Categories: Small Dog Law-Published On: November 5, 2023-

No. But We Do A Terrible Job Teaching People HOW to Have Dogs.

2300 Words, 7 or 8 Minute Read

Explore why forgoing dog ownership isn’t the answer to the anxious pet problem. This article advocates for understanding and nurturing our dogs’ well-being while making important changes in the way we educate dog guardians.

Please Note: This article discusses both rescue and breeder adoptions. So many of you are dedicated rescue parents and supporters. I, too, advocate for reputable rescues through donations and volunteerism. And, I’m also committed to transforming the world of dog breeding so the animals we love experience this world as a nurturing place. I believe these two worthy causes can co-exist.

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My mission is to help small dogs live long, happy, and healthy lives through providing educational content to their human parents. To support these efforts, this page may contain affiliate links allowing me to earn a small commission at no cost to you.

Cream colored small breed puppy with white blaze on forehead crawling on open textbook

It’s Hard, So….Give Up??

When our teens come home from school saying they “can’t do math,” do we suggest they just drop their Algebra II class and never do math again?

When new parents express doubts about their parenting abilities, do we endorse their insecurities by suggesting they step aside? Do we advise them to hand over the reins to their partner and take a hands-off approach to their kids?

No, no, and certainly not.

The human capacity for learning is nearly limitless. When we fail at something, we find resources to help us grow. We (hopefully) understand achievement isn’t rooted in some static IQ score or inborn talent. Instead, our success depends on our effort, persistence, and willingness to take in new information or other ways of doing things.

We regularly apply this type of “growth mindset” in education and business.

It may be, however, such a mindset doesn’t exist in parts of the dog world, who seemingly believe people either get it, or they don’t.

And people who don’t, apparently shouldn’t own dogs. At least, that’s the philosophy sharply outlined in the article “Too Many People Own Dogs,” published online last month in The Atlantic.

Let’s Talk About This

In the short piece, subtitled “If You Love Dogs, Maybe Don’t Get One,” assistant editor Rose Horowitz presents evidence claiming (1) either the majority of us dog owners are making our dogs anxious or (2) we’re drugging our dogs unnecessarily. 

However, while Horowitz’s claims are crisply laid out, her proposed solution–that maybe many of us shouldn’t own dogs– is wholly misguided. There’s a better way. 

In the face of challenges with dog ownership, the article suggests a defeatist approach, implying that when things get tough, perhaps owning a dog isn’t for us. Yet, this mindset fails to recognize that, like any skill or responsibility, dog ownership involves learning, adapting, and growing alongside our canine companions.

And perhaps her article, with its extreme solution, is intended to get us talking about those ways.

It’s The Dogs, Not Us?

Horowitz and the evidence she cites paint a disturbing trend: our canine companions are more anxious than ever, often mirroring our own high-strung, fast-paced lives. 

Or are they? Horowitz presents the apparently harrowing experience of a woman who brought home a nine-week-old puppy during the pandemic, only to find him “nearly impossible” to live with – – howling at every disturbance, never settling at night, and jumping on people. 

The puppy’s adoptive owner, “who had only ever owned cats, couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to have a dog” (emphasis added). Such a statement prompts an important question: did this puppy owner’s abject lack of experience and frustrated demeanor help mold her pup’s state of perpetual angst? Did she perhaps not have any clue what dog ownership entails?

Cream and grey cat with green eyes cuddling with white small breed dog

Quick Fixes: When Medication is the First Stop

This particular owner apparently went straight to medication to make her pup’s behavior manageable.  

There’s no mention of any attempt to address the pup’s unsocialized and anxiety-ridden behavior by consulting a trainer, or addressing the pup’s anxiousness through positive behavior training, or additional exercise, or….anything. 

If she did all of these things, and nothing worked, then certainly medication is warranted as part of the solution. But just as with humans, it’s not the end-game. Nor should it be the kick-off. 

Here, though, she seems to have made a bee-line to the medicine cabinet via her veterinarian. 

When the single drug didn’t work, she consulted a veterinary behaviorist, who threw a veritable pharmacy at this poor pup. And again, the article fails to report out on any accompanying behavioral interventions for the dog. Such an approach to dog ownership, and indeed to care of any living creature, is bound for failure.

How Anti-anxiety Medication Can Help Improve Well-Being in Our Dogs

Such hand-in-hand therapies–medication with training or care interventions–are crucial to success in helping struggling pets. We can’t have our pets pop a pill and expect miracles; we need to be consistent with behavior therapy at the same time. In most cases, unless we’re sedating them (which should be rare indeed), we can’t just drug anxious behaviors out of our dogs.

