Safety and Other Illusions

The other day I was on the final leg of a 20 hour drive from Denver to Seattle. This is a drive my dogs and I make semi-regularly, but it is a grueling one. I was lucky this time to be caravanning with a friend and we stopped somewhere near Snoqualmie Pass to stretch our legs and let the dogs run in the woods. We took a dirt road off the highway, found an unmarked trail head, and started out. It was cool, early evening, and a light rain was falling. Between us we had six dogs, and we had selected this location so that we could allow them to run the trail off leash.

Now, pause here. A serene scene, no doubt. A gorgeous green Northwest forest. Six dogs running and enjoying themselves. Know, now, that I am an anxious person. I worry almost constantly. My imagination is wilder than than anything I’ve ever encountered in the woods. When I found a fresh bear print in the trail, I insisted that we head on back to the car (and I wasn’t positive if it was a bear because after all, it could be Sasquatch). So when I suggest to my clients that they allow their dogs more off-leash exercise and I am met with their brick-wall resistance; their fear, I hear them. I hear them louder than I think they can imagine I do, because if I really understood how scared they were to let their dogs run free, I’d never suggest it, would I?

You bet I would. Because I do. No one is more afraid of what might happen to my dogs when they are running free than I am. It’s just that I really understand how badly they need it, and so I take care to be as safe as possible, I swallow my worry, and I unclip the leashes. As often as I can.

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This unwillingness to take calculated risks for the greater good of our dogs is hurting us. It is damaging their mental health and disrupting our bond. What is going on here? Why is this happening?

A Culture of Fear

Most of my clients live in the United States (as do I) with a few online students scattered in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Without going too deeply into the disturbing gun violence statistics and outrageous incarceration rates of the US I will state one fact that I think sums it up: The United States of America spends more money on security than any other country in the world. It is no surprise to me that we are obsessed with the concept of safety (security!) for our dogs. It is how we are raised, how we are educated, what we are told from day one: really bad stuff happens; protect yourself, no matter the cost.

But what if the cost isn’t money? A leash and collar are inexpensive if we are talking dollars. The dog pays instead, with his mental health.

When Safety is Dangerous

Mountain biking includes a risk of injury while watching a movie does not. It is safer to watch the live stream of a conference from your desk than it is to attend the conference itself. Putting your feet in the pool involves a lower risk of drowning than swimming does. And yet, each of the higher-risk activities above actually involves benefits that outweigh their risk. Moving is better for your long term health than sitting is. The risks of moving outweigh the risks of sitting still. 

Unclipping that leash is much like jumping fully into that pool. There are safety measures you can take (you could choose a guarded pool, not a roaring river, for instance) but risk will always remain. I relate dogs that are allowed to run off leash to children who are allowed to play outside with their friends.  The articles, studies, and blogs on the decline of outdoor play and the rise of mental health concerns in children are too varied for me to link here; do a quick search if you’re interested and you’ll find the consensus: playing outside is good for a kid’s brain. Why would dogs be any different? I am unsure of any dog-specific research on this topic, but my anecdotal report is that behavior problems reduce in severity when dogs are provided with off-leash exercise. Hear me: exercise is NOT a substitute for behavior modification. But the right kind of exercise seems to soothe the minds of these troubled dogs–and it makes sense. I mentioned above that I am an anxious person and that’s an understatement. My anxiety disorder is something I deal with every day, and few things soothe it better than hiking until my legs are jello. My little dog Idgie, who is like me in many ways, is also anxious. But after she and I hit the trails together, we can both relax. It is my own experience that led me to advising my clients to provide their dogs with what I call “decompression walks” which are never urban short leash outings. Being free to roam in nature is soothing; being awash in the triggers of our urban existence is not. Limiting our dogs exercise to a leashed stroll on concrete is, while better than nothing, short-changing them.

An Industry of Control

Most dog training tools are those of control. Crates, leashes, prong collars, head collars, harnesses, gates, tie-outs, the list goes on. From relatively benign to downright insidious, the dog training “tool” business is a big one.  The electronic collar industry alone is quite fascinating. Outlawed in several nations all over the world, these collars remain popular amongst American pet owners and trainers. People reading this right now who use e-collars believe they have the answer to my conundrum; a dog on a e-collar can be off leash safely, they’d argue. I have friends who never allow their dogs to run free without these devices.

I am not going to argue the ethics of any training tools here; if you’ve read my work before you probably already know where I stand. What I am going to argue is that a dog wearing an e-collar is not actually any more safe than a dog without, and that if that collar prevents the dog from truly running free (as I have witnessed–certainly not a rule) then the benefits of the freedom are lost.  When my dog runs off through the woods and I call her, she knows that if she returns two things will happen: she will get a bite of something she values (for Idgie this is most food, for Felix it’s raw meat when he recalls!) and she will be released to play some more. She has a choice in the matter; she has control over her own life. This internal locus of control is exactly what helps her feel better in her daily life, along with the traditional benefits of exercise.

The willingness to cause pain or emotional harm to our dogs in order to keep them safe is a problem we have in this country; and one we need to confront. I recently had a conversation on my facebook page with Swedish dog trainer Fanny Gott about the fact that household crating is illegal in her country. That’s right, dogs are not crated in homes in Sweden. For transport, for temporary housing at dog shows or in clinics, yes. But in homes, no. A nation that already bans the use of electronic training collars has gone one step further and said no, you won’t cage them in your homes either. The outcry from Americans which I can already hear goes like this: my dog would destroy my house! My dog would eat something bad for him and die! MY DOG LOVES HIS CRATE! And trust me, I use crates. I have six dogs. But I do think we use them too liberally, and I try to avoid them these days both for my own dogs and when advising clients. Learning to hang out in a crate calmly is a life skill to be taught, certainly, but the dog that is crated for long hours for his own “safety” is one that is suffering because of our obsession with this concept.

Artificial Learning Environments

Perhaps the greatest way we are harming our dogs is by socializing and teaching them in artificial environments. Puppy kindergarten, dog daycare, and dog parks are all directly to blame for the social ineptitude of our domestic dogs. While all can be done well, and all can be done poorly, it is the nature of these gatherings that is harmful. Dogs do not gather in large groups of unfamiliar dogs and puppies do not learn social skills from other puppies.  Why do we do this?

That’s right. Safety.

Our puppies go to kindergarten to socialize because it is sterile, everyone is vaccinated, and the environment is controlled (hopefully). We drop dogs off at daycare so they are tired and we don’t have to take them on an off-leash run after work, which might involve a long drive. We go to the dog park so that our dogs can run free within the confines of a fence. Can these things produce a well-rounded, well-socialized dog? In theory, sure. But I haven’t met them. Instead, I’ve met the frustrated, barking, lunging dogs that are certain all other dogs are their plaything. I’ve met the adult dogs with very coarse social skills who were only ever exposed to their neanderthal counterparts. The most socially-savvy dogs I have ever met got the majority of their social skills organically. They stayed with their mother and siblings long enough. They met a lot of appropriate adults in outdoor spaces with room to get away or places to hide if they felt insecure. They almost never met another dog while confined by a leash.

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So what are we supposed to do? I love my dogs like I love my own life and I take great measures to keep them safe. But like my mom swallowed her fears and let my sisters and I play outside till it got dark in the summer, I too swallow mine and unclip the leash.


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