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 areย  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:

19 thoughts on “Will Work – But How Willingly? – For Food”

  1. We project our own ambitions on our dogs. People choose certain breeds because they want to compete in one of the dog sports, or have them do somekind of job. You can always pick them out in training classes, competitions, etc. as they seem to get upset about a lot of things and are only happy when they have the winners-cup in their hands. The moment itself is a nice “fix”, but the road to get there has not been fun for the dog at all.

    I let Kenzo choose his own activities. And posed the question “what would you like to do” by joining classes in several dog sport disciplines. As a Hovawart he was probably destinated to become a watchdog. We also tried “Schutzhund” training and he thought it was ok. But when we tried tracking, there was no doubt. Now that made him happy. Just before we go on the track, he is jumping around like Bambi ๐Ÿ™‚ He is also doing well in obedience and likes it a lot, which is a-typical for a Hovawart. But when Kenzo wants it he gets it. And I admit that for me obedience is actually boring in itself. But the joy I get out of it is that look of enjoyment Kenzo gives me when we are training.

    My only goal is to get out there and do something he likes to do and what we can share together.

    1. Now that’s the way it should be! Good for you for respecting what Kenzo likes to do, and getting as much joy from that as from some abstract idea of what he *should* like. I’m glad he didn’t like Schutzhund as much as other things by the way; it’s always seemed kind of scary to me!

  2. Ha–someone else who knows Bartleby the Scrivener! I absolutely agree and believe our dogs preferences must be heard. Fourteen years ago, we adopted a young adult herding dog. She turned out to be smart and athletic and tons of fun. Perfect for canine agility. Or so I thought. We attended a few classes and my sweet girl let me know that she really would “prefer not to.” Though somewhat disappointed, I heard her loud and clear. We never attended another agility class. So my sweet girl herds the other 2 dogs. Her agility is jumping on and off the sofa and bed. And we are BOTH happy!

    1. Ah yes, I was never wild about Moby Dick, but Bartleby has always been a favorite!

      I’m so glad you listened to your dog rather than dictating the agenda. It sounds like everyone — except maybe the other dogs while they are being herded ๐Ÿ˜‰ — is happy.

  3. This is a point I’ve thought of often. Many dogs enjoy working, and most all need mental stimulation. And it’s just wonderful when the human is in tune with the dog’s needs.

  4. It is so wonderful to see comments giving consideration to what dogs are happiest doing! Lovely to read:) Thanks for the intro to Myrna Milani – sounds like you had some interesting sessions at APDT!

  5. This is the best advice when dealing with therapy dog candidates as well. I find that there are actually few dogs suited to being a successful therapy dog. We just assume that all dogs want perfect strangers to pet them in areas of the body that we would be offended if people we didn’t know touched (e.g.: patting the top of the head, giving hugs, etc).

    So many people totally ignore their dog’s wishes when they start on the road to pet therapy- you really need to ask your dog if it’s the right activity for them. If the dog isn’t excited about it- don’t do it! Find another dog to take. You don’t have to own the dog to use it in pet therapy- it could be your neighbor’s dog or a family member’s dog. Take the dog to a few training classes, develop a good relationship with him, and then test through one of the major therapy dog organizations.

  6. My dogs love the water, they love it best when I throw a ball or stick into the water for them to chase. So most days I will bring along a chuck-it or ring zinger for them. However there are some days when I am really tired and just take them out for a walk without throwing anything for them. I think it’s really important to make sure your dogs enjoy the activities, what’s the point of making them do something they do not love or at least like.

  7. Thanks for this post (and the great videos!). As I evolve in my dog relationship skills, this is something I frequently ponder. And continue to fail at.

    I thank my last dog Shadow for teaching me to never assume I know what’s going to be best for my dog. But to listen to her and be mindful about the messages she’s sending me.

    Of course, I still goof up. I know that Honey doesn’t want to be petted at every moment of the day. She doesn’t appreciate it during training and she often prefers a game of tug. But I find it hard to resist. Must. Feel. Soft. Fur. Can’t. Help. Myself.

    Since this is a “no guilt zone” I guess I’ll stop beating myself up and figure that if I can play fetch for the 100th time in the rain, Honey can endure a little petting when it’s not her favorite time. I guess that’s what being in a relationship means!

    Hope your cold clears up soon.

    1. Glad you liked it. And glad you’re going to stop beating yourself up! We can only do the our best, working towards a goal of trying to listen to our dogs while meeting our own needs. How well do most of us do in our other relationships? I suspect we do a lot better with our dogs!

      I’m slowly getting better, thanks!

  8. This post really struck a cord with me. You’ve met our dogs – and though Ty absolutely adored you and proceeded to cover your nice black slacks in tan fur up to the knees – he is generally uncomfortable around strangers.

    When we first launched, I was operating under the impression we should all be “friendly,” including Ty. It didn’t take long for me to get the message that Ty disagreed. We now allow Ty his space. Sometimes he wants to meet strangers, and sometimes he doesn’t. Causing him stress by making him do things he hates or is uncomfortable with constantly isn’t fair to him, and it’s not the kind of relationship I want us to have.

    1. Don’t you hate it when your dogs make a liar out of you? Every now and then, the equally standoffish Frankie will take to someone and make it seem as though all my precautions were completely off-the-wall.

      Seriously, I never thought about the implications of having a shy dog as an ambassador for a business called Go Pet Friendly! At least it’s not Go Friendly Pets… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  9. I think that dogs simply like having a purpose, their place in the pack. Having a job gives them the sense of purpose and makes them feel needed and secure. (Now I know that is a lot of ‘human’ words).

    I don’t think it matters what such a job is. It could be a ‘real’ job or something much simpler, such as keeping track of the people who pass by the window.

    I do believe, though, that dogs do feel happy and content when they do have a job, whatever that may be.

    1. You’ll get no argument from me about dogs needing something to do. The only thing I take issue with is when people decide for the dogs what they would like to do, rather than letting the dog tell them.

      1. Well, I imagine that’s no easier than figuring what your kids should do in life.

        When I had to make a decision about my future life/career and school to go to, I didn’t have the slightest idea what people do! How does one pick without that knowledge?

        I like that you guys seem to have career days at schools, so kids get at least some clue.

        I think it’s the same. Gotta try things to know what is it you want to do. Same would apply for dogs.

        I do think though, that many dogs are happy having whatever job has been picked for them.

  10. Yep, dogs have come a long way from their original “purposes,” if you will. Can’t imagine a dandie dinmont terrier running down a badger (but that’s what they were bred to do, just like dachshunds, if we recall correctly). By the way, love that episode of The Twilight Zone, which was spoofed in a Simpsons halloween special some years ago.

    1. Thank you for commenting on the Twilight Zone clip; you’re the first to do so.

      Love the Dandie Dinmont Terrier Facts and Myths. I think Frankie could have some Dandie Dinmont in him…

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