Engines of Purpose

Engines of Purpose
July 23, 2010 by Steve Duno
Lou Studio 2.jpg

Nothing is free, they say.  But for most dogs today, just about everything they get- food, love, attention, walks, privilege- is free for the taking.  Most no longer earn anything; it is just doled out to them like candy, without expectation. 

Not good.  I'll explain why.

We love our dogs and want to spoil them, please them, elevate them, largely because these acts of charity make us feel loved.  We like the attention we get from them when the cookie jar comes out, yes? 

But when they get perks from us without earning them, slowly but surely a feeling of entitlement begins to wash over them.  They begin to expect these things as if they were birthrights.  Like trust fund babies, they lose the desire to achieve, and can adopt an air of privilege which often leads to misbehavior.  But worse yet, they become, well- bored.

As recently as thirty or forty years ago, life was profoundly different for dogs.  In ways it was harder, I suppose; attitudes were less compassionate, shelters less successful or kind, veterinary efforts not as effective or willing.  Training methodologies tended toward the harsh.  Overall, our attitudes toward dogs were more utilitarian; if a dog bit someone or developed a disease, it usually got euthanized rather than trained or cured.

But life for dogs used to be far more stimulating than it is today.  Many dogs actually worked for a living.  They herded, tracked, guarded, swam, hunted, explored.  More often than not, dogs and their owners went out in the morning then returned in the evening, each tired and fulfilled.  Once home for the evening, they shared each other's companionship and love as a perk for jobs well done.  Back then we appreciated and respected each other's capabilities more.  Dogs weren't objects of affection as much as they were, well- valued partners.

My old dog Lou was a throwback to dogs from the past.  He was an old-school mutt who went to work with me every day, helping me to train other dogs and their owners, teaching dog safety at pre-schools, visiting nursing homes, and even putting a few bad guys in jail.  He lived to work,and reveled in activity and challenge.  Lou's life was stimulating, and when we got home in the evenings, we'd smile at each other with a sense of accomplishment.  He was my partner, and he dug it.

Today, companionship isn't a perk, but an end in itself.  It often isn't earned, but given freely.  There is no longer a quid pro quo.  But there needs to be, for a dog's peace of mind, and for a sense of order and maturity in the home.  Without it, a dog can become pushy, empty, destructive, and sometimes downright nasty.  And they almost always become insecure, and bored.  A dog without purpose or stimulation can end up living like a zoo animal from the 40's, without direction, or hope.

Lou was an engine of purpose.  Every morning he'd wake up ready to go, ready to teach, perform, explore.  Read Last Dog On The Hill and you'll understand.  Not every dog can achieve what he did- he was a super-canine, a combination of Rin Tin Tin and Dr. Phil.  But your dog wants a job, craves purpose, needs to earn credibility in your eyes.  It means so much more to them to win your respect than for you to offer it without recompense.  Remember; they feel better when they have the chance to impress you, show you what they have in their hearts, in their bones.  When allowed to express their heritage, they shine.  Lou did; your dog can too. 

Give them jobs, activities, tasks.  Let them earn cookies, attention, respect.  Teach them tricks, behaviors, then have them perform for attention.  Play fetch, go swimming, let them wander the woods chasing squirrels.  Give them healthy stressors. Take an agility or tracking class; let your dog mix it up at the dog park.  If you stimulate their canine heritage, they'll become far more than petting posts; they'll become who they ought to be.



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