16 March

The Rainbow Bridge Curse: Loving Dogs Into Dumbness

by Jon Katz
Why Dogs Get Dumber
Why Dogs Get Dumber

A well-known writer and behaviorist seeking a blurb send me a galley of his book to be published next year, it is a powerful, meticulously researched study of the intelligence of dogs (I am not permitted to quote from it or identify the author until it is published), and like almost every behaviorist, trainer and biologist, he has found that dogs are getting dumber all the time.

Like me, he believes that the emotionalizing of dogs – the curse of the Rainbow Bridge – I call it, is dumbing them down, allowing their instincts to dull and want. This is the inevitable consequence of dogs them more and more as helpless and dependent and abused and piteous, over-regulated and over-protected to the point that they can’t learn or grow or develop their own great survival skills and intellects.

This, I suppose, is why I am so drawn to the working breeds of dogs, I love seeing them with work to do, tasks to perform, judgments and decisions to make. Dogs are increasingly seen as helpless and abused creatures in need of constant vigilance and protection. Increasingly, they never walk off-leash, run in the woods, use any of their hunting or predatory instincts.

This troubled way of looking at animals nearly cost the New York Carriage Horses their good and active and healthy lives in New York, they were nearly condemned to slaughter or something almost as work, stupefying existences with nothing to do.

Our concern for animals like horses and elephants and dogs has become a hysteria, not an animal welfare movement.

It is considered dangerous now to leave dogs unsupervised – they might get stolen; to take them with you in cars – they might obstruct your view or suffocate in the sun;  to go anywhere ponds with ice – they might fall in; to explore meadows and woods – they might get ticks or run into rabid skunks and raccoons; they must never be left in the rain or the cold – they might freeze and suffer; they should not work in warm or cold weather.

Any kind of work for animals or the use of them to entertain or uplift humans  is increasingly considered exploitive, cruel or abusive.

Many people in the dog world have been driven nearly mad on social media with paranoid fantasies about evil dog food and Darth Vader vets seeking to harm their dogs and steal their money. The best-selling dog book in the world by far is the Rainbow Bridge a sappy story which posits that all of our dogs will be waiting for us in heaven when we die, and will spend all of eternity chasing balls and frisbees with us. I am happy to see I’d rather skip heaven and hang myself than spend eternity throwing balls for my border collies, perhaps the most selfish animal fantasy in the history of the world.

I hear people call their dogs “furbabies,” people often tell me their dogs and cats are just like children. It is a wonderful thing to love a dog, I have been doing it my whole. Emotionalizing them, or seeing them only through the prism of rescue and abuse and adorableness  is something else.

How do dogs learn?

Mostly by doing. Dogs used to roam free much of the time, they learned to navigate weather, search for food. They also fought, got lost, got run over. They learned how to understand other dogs.  When they lived on the periphery of lives rather than in the emotional center they had the opportunity grow and make decisions. They became one of the smartest animal species on the earth, smart enough to worm their way into the lives of humans and their families.

Very few animals are smart enough to live well with us. We can barely live with ourselves. The smartest dog I know is a border collie who lives on a nearby farm. He sleeps under a tractor in one of the barns, he runs alongside the farmer’s truck and tractor all day, he herds cows and goats when necessary, he is tossed a can of kibble or human leftovers once a day, he finds warm and dry places for himself, when he gets old and lame the farmer will shoot him rather than have him die on a strange linoleum floor.

He has never been in the farmhouse, and in warm weather, sleeps on a mat on the porch, where he can keep an eye on things. He is free much of the day to live the life of a dog, explore, hunt and oversee. He drinks water from a stream, sometimes laps up some warm cows milk left for  him in a bowl.

Many people reading this would consider his life a horror, he is a happy dog, living his life, smart as most of the people I know.

The world of the modern dog has shrunk. Their work is most often to tend to the emotional needs of humans, they rarely get to use their extraordinary instincts and develop their instincts and intelligence. The conclusion of the book I have just read and will happily blurb is that dogs are being dumbed down all the time. The more we ban and limit their activities,  more we worry about them and protect them, the less work they have to do (think of the New York Carriage Horses), the fewer opportunities they have to think and grow their intellects.