But, many times, we can employ medication as a partner in training. Veterinary Behaviorist Ilana Reisner outlines such complementary solutions beautifully in her article “The Use of Medications in Canine Behavior Therapy.Indeed, she cites one owner who says “I feel like [the medication] opened a door to her brain,” which allowed her anxious-aggressive dog to learn a better way of being.

White small breed dog held by torso in blue t-shirt looking at several blue pill bottles

No Hard Evidence Dogs Really Are More Anxious

But now, back to Horowitz’s article “Too Many People Own Dogs.” 

The writer acknowledges the lack of research on how many dogs really ARE on anxiety meds in this country. However, she does cite that “83% of veterinary general practitioners reported prescribing dogs anti-anxiety medications.” 

Yet, that 83% figure doesn’t help us much. Maybe that large majority of veterinarians are prescribing such pills to only 1% of their clients. Who knows? The article doesn’t say. 

The article also cites the fact we pet parents perform web searches for “dog anxiety” at a much higher rate this decade. But it doesn’t automatically follow that dogs are suddenly less chill. Those searches may simply be a sign we now know our pup isn’t “just a dog.” Perhaps those searches reveal our understanding that dogs are sentient beings who deserve happiness and calm. Perhaps it’s because we’re moving beyond the concept of dog ownership and understanding we’re guardians of these fellow creatures.

It’s Us, Not the Dogs?

While the experts Horowitz cites do wonder if we humans are mistaking typical doggie behaviors for “anxiousness” and we wrongly put our pups on Prozac, their solution is unacceptable. 

Horowitz quotes one expert who says that with a surge in shelter adoptions, many well-meaning individuals are bringing home pets without fully understanding their complex needs. Coupled with a lifestyle that often restricts dogs to indoor spaces or limited outdoor time on leashes, the natural behaviors and emotional well-being of these animals are overlooked.

Perhaps that’s what happened with the pup parent with little experience and fewer resources to grapple with the everyday challenges of loving and keeping a dog happy.  Again, perhaps she just didn’t understand the demands of dog ownership.

So…We Shouldn’t Own Dogs?

Neither the evidence of vets who prescribe anti-anxiety meds nor our browser histories say anything objective about whether dogs are worse off mentally than they were decades ago.

And, Horowitz finally acknowledges this, asking:

So, is the dog-anxiety crisis real, or is it a product of owners’ anxiety-riddled psyches? …both explanations are depressing. Either humans are stressing dogs out so much that they truly need prescription meds, or owners are putting their dogs on unnecessary psychoactive drugs to address annoying but normal dog behavior….if the choice is to medicate our dogs or to make them, and ourselves, miserable, pet ownership starts to seem ethically murky.

She then provides the basis of her article’s title, quoting one veterinary behaviorist who concluded “ideally, a lot fewer people would own dogs and cats.” So, we’re throwing dog ownership out with the bathwater.

White sign with red letters reading "No Dogs, Not Even Small Ones"

Rethinking Solutions: Beyond the Extreme

Her proposed remedy, “if you love dogs, maybe don’t get one,” echoes the intentional absurdity of “A Modest Proposal.” You may remember reading Jonathan Swift’s essay in high school English–the one where he proposed the English serve Irish babies at their dinner tables as a method “For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.“

I hope Horowitz’s article is satirical. But in either event, she raises a crucial issue.

She’s pointing out a crisis facing the ancient relationship between humans and dogs, and she’s suggesting divorce.

We can do better.

Dog Ownership Evolution: Addressing the Real Problem

We must confront the root of the problem: our approach to dog ownership and care. Walking away from dogs doesn’t solve the issue; it sidesteps our sacred responsibility and the opportunity to grow.

Shifting Our Institutional Approaches to Dog Ownership

Before we delve into how individual dog owners can better help their pups, let’s consider the philosophical and practical shifts that could occur at the societal level. 

1. Better Access to Education

This country is overflowing with animal organizations, including shelters, rescues, the AKC, local breed clubs, local agility, obedience, and flyball clubs, and big box pet supply stores. Many children and teens long for opportunities to work with and understand animals. If we could support animal organizations in outreach to schools for potential after school animal education, we could fundamentally improve animal welfare.

We’d be teaching people early on the skills they need to help their current and future pets thrive. And they’d pass that knowledge on to others. We’d be creating a movement of new pet families who can help others understand the demands of dog ownership. And we’d likely help end the shelter cycle and put puppy mills out of business.

Smiling young girl and her black and white small dog laying on floor and reading a book

2. Access to After-Rescue Support

To understand the vital importance of after-rescue support, we need to take a quick look at dog breeders.

The media often mixes up responsible, ethical breeders with profit-mongering puppy mills. It’s those puppy mills, and not reputable breeders, who are nearly single-handedly responsible for creating our animal crisis in shelters.

