Stop Babying Your Dog
Putting your dog in risky situations might actually be the best thing you can do for him
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
I wrote a review of a grill last week that included a photo of my dog eating a piece of steak. So far, so formulaic. But man, some readers got pissed. Why? Well, he was eating that steak off the tip of a knife.
Is that really so bad? I don't think so, but my view of dogs might fall outside of the norm. Allow me to explain.
Dogs, Danger, and Science
A study conducted by the University of Vienna found that the personalities of dogs and owners strongly mirror each other, and each has the ability to influence the other’s. “Owners and dogs are social dyads [a group of two], and they influence each other's stress coping,” explains the study’s author. Your dog’s personality is influenced by your behavior and, to a lesser extent, yours is influenced by theirs. Another study from Vienna demonstrated that dogs prefer taking risks over playing it safe, choosing the possibility of a better reward over a lesser, yet guaranteed one.
Given the option between choosing safety or danger, my dog Wiley always dives right in. Take the time he swam through whitewater, for instance. We encountered that storm-swollen river on a backpacking trip. I stripped down, threw all my stuff in my pack, and planned to make two trips: the first with the pack, then I'd swim back to get Wiley. Halfway across, I got caught in a wave, and was swept downstream. When I finally dragged myself out the other side, I looked back for Wiley, but he was nowhere to be seen. I went through a flash of panic, then realized he was standing right in front of me, very wet and looking very proud of himself. Rather than risk being left behind, a dog that hates baths had just swum through a river better than me.
Danger Makes Dogs Stronger
None of this is to say that I want Wiley to get hurt. Just like any other dog owner, I want to keep him safe. The foundation of my risk management strategy for both of us is training and physical fitness. Just as with humans, staying lean and strong helps prevent injuries in dogs.
One of the most common activity-related injuries in dogs is what amounts to an ACL tear, though the canine equivalent of that knee ligament is called the Cranial Cruciate Ligament, or CCL. To avoid tearing it, vets recommend a balanced diet and regular exercise. Just like people, the dogs most prone to a CCL tear are ones who don’t get out on the trail during the week, then try to go too hard on weekends.
How do you make your dog stronger? The same way a human gets stronger: resistance and impacts. Wiley and I hike up a very steep, very rocky hill every day. He's off-leash throughout, so he sprints, jumps, and tumbles up and down the hill, leaping up and down boulders that are sometimes four to six feet high. The steep terrain provides the resistance, building muscle, and the jump and falls provide the impacts, strengthening bones and ligaments. Last year, I took a dog of the same age and size, who’s also very fit, but only exercises in parks, along on a backpacking trip. After a 30-mile day, Wiley was still happy and energetic, where the other dog was so stiff and sore I was convinced I’d have to carry him back to the car in my pack. He made it back on his own four feet two days later, but it wasn't easy, whereas Wiley could have turned around and done it again.
Danger Makes Dogs More Confident
A fearful dog is an aggressive dog. So how do you make a dog not fearful? By exposing him to new experiences.
Our puppy Bowie is six months old now, and my girlfriend and I couldn’t be happier with the way he’s turning out. He may not be making the smartest decisions yet, and we have to keep a close eye on him as a result, but my favorite thing about him is how confident he is. And that’s no accident. Take swimming, for example. We wanted him to learn, so we took him down onto the boat dock at the cabin, and created situations we were pretty sure would result in him falling in. He did, then he started paddling. I kept a close eye on him, and pulled him out when it looked like he’d had enough. By the next day, he was as confident in the water as we are.
Extrapolate that four years into the future and you have Wiley. All the stuff he’s fought, climbed, powered through, and overcome has resulted in a supremely confident dog. He’ll cuddle a newborn human, but will fight an adult the instant they threaten us. And he’s totally calm throughout either situation.
Dogs Love Danger
Every dog needs a job. That’s the oldest piece of wisdom in dog training. Having a purpose and working to fulfill it both make a dog happy.
A guard dog’s job is to put itself in harm’s way, so its humans don’t have to. Herding dogs drive dozens of hoofed animals that are often larger than they are, then keep them safe from predators at night. Search and rescue dogs sniff out people lost or injured in the wilderness.
Spot a common theme? Whether your dog’s work is formalized or not, it likely involves some risk. Overcoming that risks fulfills them.
Is It Wrong to Put Your Dog in Danger?
Honestly, I didn’t think that photo would be controversial. I just saw it as a nice, candid moment of my family. But, I guess to some, the idea of a dog using a knife as an eating utensil sounds dangerous.
I’d argue that I know my dogs, know that they eat steak off a knife all the time, and that they take treats delicately, so there’s really no risk shown in that photo at all. I’d also argue that all the other dangerous stuff you see us do with our dogs is actually stuff that’s good for them, that they’re enjoying the hell out of, or both. Of course, you'll need to invest some serious time into training and developing a strong relationship with your dog first, so you know his limits and yours, whether you're walking in the city or hiking in the backcountry.
I guess the real point here is that you should be doing dangerous stuff with your dog, too. It’s what they’re made to do, it’s what makes them happy, and what makes them healthy. It might just make you a little tougher, too.