Wednesday, August 25, 2010

If given a choice, what would your dog choose?

Yesterday morning we closed up our New Hampshire cabin and started the drive back to San Diego.

While my mom and I were busy with all of this, Vida didn't hover, or sunbathe. She spent nearly two hours disappearing into the woods. She'd reappear occasionally (sometimes when asked, sometimes on her own), checking in before diving back into the forest. Her brindle coloring really does make her disappear; I'd never see her at all if it weren't for her white collar and tail tip. She slides in to her woodland role even better because her tags are held in a neoprene packet that silences them.

She'd come back with her eyes bright and shiny, her mouth open and tongue red, panting slightly. But she wasn't panting from exertion as much as from excitement. While I'm sure that her adventuring was a good way for her to deal with the stress of our preparations, it felt like she was excitedly drinking in as much scent as possible so it would last her until we returned next year. It was as if she were trying to commit the geography of smells to memory so she could remember them later and access them in her dreams.

This was the first year that I felt safe having her off-leash at our cabin. In previous years she would take off into the woods at the slightest squirrel provocation. She would "go native" and not return, barking at all of them going from tree to tree. One time I spent an hour listening to her running through the woods, circling the cabin, out of my sight as I tried to catch up to her. She spent the rest of that summer leashed (the same summer she jumped out of the car after a squirrel as I parked at the lake).

Now she is able to moderate her pursuits. She can even be left to sun on the deck when my mom is napping. This is not because she is old or sick, unable to muster the energy. 

Yesterday, in fact, was one of the few days that I forgot about this year's illness. She became her perfect self

She was able to do this because I allowed her to. I allowed her to choose how to spend her time.

Dogs rarely get to choose anything, but especially how to spend their time. We direct their exercise, their eating, their socializing - everything in their lives. We believe that we are allowing them to choose, but are we really giving them choices? Do we coerce them? Or limit their choices to doing A or getting in trouble for doing B?

Certainly it's important to teach dogs the behaviors that allow them to live in our culture. But once they've learned those, then what? Do they get to graduate? Do they at some point get to choose what to do next?

Do you ever ask your dog, honestly? Something as simple (to us) as giving them a choice on which direction to walk in will open your eyes. It may take a little time for you to see them choose because we've trained them not to, but when it does happen it will be a clear as day. 

Will you follow?

Will you allow the communication you have with your dog to change fundamentally?

In what (safe) ways can we allow our dogs some semblance of autonomy within our culture?

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