an adored pet.

And while I realize I may be coming close to falling into the trap that most of us, probably even Jon Katz (who seems like a very reasonable man), occasionally trip into -- of humanizing our pets and projecting our anxieties onto them and muddling what we need with what we think they need. But as I mentioned, I have seen Momo perform the tasks he has learned -- and so while I need to be clear and confident in my communication with him, I also need to expect respect from him by his doing what he knows he's been told.

I'll keep everyone posted. And I'm sure I'll be calling Bob.

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