Every other dog owner I meet tells me their dog has been abused (and  how can they know, really, since dogs don’t speak and humans rarely admit to abusing them), often as an excuse for inappropriate or obnoxious behaviors. When you pity an animal, it is very difficult to train him or her. I told Frieda from the first I would never patronize her by assuming she was too fragile to behave. You are not made of crystal, I used to tell her.

I have had working dogs my whole life.

Work is so important to animals (think of elephants as well as horses.).

The well-meaning rescuers of the animal world have come to accept the idea that work for animals is cruel, and that the best life for a working, domesticated animal is to stand around and eat and eliminate all day. That is not so, it is the worst kind of life for a working animal, it is cruel and abusive in and of itself.

Animals need to work, whether it be going on hikes, riding in cars, doing agility, show, herding, rescue, show,  or therapy work. Or just coming along as we love, We can, and we are, protecting them to death and lives of lethargy and boredom. An animal cannot develop skills they can’t use. People breaking the windows of dog owner cars in malls and parking lots are not doing the dogs any favors, they are just condemning countless animals to lives in basements and backyards. There are not many decisions to make there.

It is a tragedy for dogs when people tell me they are afraid to take their dogs along with them when they do chores in warm weather, another new kind of social abuse in the guide of animal welfare. Dogs have accompanied us on our rounds for centuries, very few have died for it.

Our fear for them has lost perspective, or worry has become a bubble from which they can never retreat or escape.

Like us, some have been mistreated and some suffer at human hands. Welcome to the theater of life. And most of the time, mind your own business.

When we forget that these remarkable creatures are animals, we reject their identities and their very souls. I am committed to giving my dogs the opportunity to use their great gifts, to grow and learn Watching Fate explore the meadow, learn about the pasture, run in the deep woods, I have literally seen her intellect and judgment grow, I have watched her change and become more intelligent.

I have seen this with Red, with Lenore, with Izzy and Rose and every dog I have had.

The dog doesn’t have to come from a purebred working line to be intelligent, mixed breeds can be just as smart or smarter,

They just need to be seen and treated as a dog, not solely as an emotional tool to exploit so that we can feel better about our fragmented and disconnected lives.

I wrote on my blog recently that the horses and the donkeys ate part of the pasture gate during last year’s awful winter. Immediately, there were two messages. One said horses should have hay available to them at all times, and another “wondered” if the animals should not have been kept in warm and enclosed spaces.

I replied to the first, and said she should try  banning “should” from her vocabulary, especially in messages to other people, it might change her life. I don’t use it myself when talking to others. I told the other that working ponies and donkeys are desert and mountain animals, it is not healthy for them to be in enclosed and heated spaces in the winter, nor is it natural in any way. These messages of alarm are not unusual, everyone who writes about animals online is familiar with the fearful ones.

Like our dogs, the donkeys and our pony cope with all kinds of weather, and know when to use our ample and dry shelter, always available to them. Using it is their choice, not ours, and we are pleased to let them make it. And no, I cannot afford to give our equines hay 24 hours a day. Neither can anyone else I know.

One day during a snow and ice storm, Fate wanted to go outside, and I let her.

From time to time, I watched through the window to see if she wanted to come in. She did not. She sat in the snow peacefully, then went and dug out a warm spot under a bush. When it rained, she went into the dog house and peered out, eventually napping. I opened the door and called to her, she did not wish to leave the dog house, and I let her stay for a while. She loved being out there.

I was much more troubled than she was, but I was glad I let her life a bit in the very constrained dog universe we have created for them. Safety and comfort matters, all love our dogs, but it is certainly true that love and worry need to be managed, just like cruelty and abuse. When we lose perspective, it is always the animals who pay – I often think of what the carriage horses in New York were spared by not being taken away.

And it is the animals who grow dumber and less resourceful, in almost direct proportion to our growing love for them. We are loving them into dumbness.

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