In fact, people who adopt purebred dogs from wonderful breeders rarely send them back.

And there’s a reason: good breeders educate.

A reputable breeder begins teaching her adopting families well before that puppy sets foot outside her domain. Both the puppy and the human receive intensive support and guidance. That guidance continues after the puppy goes home, and throughout his or her life. Indeed, my two Havanese are eight and four years old. I’ve known and loved dogs for six decades. I wrote a dog book, for good measure, and I’m writing another on small dog care. And yet, I never stop learning. I frequently check in with the girls’ breeder for questions I’d like her input on.

That’s just what great breeders do. They protect their dogs throughout the pups’ lifetimes. As a result, their dogs don’t get returned and rarely have major anxiety issues.

The same type of education regarding dog ownership seldom occurs with shelter or rescue adoptions. To be fair, it often can’t. These vital organizations have neither the funds nor the staff to do more than ensure the safety of the animals in their care.

But we could change that at a national level by creating better access to free and low-cost after-adoption care and ongoing education. These resources should follow the adopted dog just as a good breeder follows her pups. Given the digital world in which we now live, it’s got to be possible.

Taking Individual Responsibility for Successful Dog Ownership

In spite of Horowitz’s suggestion, abstaining from dog ownership doesn’t solve the issue; it sidesteps our responsibility to the dogs with whom we share an ancient relationship.  

Instead, we must work with one another to alleviate canine anxiety and promote healthier, happier lives for our beloved dogs:

1. Self-Education Before Adoption

We must pre-educate ourselves about our potential dog’s needs and behaviors. So many of us adopt a particular breed or breed mix for the wrong reasons, something I confess to in Downward Sizing Dog: A Reformed Big Dog Snob Defends the Small Dog Life. We misunderstand who we think we’re bringing into our homes. When we don’t get what we expect, we may unwittingly become a major factor in producing anxiety and other behavioral issues in our pups.

Smiling family on sofa and floor surrounded by books and computers. They're studying something.

2. Scheduling Quality Time Over Quantity

We must remember our dogs thrive on meaningful interaction. Frequent but short, engaging walks, playtime, or training sessions often outweigh hours spent being ignored while family members deal with the demands of daily life at home. 

3. Provide Routine and Predictability:

Establishing a consistent routine can provide a sense of security for dogs, reducing anxiety caused by unpredictability.

4. But Offer Varying Mental Stimulation

Ensure rotating mental challenges, like puzzle toys or obedience training, to keep our dogs’ mind and body active and anxiety at bay.

5. Socialization That Fits the Individual Dog

Too many people assume “socialization” is a one-size-fits-all concept. But just like humans, not all dogs want the company of other dogs. Not all dogs enjoy strangers. Exposing our pups to multiple places and people and pups is so important, but we must do so while also considering their individual personalities. Carefully socializing dogs from a young age can help prevent anxiety, fear, and aggression. 

6. Creating Dog-Friendly Spaces

For urban dwellers, advocating for more dog-friendly spaces, such as parks or cafes, can significantly enhance a dog’s quality of life.

7. Professional Training

When behavioral issues occur, seek help from professional dog trainers or behaviorists. Do not use medication as a first defense. Positive behavior training should use proven, science-based techniques to address anxiety and other problems. Take care to avoid internet-famous “trainers” who advocate harsh or alpha methods of training, which can make anxiety and aggression behaviors much worse.

8. Natural Supports

Before resorting to medications, and after consulting with our vets, we can explore natural remedies like pheromone or pet safe essential oil diffusers, anxiety wraps, or calming supplements.

9. Community Support

Building a community of dog lovers for advice, support, and doggy playdates can be beneficial for both our pups and for us. If we can’t find in-person groups, so many social media sites can be wonderful resources. We just need to fact-check any advice we receive there to be sure it’s a technique that will do no harm.

10. Advocacy and Awareness

Advocating for better breeding practices will help ensure puppies are born into loving, attentive environments, reducing early-life anxiety and health issues. Read more on how Purdue University is helping make this happen. It’s outlined in my recent post “Reputable Small Dog Breeders: Paws-itive Beginnings.” If you’re getting a puppy, do not buy a puppy anywhere but from a reputable breeder.

Smiling young man holding aging cocker spaniel with dictionary definition of "volunteerism" superimposed

We Should (Almost) All Adopt Dogs

Abandoning dog ownership is a surrender, not a solution. Instead, let’s pledge to fulfill our responsibilities. Let’s understand and meet our pups’ emotional, physical, and mental needs.

Our dogs aren’t belongings; they’re sentient beings who enrich our lives and deserve our best in return.

When it comes to the challenges facing the modern human-canine bond, so many amazing answers exist. And cutting people off from the transformative love of a dog sure isn’t one of them.

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