When I talk with acquaintances about my plans for puppy training, many of them respond with a look of confused disbelief. “Why are you going to do all that? Why don’t you just let him be a dog?”
First, let’s examine what “all that” involves. I plan on taking my puppy to puppy class, as well as taking him on lots of “fun visits” to local veterinary offices to get lots of treats and scratches while I drop off flyers, business cards, client reports, and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and “doughnut holes.” (Hey, vets and their staff need positive reinforcement too!) He’ll also go camping, swimming, meet many dogs and other puppies. He’ll meet people of many ethnicities and with varied physical abilities. He’ll meet infants, senior citizens, and people from every age group in between. He’ll go on lots of car rides. Smell lots of new smells. His brain will be challenged through positive training, through which he will develop initiative and creativity which will improve our relationship and chances of success in future training endeavors. He’ll play with lots of toys – chew toys, puzzle toys, Kongs, flirt poles, squeaky toys, plush toys. He’ll also eat lots of delicious meat and get great treats for good behavior.
So, ummm…how is this not letting a dog be a dog? Funny, a lot of the people I hear the “let your dog be a dog” argument from pretty much limit their dogs to activities that dogs don’t generally like – long hours left alone while their owners are out, laying around the house, boredom barking 28 hours a day because they haven’t had a walk, a chance to play, or social interaction with a new person or animal in the last four years, getting yelled at or worse for “bad behavior” when they’ve never been taught the right thing to do in the first place. Many of these dogs display severe behavior problems resulting from chronic stress and boredom.
Is allowing your dog to develop aggression and reactivity so that he is socially isolated from people or other dogs “letting your dog be a dog?” I don’t think so, because dogs are naturally social creatures. Is letting your dog’s brain and body turn atrophy through lack of stimulation “letting your dog be a dog?” How about free feeding your dog food that is mostly corn and sawdust until he is so obese he can hardly move, is that “letting your dog be a dog?”
I know many, many dogs. I don’t know that I have met a single dog that said, “you know what dogs like to do? Watch Law & Order!” (No offense to Law & Order fans intended.) Dogs don’t generally like to watch television and those that do would probably still prefer a chance to romp with a favorite doggy friend or a belly scratch. Dogs like to play, with their humans and other dogs. They like to be able to have adventures with their owners. They like to learn, explore, and sniff every blade of grass in the environment. They like to chase things, dissect things, chew on things. They like to problem solve. They like to swim and dig holes and hike and run around until they zonk out, snoring. They like to work and be challenged.
Dogs don’t want to be throw pillows or serve as decorative compliments to your new furniture set. They want to be a part of your life. They want to be well-trained enough so that they can go places with you instead of staying home in a crate when you go visit a friend or in a kennel when you want to take a camping trip or have guests come stay at your home. What they want, more than anything, is your time. Your dog wants you to think having fun with him is as much fun as he thinks having fun with you is.
To me, the essence of “letting a dog be a dog” is in finding creative ways to provide them with access to the things that dogs naturally love to do, contingent upon good behavior. For me, letting my dogs be dogs involves taking them camping, hiking through forests, swimming in streams, chasing bugs, playing fetch and tug to reduce play drive, allowing the occasional squirrel chase, going for car rides, visiting friends, playing with other dogs frequently, backpacking, teaching them new things both in my home and in classes, challenging their brains and bodies, meeting lots of new people, and integrating them into my life. They’re my family and my best friends.
Not only do allow my dogs to “be dogs,” I allow them to be a part of my family and the best parts of my life. That is what being a dog is all about, in my book!