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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Roller coasters and lapdogs

There comes a point when one realizes that talking or writing about oneself becomes tiresome. Nothing I say or do will shorten this wait, efface this idleness, undermine my uselessness. So I remain patient, and enjoy the ride, despite being in a roller coaster car that is stuck at the top...

While I've posted several times on our eccentric behaviour towards pets, I'd like to continue on this subject. I think the single most important issue in canine medicine right now is the mental health of our dogs. Why are some dogs so darn miserable? Why can't they be walked on leashes? Why are they lunging at the other dogs in the park? Why are they destroying the furniture when we leave them alone? Why?!
Now here's the bottom line, folks. Ready? Listening (or reading rather)?: We've forgotten that our dogs are dogs. Let me say it again: we are not treating our dogs like dogs. In the last hundred years or so, and particularly during the last twenty or so-odd years, we have taken an evolved species and thrown it a major curve ball. Though a Siberian Husky and a Yorkshire Terrier are physically quite distinct, you'd hardly know it by looking at their genes. Remember, they are different breeds, but of the same species: Canis familiaris.
So while it would likely take six hundred Yorkies to pull a sled (on the lolls of the English countryside of course), the desire for a Yorkie to have a "job" is almost certainly there. Its job is not to be carried around in a purse (even if it's a fabulous Louis Vuitton). Its job is not to be put in a stroller, but rather to be walked, exercised, to heel, to sit when asked, and to wait quietly and confidently while his/her owner runs into Starbucks for a grandé, extra-hot, lactose-free, light foam, latté.
I guess you're starting to see my point. What has prompted me to write about this once again was my recent witnessing of an eccentric prominent Toronto couple (no names here though its soooo tempting) whom I see quite frequently, who were sitting enjoying a coffee with their Miniature Schnauzer resting on their lap. I don't really mind seeing a dog sitting on their owner's lap... usually. The problem here is that I've never seen this dog's paws actually touch the ground. These people were there for a considerable period of time and the dog never walked on, or touched, the ground. When they departed, they picked him up and whisked him away in their arms. It was gross. Of course, I felt terrible for the dog... While the owners' intentions may be noble, it is indeed abnormal, eccentric, behaviour which causes irreparable damage to the dog. Granted, I have not met this dog personally and do not know the status of his mental health.... However, I'll bet lots of money that these people rarely (if ever) leave this dog alone. More importantly, I don't think this dog can be left alone without manifesting severe separation anxiety. He needs help!
Think of all the dogs out there that are treated this way (and I'm not purporting that I would be the perfect dog owner). Their genes are speaking to them in one way, while we are showing them hieroglyphics. They just don't get it. What results are messed-up dogs.
Canine behaviours, such as aggression, are strongly affected by genetics. It is true that many traits, including behavioural ones, have been selected for in certain breeds, which have resulted in breeds that are typically more docile than others.
Consider the Labrador Retriever vs the Chinese Shar-pei (though I've met a few nasty Labs and the most spectacular Shar-peis!).
Genetics and environment play a complex role in shaping dog behaviour. There's not much we can dog about genetics (at least not with a particular individual) but we can certainly dictate or manipulate the dog's environment. So let's get on it already!

This is why I am a fan of Cesar Milan, the dog whisperer. Though he is not ubiquitously loved by all canine behaviourists, his fundamentals are tenable and sensical.

This may shock you but it was Cesar Milan who said that the healthiest dogs (mentally) are those owned by homeless people. I recently took particular notice of this. These dogs know exactly what they are and it couldn't be more..... refreshing (yet heart-wrenching) to see.

This dog is saner than a lapdog or one in a stroller. Of course, the entire image elicits a feeling of heaviness on my heart.


Mel said...

It is, I think, one of the hardest ideas to get across to people. Milan's popularity probably helps, but still....

Meg said...

Well I have to say, I do find the baby strollers with dogs in them a bit freaky, but then I also have an issue with designer breeds of dogs. All these poor miniature versions and odd mixes (my neighbor has a Chiapoo!)seem so frail to me. That said, you know first hand that I spoiled my cat rotten. I think these people are well intentioned, I think we all tend to think of our pets as children (at least that's how I rationalize it), but I've wondered whether we are doing a disservice to the animals with some of these over-the-top indulgences.

The photo of the homeless man and his dog broke my heart, and I have to confess that I've often thought badly of people who exposed animals to conditions like that. But looking at it from a new perspective, that person and that animal may well share a more deeply rooted bond than any pampered pooch and it's over-indulgent owner ever will.

Anonymous said...

I sent a message to you about two weeks ago, I am thinking perhaps you did not receive my message?

Susan Perkins

TorontoVet said...


I'm so sorry, I haven't received anything. Please e-mail me. Just go to my profile (my photo) on this site and click "e-mail."

Nice to hear from you.

Kristen said...

Hi- I just found your blog and hope you continue to write about your vet work and observations. I'm actually starting my prerequisites for Vet School in a few weeks. At 32, I'm finally taking the leap towards the dream. Wish me luck!

TorontoVet said...


Thanks so much for the comment and I sincerely wish you luck. Indeed, there is no age limit on pursuing a dream.