OPINION

COLUMNIST: Is your dog happy?

In our quest for connection and companionship, humans acquire dogs because we want them. Then we control every aspect of their lives, from their appearance and behavior to when they get to relieve themselves and eat. Much has been studied and written about the advantages of the human-dog bond for humans, but an equally important aspect is often overlooked: How does this bond affect dogs?

To answer that question, we need to shift our thinking and try to understand the world from a dog's perspective.

Interfering with nature by deliberately breeding dogs for characteristics some people find pleasing wreaks havoc on their health and well-being. "Purebred" dogs suffer from debilitating and life-shortening genetic health problems.

Animal shelters are overflowing with dogs in need of loving homes, yet breeders keep on producing more, taking away homeless dogs' chances at adoption.

Some people go so far as to mutilate dogs' bodies for nothing more than appearance, chopping off their ears and tails despite the American Veterinary Medical Association's stance against such cruelty. As a licensed veterinary technician, I have cared for puppies who cry in pain for weeks after their ears have been cut off, the blood-soaked bandages a reminder that dogs have no say in what happens to them.

How they reproduce and what they look like aren't the only things beyond dogs' control. Even guardians with the best intentions expect them to conform to human household rules, schedules and preferences, instead of the other way around.

Dogs have natural instincts such as digging, barking and running with abandon, but most humans scold and shush them for these behaviors. Instead, we should accommodate their needs by allocating designated areas for digging, allowing them to speak (dogs who receive adequate exercise and attention rarely bark excessively) and providing places where they can run freely, including fenced yards and dog parks.

Dogs navigate the world and gather information primarily through their sense of smell, so let them set the pace during walks, leaving plenty of time to stop and sniff.

Allowing dogs the freedom to make choices whenever possible--which direction to go on walks, which treat they'd prefer and when they'd like to go outside or play--gives them some control over their lives, which are otherwise almost entirely dictated by human whims.

And speaking of freedom, never banish dogs to perpetual isolation and confinement outdoors at the end of a chain, in a pen or locked in a crate all day while you're off living your life.

There's a big difference between owning a dog and sharing your life with one. So pause, observe and take the time to understand what your canine companion needs. They've likely been telling you all along.


Melissa Rae Sanger is a licensed veterinary technician and a staff writer for the PETA Foundation.