Service dogs, hunting dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, sheep herding dogs, companion dogs… In recent years, the focus of much writing about dogs has been on the tasks they were genetically designed to perform. We often hear how upset dogs get when they’re deprived of their ultimate purpose in life: To serve man.*
For example, the message of grateful servitude is both implicit and explicit in A Dog’s Purpose, a new novel by Bruce Cameron that’s gotten a lot of buzz. The book is written from the point of view of an observant pooch who goes through a series of reincarnations, including one as a search-and-rescue dog. The canine narrator notes at the book’s end:
People are vastly more complicated than dogs and serve a much more important purpose. The job of a good dog was ultimately to be with them, remaining by their sides no matter what course their lives might take.
(This is another memo that Frankie — who barked at me in irritation yesterday when I went back to bed with a bad cold, thereby ignoring him — never got.)
And consider this video:
Mind you, I like the video a lot more than I liked A Dog’s Purpose because it’s clearly tongue-in-cheek. Although the book — a page-turner that left me feeling annoyed that I was compelled to keep reading — has a light-hearted tone it still takes itself awfully seriously.
But I digress.
There’s no question that dogs follow certain drives. But I was inspired to consider the question of whether our dogs are as happy with their jobs as we capitalist bosses think they are by several speakers at the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s conference, in particular by Myrna Milani, a veterinarian and specialist in the human-animal bond. Dr. Milani noted that many owners cast their dogs into the role of protector and, especially, social facilitator without taking their dogs’ preferences into account. My notes on the talk are skimpy; I’ll therefore refer you to a recent podcast on Dr. Milani’s blog, which discusses how owners often disregard their dogs’ needs under the aegis of doing what is best for them. A caveat: The podcast and other articles I’ve found on the site don’t really convey Dr. Milani’s wit and insights as I experienced them at the conference. But you’ll get the general idea here.
Another speaker — sorry, but I can’t find the reference in my notes; damn that head cold! — discussed the high levels of stress that many service dogs experience.
The bottom line: In an attempt to pay attention to breed-based interests and drives, we may ignore what our individual dogs are telling us. Yes, our pups may have certain skills that suit them for the jobs that we wish them to do but, like Bartleby the Scrivener, they may prefer not to.
*But perhaps our dogs are aliens, with a sinister ulterior motive for their subservience: