This crazy election is only a week away. I need relief and find that my dogs ease political stress. Their simpler lives are not affected by politics and they help me recognize what is important in this life.
I like to let my dogs, two Boston terriers, run free. Dogs on leashes are terribly constrained to go where their owners go, to walk a narrow path through their lives. Modern extension leashes give them a bit more latitude, but not any more freedom. I don’t like them, because dogs don’t learn how to heel, one of the most important disciplines for our canine friends.
I believe in a combination of strict training and free running. I want my dogs to come when called, to behave around other people, to sit or stay or lie down when I tell them. I have trained a series of Bostons to walk with me (heeling) without a leash. That effort has not been so successful now that I have two brothers, because they distract each other, so I have to use leashes when we are around other people.
What happens when dogs run free? I don’t go to the tiny “dog parks” which have recently proliferated, because they usually provide little room for exercise. Wherever I live, I find places where I can walk and dogs can run.
Every breed is different. Boston terriers like to stay relatively close to their human companions, so Homer and Hector stay within sight as I walk, but run backwards and forwards, stop when and where they want, and chase each other. They make their own decisions about what to do and where to go, but we can walk for 10 minutes without my saying a word. I get to observe dogs doing their own thing.
My dogs listen to me, but think mostly about each other. Homer and Hector have been together since the day they were born and they pay close attention to what the other is doing. When one stops at an interesting spot, usually marked by another dog, the other comes running and their heads come together to smell the fine aromas. But they have their own personalities. When Homer rounds a corner, he stops and stares ahead, searching the landscape for prey ( I think). When I let him out the back door of our house, he insists on going through the door first, but then stops immediately to survey the back yard. Hector just runs past him, less interested in other animals, following his own path. He tends to wander further afield, so I have to call him occasionally to come closer. They sleep next to each other or on top of each other, keeping warm contact since they were puppies.
People often assume that the way they do things is the only possible way. German dogs and dog owners behave differently, at least what I have observed in cities. Leashes are unusual. People walk crowded streets with dogs nearby, following the same general path, but their own way. Dogs accompany diners in restaurants, sitting quietly at their feet.
I think we underestimate canine intelligence. As I watch my dogs running around, I wonder what they are thinking about, what is important to them. We often say that dogs are smart when they obey commands. That’s a human perspective on dogs. More interesting to me are dog decisions. We know little about how dogs make decisions – go left or right, stop and smell, run or walk, pee here or there.
Dog researchers believe that our best friends are particularly good at figuring out what we mean by our communicative gestures. I have seen my dogs figure out what I mean by various gestures that I repeat in similar situations. They want to know what I am doing and going to do, and the gestures help them make sense of their world. I had to be disciplined about using particular gestures to mean always only one thing and to reward the dogs for figuring out what they mean.
This communication goes the other way. Hector and Homer try to tell me what they want, because I control so much of their lives – let me out, feed me, pet me. I need to figure out what they want and respond, even if it’s not what I want, because that encourages their efforts at communication.
The more we observe our animals, the more freedom we give them to make choices, the deeper our relationships. Dogs are not just pets. They can be our partners in life.
Jacksonville ILPublished in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 1, 2016