A recent essay by Iben Meyer and colleagues, “Pampered pets or poor bastards? The welfare of dogs kept as pets” caught my attention because the research focused on comparing the welfare of companion dogs with that of modern village dogs.1 Some people think that modern companion dogs – often referred to as “domesticated” dogs – have a much better life than their free-roaming cousins, but as Jessica Pierce and I point out in our recent book, that’s not the case. necessarily the case.
I’m glad Iben and Peter Sandøe were able to answer a few questions about their landmark study in which they highlight the unrealistic social expectations and demands we place on companion dogs and the many ways we outgrow their lives.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you search for “Pampered animals or poor bastards?”
Iben Meyer and Peter Sandoe: It all started with Peter’s invitation to speak for the Canine Science Forum. Prior to this conference, Peter had the good fortune to begin working with Eliza Ruiz Izagiurre, a Mexican veterinarian who had completed her doctorate. on the dogs of the village. This led to the idea of taking a helicopter view of the welfare of modern companion dogs by comparing them to village dogs.
MB: How is your work related to your background and general interests?
GI/SP: The authors cover a variety of skills: canine behavior, canine genetics, veterinary science and ethics. We all share a concern for the welfare of modern family dogs.2 We greatly appreciated the transdisciplinary exchanges generated by the comparison between companion dogs and village dogs.
MB: Who is your target audience?
GI/SP: Although this is an article published in a scientific journal, we have tried to write it in an accessible and lively style so that it will be of interest to many outside academics who care about the welfare of dogs. In addition, we have ensured that it is available in free access.
MB: What are some of your main messages? How can this study improve the lives of dogs?
GI/SP: Our main message is that while modern companion dogs derive many benefits from living closely with modern urban humans, this comes at a price in terms of significant welfare challenges. We have chosen to focus on two main challenges. One is the way dogs are bred to satisfy human and other aesthetic preferences which, due to the way this breeding is done, leads not only to serious extreme conformation problems but also to a high burden of hereditary disease. . The other challenge relates to how dogs are kept as companions and the expectations around them in terms of integration with the household, other humans and other dogs.
In our opinion, misconceptions about the social needs and limits of companion dogs prevail. Companion dogs are obligate social animals, meaning they evolved to live with others. The village dogs, to which we compare companion dogs in our article, live either in groups of two to three dogs, or alone, but always surrounded by other dogs and humans. Companion dogs, however, live with their humans, often interacting with their fellow dogs only briefly and on a leash during their walks.
Most pet dogs are left completely alone each day while their humans are away for hours. In many cases, this leads to separation issues, one of the most common behavioral problems in dogs, which can reduce the well-being of both dog and owner.
We argue that a good life with a dog is often not compatible with a typical busy modern lifestyle, and therefore people should carefully consider their lives and possibilities before acquiring a dog. Once living with a dog, in addition to providing social companionship for the dog, the sitter(s) must also provide gradual habituation to alone time and must keep the dog physically and mentally stimulated.
On the other hand, companion dogs, although social by nature, also have their social limitations. Not all dogs enjoy meeting and interacting closely with every unfamiliar dog they encounter on their walks, and many dogs dislike being hugged, kissed, or patted on the head, especially not by unfamiliar people.
This is something people need to pay attention to, as a human expectation that dogs should accept all interactions forced upon them by humans, and should greet positively everything other dogs, affects not only the well-being of dogs, but also the safety of their environment. Humans should help their dogs avoid conflict situations by being aware of their dog’s body language and signs of discomfort. Along the same lines, humans should also focus on the quality of puppy socialization experiences, ensuring that they have enjoyable and safe experiences with different people and dogs as they grow.
MB: How does your research and findings differ from those that deal with some of the same general topics?
IM/PS: Our article is based on a discussion of scientific literature relevant to the comparison between urban companion dogs and their free range cousins, village dogs. This is a new approach in the scientific literature, although similar comparisons between domestic animals and their free-living counterparts have been made with other species (e.g. pigs). It is important for us to stress that we are not trying to romanticize the lives of the village dogs, as they have their own welfare issues. But we find it useful to make this comparison, as it can help us become aware of species-specific needs that are not always met.
MB: Do you hope that as people learn how compromised the lives of many domestic dogs are, they will treat them with more respect and dignity and give them more freedoms?
GI/SP: We cannot hope to return to a form of life which allows modern dogs to enjoy exactly the same social advantages as those enjoyed by village dogs. However, we hope that by taking a helicopter view of how pet dogs live today, people can look at the dog in front of them differently and think about what might be the best way to help the dog. lead a decent social life.