A recent op-ed in The New York Times considered the question of whether it is ethical to have pets. For most non-domesticated animals, whose lives as pets means being confined to cages or tanks, the writer was quickly able to establish that, no, it is not: the best we can do is a life of “controlled deprivation.” She — and I — have a harder time answering that question with regard to dogs and cats. I know little about life with cats, so I’m really only considering dogs here.
Dogs have evolved as domesticated companions to humans, so in their case, it’s not at all unnatural to include them in our homes and families as pets and family members — if we do it right.
Most pet dogs live a pampered, but far less than ideal, life. I honestly don’t think that most dogs enjoy long days spent home alone, even if they get to spend that time on a $100 memory foam bed (or on your $1,000 plush, memory foam dial-a-number luxury bed). Even dogs who have canine company spend much of their “home alone” time sleeping, staring out the window … or worse. Many dogs experience severe anxiety when left home. At best, their lives are boring, revolving around a few minutes of dining once or twice a day and, if they are lucky, one short walk. Many pet dogs don’t even get that. The really lucky ones get a daily walk with a person who is focused on them, not simultaneously on the phone and/or dealing with a child or two.
Some dogs — most of the dogs I know well — are luckier than that. My friends with dogs tend to be more engaged than the average dog-owned person. These dogs get regular walks, usually more than one a day. On these walks, they actually get to stop and sniff things. Some of them get to go to parks and play with their friends (yes, dogs have friends!), they go to the beach sometimes, on car trips, to dog-friendly cafes, to laser therapy appointments (hi, Jana!), acupuncture, agility or Rally classes … any number of enriching, fun activities. They get excellent health care, they eat carefully selected, healthful diets and treats, and they own baskets full of toys. For these dogs, life is pretty good.
Considering the broad range of doggie experience, it is hard to answer the question of whether sharing life with dogs is ethical. The dogs I described in the previous paragraph are a minority of American dogs, though, and only a tiny, tiny minority of the world’s dogs live like that. Put that reality together with my absolute inability to imagine a life without dogs and, well, it’s a dilemma.
As a person who loves dogs and has the means to offer my own dogs a good life, and who teaches future dog professionals, I’ve pretty much dispensed with the question of whether to have dogs. Instead, I think about this question: How is it possible to ensure that our lives with dogs are ethical? By ethical, here, I mean that in deciding to bring dogs into our homes, we commit to making the dogs’ lives interesting and fulfilling, to allowing the dog(s) to develop their full range of doggy abilities and enjoy a high quality of life.
This would include, of course, providing everything on ALDF’s Animal Bill of Rights — for pets, that is shelter, food, and medical care. But I think our obligation goes beyond that. The Bill of Rights also mentions “an environment that satisfies their basic physical and psychological needs” — and what that means is different for every dog.
As I consider returning to a more structured work life — you know, the kind of job where you actually have to show up at an office several days a week, rather than working at home, wearing yoga pants and taking frequent toss-the-ball breaks — I think about how Jana’s and Cali’s lives will change, and how so many dogs’ lives consist of long, lonely, boring hours punctuated by brief interactions with their tired, busy humans.
This question became urgent for Deni as she agonized over how and where Alberta should spend her retirement. No ordinary dog, Alberta has a college education; she’s been a local celebrity, a model, a career dog. Her retirement, forced by health issues, leaves her young, energetic, educated, and accustomed to days filled with new experiences, travel, encounters with dozens of people a day, and constant stimulation. On my best days, I can’t provide all of that for my dogs — most people cannot, even though we all do the best we can.
Would Alberta be best off with her family, even if that meant watching Deni head off to a work day with a different dog? Or would she be better off with a different family, most likely consisting of people and dogs she knows and loves, living as a more ordinary pet? Was retirement to Montana, as part of Deni’s extended family, the best choice? Alberta is fortunate in that all of her options were good ones, with people who love her and who understand that a dog needs more than a comfy sofa and a basket of toys to lead a fulfilling life.
Improving can be simple. Make a commitment to your dogs to take them for more walks, or to go to the dog beach once in a while. Spend a few minutes a couple times a week interacting with a puzzle toy or even just throwing the ball more often. (Cali suggests at least 10 minutes every hour as a starting point.) Leave the phone at home next time you go for a walk, and let the dog stop and sniff whatever she wants (that one’s from Jana). The funny thing is, once you build this new interaction into your relationship with your dog, you’ll feel better, too!
Kudos to Jessica Pierce, who wrote the NYT op-ed and is the author of a new book on the ethics of keeping pets, for raising these questions. Thanks to her, maybe more of us will think about — and improve — our pets’ quality of life.