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Our Expert Recommends Enjoying the Dogginess and Otherness of Dogs

Dogs: our best friends and constant companions. Here in the United State, “life with dog” is ubiquitous. We take our dogs out and about to parks, cafes, shopping centers, and home improvement stores. They ride as our sidekicks in the car. We have special dates marked on the calendar such as Bring Your Dog to Work Day and “Dog Days” at our local baseball park where our canine companions can join us as spectators for America’s favorite pastime. Clearly we truly seem to enjoy their company.

But have we taken things too far? It seems the more we integrate dogs into our daily lives, the more we also try to humanize them. We have doggy day cares and clothing lines. Some ride in strollers, some people even call dogs fur babies, and more and more people are bringing their pets on planes to serve as a form of comfort.

As much as I love my dogs specifically and admire the species in general, I feel society may be on the wrong track in a way that hurts, rather than helps, humans and canines alike. This humanization is generally bad for the dogs, because when we forget to see dogs as the strong, sentient, noble creatures they are, we put ourselves and therefore them, in danger. Because when a dog/human interaction goes poorly, someone usually gets hurt. And when a person is severely injured by the claws or jaws of a dog, the dog often must pay the ultimate price. And for what? For being a dog, frequently a dog who has been put in an unfair or uncomfortable situation because of the ignorance of or the ease, comfort, convenience, or enjoyment of his or her owner.

Thankfully dogs are very adaptable and also quite adept at living with and tolerating human behavior. These very qualities are largely why dogs have come to successfully live in such close contact with human society and certainly are a factor in why we have come to love them so. But again, these qualities that warm our hearts also put them at risk, because when we treat dogs like honorary furry humans, we tend to forget that they are actually not. We saddle them with humanlike responsibility and make all sorts of assumptions about their actions, intentions, and feelings based not upon an understanding of canine behavior, but rather on a misplaced projection of human perception of what we would like them to be and what they mean to us.

Last month, in the course of a week there were a few incidents of note that really got me thinking that as life has become more technologically advanced, we’ve really lost touch with the natural world. One of the incidents was amusing, the other somewhat tragic.

I had the great fortune to see a California condor recently. As I gazed up at the magnificent creature, a little boy and his mother strolled by. The boy was very excited and enthralled, which warmed my heart. Then the boy’s mother proceeded to tell the boy that the bird was a falcon. Now, falcons and condors looking nothing alike, and one is a carrion bird while the other is a bird of prey. I don’t mean to poke fun at the error, though I did giggle to myself a bit, but it also saddened me that she didn’t know enough about wildlife to make out the difference and was now misinforming her offspring as well. I think it is because so few people get to learn about, let alone experience, nature that this sort of thing happens, because the natural world seems so insignificant and far way from our modernized, automated, largely indoor world.

In another incident, a woman jumped a zoo barrier to get a closer, more impressive selfie with a jaguar. She was surprised when the wild cat reached through the fencing and swatted her. I am not sure why, or what she expected would happen instead. This was a properly contained wild animal, not an animatronic set at Disneyland. Mercifully, the zoo fencing did the job for the most part, and her injuries were relatively minor, and the animal was not blamed for the woman making the poor choice to jump over a concrete wall that was in place to protect her and the animal. She even apologized to the zoo for her transgression, but her public statement called the incident an accident, which it was not. It was a mistake. A very bad conscious decision on her part, which I also think was made because of her lack of knowledge, experience, and perhaps even acceptance of a natural world that is not human-centric and fully sanitized for the comfort and ease of people.

In my eyes, the treatment of dogs as humans does them a disservice in a similar way to the condor or the jaguar. Dogs are wonderful and amazing as they are, no human attributes or accessories necessary. I do feel a very strong affinity toward and strong kinship with dogs. However, it is because of their inherent dogginess and otherness, not in spite of it and to me, that makes it all that much more amazing.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, SiriusPup.com, the family business

Main article photo by: Photo by Bigandt Photography / iStock