Thursday, October 15, 2009

City Life is Hard, Country Life is Not the Easy Answer

(blog note: my creativity has been hit a low lately. I'm working too much, I'm watching too much TV on my computer, and I'm reading the world's longest book that I've vowed to finish today. It seems I now blog once a week. Which bums me out. Hopefully there will be more soon. I have more to say. I've just been too apathetic to say it.)

Dog people, rescue people hear this all the time: "I can't keep this dog, he really needs a home in the country." It's a different version of "this dog needs a one person house, a house with no kids, a house with no other dogs or cats, and a dog-savvy owner." But really, what does a house in the country mean? And will this be a solution for the dog?

City life is hard for a dog. Those of us who live in the city ask a LOT from our dogs, and a lot of what we ask of our dogs isn't really fair. City dwellings are often small, cramped spaces. Dogs live inside these small cramped spaces, or in small, confined yards. We walk them on leashes if we follow the law and care about the safety of our dog and of others. We want to respect our neighbors, so we don't want them to bark very much, and we're probably pretty busy, so we don't take them on lots of walks, or we walk them around our concrete neighborhoods. We expect them to cohabitate at close range with other dogs, on leash and off, in our houses and in our neighborhoods, cats in the street and in our homes, and all kinds of people, who do all kinds of weird things. We want them to live with our new babies, and not to react if our new babies do weird things. We want them to guard our houses so that we'll feel safe from crime, but we don't want them to guard our houses with their teeth, just by barking. We want them to have what we have what we think are good manners: we don't want them to jump on people, we want a leash to be loose when they walk, we expect them to know what "sit" means. I could go on.

In the city, we expect all of these things, and we don't get it why our dogs fail us. We don't realize that we are actually failing our dogs by expecting so much and giving so little. We don't realize that our dogs are living in small spaces and not getting enough exercize. We don't realize that our small houses and yards aren't providing very much stimulus for our dogs: their eyes, ears and noses, especially their noses. We don't realize that our dogs are stressed by the sounds they hear at close range that we can't even hear, or don't notice because we know and understand what they are: the neighbors' keys jingling, the raccoon on the fence, the garbage man in the early morning, the cat in the apartment upstairs. We don't understand that our dogs need to run, and that by keeping them on leash, or even strolling around the block off leash, our dogs are walking all the time. Dogs move quickly even when they're walking. They need to get tired. And they don't do this on a walk around the block. And when we take them to the small dirt dog run and run and pee with the other dogs that they may or may not have met before, there is adrenaline, and maybe some exercize, but not necessarily the exercize they need. We expose our dogs to good things, but we don't pay attention to see if the exposure is in a positive manner. We have preconceived notions of what is "fun" for our dogs: the dog run is a "fun" thing. And when the police officer, or common knowledge tells us that dogs are protective, and a deterrent, we don't think about how this is a huge burden for a dog, and that they don't know what we think is a "real" vs "perceived" threat. We expect them, unrealistically, to make this determination appropriately.

When our dogs fail us, we decide they need a home in the country. Where they can run. Where they won't hurt anyone. Where life is less stimulating: no freeway noise, no loud banging, neighbors are far away, life is slower and less scary. Read craigslist, or petfinder, or talk to your friend who does rescue or works in a shelter and ask them how many times you've heard about the dog who "needs a quiet home outside of the city." The scared dog, the dog with a bite history, or at least a history of nipping. I've seen the other side of this: rural shelters seem to have less "messed up" dogs than their urban counterparts: dogs that are spooked, or overly wound up, showing anxiety behaviors or just plain rudeness. But is a house in the country the answer? How many scared dogs can we ship off to the country? How many dogs that have bitten people will actually do better in the country? Will they do any better because they don't have neighbors? Will scared dogs unlearn their fear? Will a dog who bites unlearn his triggers? I'm not convinced that this is how behavior works. We owe our dogs more than a train ticket to the Sierras or the Berkshires or some other scenic place. We need to understand how to set them up for success, and how to work with them, rather than to exile them. Or, if they're not safe to be in the city, we need to understand this and deal with it honestly, rather than passing the buck to our rural neighbors.

Addendum: I live with a dog who could easily have been one of those dogs looking for a home in the country. She's not mine, you'll have to read Running With Dogs for the full story, but Abby was a puppy mill rescue who came to her owner in a round about, accidental way, and was so scared of the world that she was basically feral. She was lost for 6 weeks, and still basically feral. Now she has friends of the human variety, and is working on running agility. She could have found a fabulous home in the country, I'm sure, where life is quieter than Oakland. But instead, her owner has worked with her, at her speed and comfort level, to make her a dog who is (almost) comfortable in her own skin. Abby has things she likes to do. She meets people when she wants to. She gets appropriate exercise. She lives with dogs that she likes, even if they don't like her. I think that living in the country would actually terrify her- here, she has a safety net, and a "person." Her person leads her around the world, and breaks up the world into small, manageable, city-sized chunks.


harleymom said...

I think sometimes as city people though we forget that country dogs have rules too - a dog like Mac with high prey drive would never make it as a country dog. He would have been kicked off the farm for chasing chickens.

Harley would love being a country dog. A log of her anxiety is because of all the activity that she hears around her. She would like the quiet life.