When is a dog… not a dog?

Poor Sherman… he’s always been the king of costumes.

There are two types of dog owners out there… those who dress their dogs in costumes and bow ties and bandanas, and those who scorn the idea. I happen to fall firmly in both camps.

The Monks of New Skete say in chapter one of Let Dogs Be Dogs: “… too many dog owners today… carry dogs in purses and lavish them with outrageous gifts like Gucci collars and mink booties. They place demands on their dogs for comfort and emotional support, forcing the dogs to become agents of therapy rather than recognizing them as sovereign beings with needs of their own. They spend less and less time with their dogs. The leisure time today’s dog owners have is often devoted to events and activities deemed more important than creating a healthy relationship with their pets. Owners feel forced to isolate and marginalize dogs that can’t be trusted around other dogs or people.”

Ouch! That’s been me for sure. We currently have dogs number six, seven, and eight in our home. We raised dogs one through five with absolutely no considerations of training or purpose. They were dogs. You hug them, feed them, walk them now and then, and they’re cute. What more could there be? (We also didn’t utilize social media for dogs one through five… social media is such a game changer.) But purpose? We had Dalmatians, bred to guard horses and coaches. Dallies are athletic and adapt so nicely to life on a farm… we raised our three in suburbia. Then a Golden Retriever, bred to retrieve water fowl… nope. We loved our Scotti Bear, but we sent him into the water to retrieve a bird we had shot down exactly zero times. And the Berner? Bred to do all kinds of tasks on European farms, the Berner really just thrives on companionship and co-worker status with his owner. Perfect! That we can do.

In all seriousness, a dog does need to fulfill his purpose. Each breed was made for a specific task once upon a time… and not once was that original task to wear costumes and pose for cute pictures. My Berners are in the working group. Though they are growing up on .5 fenced acres in a rural Pennsylvanian town, they still love to have a job. Sherman is a therapy dog. Zuzu and Madi work in show and competition (obedience, rally, drafting, etc) fields. It’s not the bulk of their time or the definition of their lives, but it gives them a purpose. And I think they should give back. I think they should be disciplined and well behaved and able to get some work done now and then.

Look in your dog’s eyes. You’ll see it there… the dog soul. It’s different than the human soul, but the connection between the two is undeniable and unique in the Animal Kingdom. The Scientific American journal released a study of neural activity and chemical production in both the human and dog brain when eye contact is made. The results lacked no certainty; the chemical oxytocin (even certain levels of dopamine and other endorphins) is released when sustained eye contact is made between the dog and his person. All this to say that between dog and human a unique relationship is being carried out. We do our dogs a disservice to merely assume they are like us, or when we fail to learn all we can about the unique and specific ways in which our dogs communicate. We also do them a disservice to keep them from doing work that’s been bred into their blood for years and then asking them to be happy with such restrictions.

That being said, some of the work I ask my dogs to do is wear a bandana or a costume now and then. They are happy to oblige when the pay is good, and there’s no doubt it’s work that pleases my human counterparts. I don’t do it so often as to degrade the real work I’m asking the dogs to do, nor often enough to exasperate the dogs. They have different tolerance levels for sure. Sherman will contentedly dress in any costume I ask. He honestly needs an agent, he’s so willing to please.

My handsome fly boy
Sherman makes the perfect Luke Danes (Gilmore Girls)
This one is a classic… poor Batman!

When we brought Sherman home he quickly became a bandana model on Instagram. We had arrangements with some companies for free bandanas in exchange for photos. But along came Zu and she would not tolerate bandanas, either on herself or on Sherman. She would tear off not only her own but would strip Sherman too! And so the bandana window kind of slammed shut as a result of Zuzu’s appetite for gnawing on cloth.

At the same time, Sherman shows very little tolerance for harnesses and backpacks. He freezes in place, every muscles tensed, when asked to wear anything beyond a flat collar, bandana… (or shirt.) And Zuzu, who won’t tolerate the bandana, is more than happy to carry supplies in a rucksack as long as the adventure is authentic and not (apparently) some stupid social media photo shoot.

Zuzu is more than happy to carry supplies for the team out on the trail.

So yeah… two kinds of people out there and I think I’m both of them. Dogs should perform the work they were made to do first and foremost. They should BE dogs, because that’s what they are. But I also think there’s a real and palpable joy that a cooperative dog (one who doesn’t mind gussying up now and then) can bring to a world that needs some real and palpable joy at the moment.

Madi has only worn a bandana once, created by our good friends at Hound Hankies. She does not seem to share Zuzu’s disdain for the extra constraint.


Published by: When Life Goes to the Dogs

It was my youngest daughter who introduced me to the Bernese Mountain Dog. That first boy, Hero, set in motion all kinds of crazy love. And now, at the end of the day, I often find myself asking... what do these dogs have that is so special? I'm raising three Berners now, navigating the world of social media for dogs, holistic health and raw feeding. Sherman has become a therapy dog; Zuzu may soon follow in his footsteps. Madi, as I like to say, is still cooking. I guess we all need something to put our hands to that makes us feel like we've made a difference in this world. Believe it or not, these dogs help me do just that.

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