What Did I Sign (Them) Up For?

Are you bored, Buddy?

At times I glance at my dogs and cannot help but think, “You poor thing. You’re bored to tears, aren’t you?” And I immediately feel like I am failing them.

Like most people, at least according to the research that has been done on this topic, I didn’t think much about what I would DO with my dogs once I brought them into my house. I grew up with dogs, I like dogs, and it just seemed natural to have a couple of them around the house. We didn’t walk our dogs much when I was a kid, so it didn’t occur to me when we brought our first dog home, an affable Dalmatian we named Boaz, that walking would be a necessary part of my daily routine. But it quickly became so at Boaz’s insistence. Our next Dalmatian, Ruth, preferred to chase balls for hours on end, but even she would put the ball down in exchange for an off-leash adventure.

I’ve walked all of my dogs off leash from the time they come into the home at eight weeks. It starts in the yard, progresses after a few weeks to short walks on the street, and from there moves on to off-leash time in nearby parks or forests (devoid of other dogs and always with the permission of any humans that may be present.) We’ve had “accidents”… moments when my dogs see the trespassing humans before I do and run to greet them with an unwelcome enthusiasm, but for the most part I’ve had overwhelming success in finding private and relatively safe areas for my dogs to be dogs.

This has been somewhat instinctive on my part, but it doesn’t change the fact that, as I said earlier, I thought precious little when introducing dogs into our home about exactly WHY they came into the family and what my responsibility to them might be now that they are here. It didn’t occur to me that the way the average person lives is not naturally suited to the way a dog lives. So it’s fair to ask at times when we look at our dogs… are you bored?

Not that our ethical responsibility is to entertain the domesticated canine 100% of the time. Far from it, we know that dogs gain just as much in the arena of character development as our human children do by learning to manage frustration and boredom. But data from a 2017 survey of pet welfare in the UK suggests that 13% of dog owners did no research before bringing their dog into their home. When we brought Boaz home, you can count us in that number. Same goes for Ruth, and then Shonda (who was born in our home) and Biscuit the Golden Retriever and our first Bernese Mountain Dog, Hero. It wasn’t until Sherman came to live with us in 2016 that I began to research the canine/human dynamic and identify an actual purpose for bringing a dog into the family. I wanted Sherman to be a therapy dog.

Does this mean that prior to Sherman we were bad pet owners? Not at all. It would be fair to say that our dogs have enjoyed being members of our family and have received excellent veterinary care as well as copious amounts of exercise and (recently) a top tier diet. Can we improve as pet owners? Always. And the answer to the question, “Are you bored, Buddy?” may be a resounding “YES!” at times.

What did we sign up for as dog owners? A popular commercial unleashed (pun intended) as a 2023 Super Bowl ad addresses the answer to this question by pulling hard on the heart strings. “Sawyer the rescue dog” has grown accustomed to life during quarantine, his humans are around 24/7 and Sawyer is clearly welcome to participate in every aspect of life as a member of the family. But before long Sawyer feels a new energy at the family breakfast table. And sure enough, everyone rushes out the front door en masse while Sawyer’s exit is blocked. “Be a good boy,” we hear Dad say as he gives Sawyer a pat on the head. Day after day passes with Sawyer watching his pack climb into the family’s horseless carriage without him. So Sawyer does what any red-blooded latchkey kid would do. He becomes destructive. Nothing is off limits. The family turns to Amazon for “large dog crates” and collectively choose one that “he might like”. The Amazon box arrives at work. But wait… is there a twist? When Sissy said, “He might like that one,” was the family truly contemplating a crate? Because now Dad is in the car and the crate is no longer in its Amazon box and if you listen VERY closely you may hear the hint of… is that a whimper coming from the dog crate? The family allows one final concerned look before opening the door to Sawyer’s imprisonment, but now comes the big reveal: Sawyer isn’t going in the crate. Instead, a new little buddy comes trotting out. The commercial fades with Sawyer and his new little buddy sound asleep with their human sibling on her bed.

And by the way, Sawyer is a former shelter dog, rescued off the streets five years ago. A short commercial introducing him says, “Five years ago Sawyer was in a shelter. Now he’s in 100 million homes.” Dang it… I just teared up again.

What about Sawyer’s life today? He’s most likely a Mountain Cur (or Kerr), which is a highly intelligent breed developed for livestock guarding and hunting in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee. Curs have a substantial need for daily exercise, both mental and physical, or guess what? They will tend towards… destructiveness! Curs are happiest when involved in outdoor activities. The more strenuous, the better. Sawyer’s owner says she hikes him daily and he has a large yard for play time with friends. What wasn’t said but is easily noticeable in interviews, is that Sawyer has had a TON of mental stimulation. Sometimes we call that “training”. Thinking is good for dogs. It makes them tired. And you know what they say… a tired dog is a good dog!

When we bring a dog into our family, we should be thinking about setting them up for success. Not every home is the same. Not every dog is the same. And our definitions of “success” are going to vary widely. But we owe our dogs a life that causes them to thrive. They deserve to be dogs. They deserve to be given outlets that allow them to do what they were made for. My Berners deserve to work. Their life should be more than photo shoots in cute outfits. Labs deserve to swim and fetch. We are facing a concerning increase of obesity in dogs, and Laboradors are on the top of this list of victims. (Why call an obese dog a victim? Because we determine when, how much, and what our dogs eat. We also control when and where they exercise and the amount of time they have to burn calories in species appropriate activities.) Terriers deserve a space to dig and root. Scent hounds deserve long, leisurely, scent-filled walks.

We didn’t just sign up for companionship, though this is something nearly every dog is deserving of an award for providing. No, we signed up as partners and participants in what I would call the real greatest show on earth… sorry Barnum and Bailey, but I’ll take the daily rhythms of life with a dog over the big tent any day. My days do remain a struggle to provide all that my dogs need. But that’s because I don’t take this lightly. If I wanted a light load, I should have taken on only one dog. If I wanted a more sedentary life, I should have a Cavalier King Charles, the quintessential lap dog. I don’t get to insist on warm days and sunshine; I have to invest in good cold-weather gear. I traded hotels for an RV, the cost of daily Starbucks for obedience and performance classes.

My dogs don’t get to make too many choices. I brought them here. I pick their food. My schedule determines when and where they walk. They are not bathed because they personally value hygiene. Sherman didn’t ask to be a therapy dog and my girls have varying opinions of time spent in the show ring. So I owe them… something… or this isn’t a partnership at all. They deserve to be dogs and to do the things that make a dog happy. That is what we signed up for. It’s expensive and tiring and messy. But if we’re not all in maybe it’s time to rethink the whole dog thing, because they deserve it. And how.

Zuzu greets a woman at the Central PA People’s Choice Festival
Sherman doing therapy dog work…
… and Sherman making his own choices. Playing in the fire pit. You do you, buddy!

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.

Categories The Human/Canine Contract, UncategorizedTags, Leave a comment

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