Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Working dogs: Canine enslavement, or a fulfilling life?

2010 03 22 Lap Full O Dogs-Detail

Iggies all round: two of mine, plus two foster puppies.

I’ve almost never been without a dog in my adult life (and those few months were pretty grim). 

Dogs are easily my favorite kind of non-humans. 

This is perhaps not all that surprising: humans have lived in something of a symbiotic relationship with dogs since prehistory, and our two species have been cohabiting and co-evolving, literally for millennia (since the Neolithic). 

There’s actually a pretty good case to be made that, without our dogs co-evolving with us to guard us and help us hunt, haul our stuff, and keep our livestock in line, we humans might not be as successful a species as we are. Indeed, from that perspective people who don’t like dogs really seem kind of ungrateful, don’t they? 

Couldn't resist this cartoon by Tony Hall, from a National Geographic article about the evolution of dogs and humans.

Couldn’t resist this cartoon by Tony Hall, from a National Geographic article about the evolution of dogs and humans.

The ingratitude of humans notwithstanding, one could also debate whether hooking up with humans has ultimately benefitted the dogs. Certainly it has changed them, both outwardly and inwardly–from the way they look and act to what they can digest.

Wolves OnceThere’s also a contemporary debate, among humans who DO value dogs, over whether they should be made to work or not. 

It doesn't exactly look comfortable, but is it animal enslavement?

It doesn’t exactly look comfortable, but is it animal enslavement?

Some people say that dogs with jobs–even dangerous jobs, such as sniffing out IEDs in Afghanistan–are happier and more fulfilled than dogs whose existence is mostly occupied with eating or sleeping. 

Too little stimulation and interaction can lead to serious problems.

Too little stimulation and interaction can lead to serious problems.

In developed countries today there’s a rising tide of difficulties for pets, especially if they’re left at home alone for too many hours, and perhaps crated the whole time. They tend to develop issues, such as separation anxiety or neurotic behavior from too much idleness, and obesity that often stems from too little exercise or free-feeding that leads to overeating from boredom. 
Is a domestic pet (unfortunately prone to obesity and separation anxiety) really better off?

Is a domestic pet (unfortunately prone to obesity and separation anxiety) really better off?

Please review that list I made above: guarding, hunting, hauling (sleds, travois, carts), and livestock-keeping. Those are all jobs that dogs have done for ages . . . and it’s probably because some of their earliest ancestors more or less “volunteered” for those jobs. I don’t buy into the idea that humans were so brilliant they could look at wolves out in the wild, and intuit that they could be domesticated to do all those jobs.

Some partnerships are a natural outcome.

Some partnerships are a natural outcome.

No, the natural capabilities of dogs, and their basic nature–combined, I am convinced, with the bonds that develop between individual humans and the individual canines who live with them–led the members of both species to stumble, together, onto the idea of the dogs doing these jobs.

Resource Guarding: it's a Dog Thing.

Resource Guarding: it’s a Dog Thing.

Dogs are naturally territorial, “resource guarding” creatures–and we humans definitely fall into the category of “resources” for most dogs. From there it’s a short step to a role as “Head of Ranch Security.” Hunting and herding also stem from things dogs do naturally, even without humans around. 

On duty or off, a dog needs a purpose in life. Just as people do.

On duty or off, a dog needs a purpose in life. Just as people do.

I guess you can tell I place myself into the category that thinks dogs benefit from having a mission in life. And now, if you’ll excuse me, my personal trainer Jake (the tan-and-white IG in the front of the top photo) tells me it’s time for a walk (of course, he’s just doing his job . . . ). 

Do you have any “working dog” stories to share? please put them in the “Comments” section below!

IMAGES: Many thanks to my daughter Signy for the photo of me in my favorite recliner with four Italian Greyhounds. Many thanks to National Geographic and cartoonist Tony Hall, for the “campfire moochers” image. Many thanks to the HumorHub Subreddit, for the “Wolves Once” image, to Pete Somers’ Pinterest Board for the “holstered attack dogs,” to Stamp Right Up’s Pinterest Board for the “bored so took up scrapbooking” meme, and to Dog Medicine Info, for the photo of the bored dog. Thank you to Darwin Dogs for the “Shepherd/Sheepdog Conspiracy” image, to Boredom Kicker’s Pinterest Board for the unworried kid with three German Shepherds, and to Payton Phillips’ Pinterest Board for photo of the Gizmo-snuggling terrorist-hunter. It’s been a pleasure finding these images, and I greatly appreciate their creators!


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  1. Kim Elmore

    Both dogs and people need to have a purpose, and since domesticated dogs no longer need to spend their entire day finding food, they run out of things to do. Our dog Watson spends much of her day chasing squirrels away from our bird feeder, but she gets bored and spends too much time following me around.

    • jansgephardt

      There are a couple of options you might consider. First, why not adopt a companion for Watson? Rescued dogs rock, including the black ones and the older ones (both are harder to re-home).

      Then they could BOTH follow you around.

      Manufacturers also have discovered this problem, and set out to make (unfortunately, pretty expensive) games for dogs. Too bad there aren’t more “dog toy” exchanges, so owners whose dogs had figured out the puzzle they bought could swap, and keep things both interesting for their dogs and more affordable for themselves.

  2. There are shepherds who believe it would be completely impossible for people to survive in places like the Scottish Highlands without their dogs. You can't farm land like that, and no human being could successfully manage a flock of sheep in that terrain without the help of a good dog. Even today, with cars, trucks, ATVs, and airplanes, it would be a challenge. My pack seems to have joined me in my volunteer work. They probably contribute a whole lot more than I do to the socialization of the rescue dogs I foster.

    • jansgephardt

      Absolutely–I’m sure they’re superb at socializing your poor, traumatized waifs. Even Jake and Brenna helped tremendously when we foster those iggie puppies. They gravitated to them, and seemed to relax more.

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