Trade-Offs

As dog owners, we always want to do the best for our dogs. We want them to be safe, we want them to be happy, we want them to live an enriched life, and we want them to be healthy. Although we may not actively think about it, we end up having to make a lot of trade-offs when we choose what we allow (or not) our dogs to do. I think it's a worthwhile bit of personal exploration to consider these trade-offs every so often, to make sure that we aren't doing our dogs a disservice out of any unacknowledged influences. These typically include imagined danger, a random but salient single event in the past, urban legends, and pop literature about dogs. I find that the more I learn about dogs—we're lucky to live in times where the science of dog behaviour is such a hot topic, aren't we?—the further I refine my position on these, and the better, and more enriched, my dogs' lives become (I hope).

I'll spill the beans: in general, the more safety we provide our dogs, the less enriched their lives are.

I'm going to go out on a limb and indicate about where I fall on these continua for my own crew of dogs. Of course, there are certainly things we do for our dogs that are uniformly good (like training, provision of comfortable beds, etc.) and don't really involve trade-offs. I am hopeful, however, that as dog owners and dog lovers, we acknowledge that there are cases where we can't have it both ways. And in some cases, we might be making a call and falling strongly to one side or the other, without considering what we're giving up.

Chew toys and puzzle toys

I (sadly) fall closer to the "no chew toys" end of things. My dogs scrap and squabble over chew toys left out and are known "ingestors" of fabric and rope, so a rather low-value collection is all they see. To make up for it, I regularly give them consumable chewies that they can eat, and ensure they have a very enriched life otherwise.

Trade off Chewie.JPG

No Chew Toys?

PRO: Having no chew toys around means no fights over them, no broken teeth, no intestinal blockages...so complete "safety".

CON: It also means a dog with no means to chew, an activity with key health and welfare benefits. These dogs may simply find something else to chew, which you yourself do not feel is technically a "chew toy", or may misbehave in other, even less desirable, ways.

MITIGATE lack of chew toys by providing a lot of other enrichment like training, play, dog-dog experiences, fetch, and ball. Consider inching yourself towards allowing chews by asking your vet what's appropriate for your dog.

Hundreds of Chew Toys?

PRO: Having lots of chew toys around means a dog with a lot of choice in how they meet their chewing needs. They can pick their favourite, and switch things up.

CON: Some chew toys may break up and form intestinal blockages, which can also be caused by fabric/rope. Some may break teeth. Some dogs squabble over chew toys. Some dogs also guard chew toys from dogs and people. 

MITIGATE the risks by supervising your dog when they are chewing (especially the first few times with any new item), providing toys which are tough enough for your dog's established chew level but not hard enough to break teeth, and if necessary, removing the toy when your dog is done with it. Separate dogs for chew hour in multi-dog homes if they do scrap over chews. If your dog guards chewies from you; give them their favourite chew in their crate and if you'd like them to refrain from guarding, hire a trainer. It's a very workable issue.

Off leash walks

My dogs are lucky enough to get off-leash walks every day, as I can wander around my farm with them. I have put a lot of training effort into training recalls (coming-when-called). They are at risk of running away, encountering wildlife, among other dangers.

Never unleashed?

PRO: Dogs are at essentially zero risk of being lost or encountering wildlife, of getting in scraps with other dogs, random injury from topography, and so on.

CON: For many dogs, leash walks are simply not sufficient exercise. Sometimes, a leashed-only existence can prompt leash reactivity and aggression, as the dog is frustrated from lack of access: leash walks do not offer the same opportunity for dogs to sniff and experience their worlds.

MITIGATE a lack of off-leash time through finding venues where they can be off-leash, like a tennis court or dog park. Set up play dates with dog friends in a yard. Head to a park and then switch your dog's regular leash for a long one (try 10 or 15 feet). Play fetch and tug. Enrich the dog's life otherwise, using chew toys, training, and so on. Consider hiring a trainer to train your dog to recall, so you can go on off-leash walks. If my sled dogs can do it, it's very likely that your dog can, too.

Lots of off-leash walks?

PRO: Excellent exercise, excellent enrichment.

CON: There may be dangers depending on your area. Mine include encountering wildlife, running too far and getting lost, injury, and going out on the road and getting hit by a car.

MITIGATE the dangers by training a good recall and continuing to reinforce it forever. Choose areas and times with less traffic or head away from roads. Research the wildlife in your area and make reasonable decisions about the time of day and time of year you should and should not hike. Use a GPS tracker on your dog's collar, and reflective materials on their collars/harnesses as well.

Dog play

My dogs play to their heart's content, as long as everyone consents (read more about consenting play here). Sometimes, they squabble if things get too heated, although for my crew, squabbles are no problem (read more about when squabbling is safe here). This section assumes that your adult dog is not fearful of all other dogs and does not have an injurious fight style.

No play?

PRO: your dog never has access to the (extremely rare, granted) dog who has an injurious fight style, in the rather unlikely event of a scrap during play. If your dog is fearful or anxious, they avoid fear-evoking events like bullying, as well.

CON: preventing a social species like dogs from playing is, for individuals who like play, a welfare concern. Their play skills will possibly degrade, making scraps more likely if they do finally get access to other dogs. Social dogs who never get play are at risk for leash reactivity and aggression due to a lack of access to normal greeting , as well.

MITIGATE a lack of play by making a plan to get your dog playing. Hire a trainer to attend a play session with you to provide comfort and to separate any scraps that might initially happen. Select dogs with known good play histories as play-mates. A trainer can reduce unwanted play-associated behaviour like hazing and bullying, as well, so that safe, normal play can proliferate. If your dog is one of the few who injures other dogs (i.e. the other dog needs stitches), then they may only have access to other dogs when muzzled. If your dog is fearful of or dislikes some dogs, set up play dates with dog friends they do like. If play is simply not possible, enrich your dogs life in other ways: fetch and tug, walks, games, puzzle toys, and training.

Lots of play?

PRO: Play is excellent exercise, and great enrichment for dogs. It is an easy way to boost your dog's welfare and tire them out, mentally and physically.

CON: Play sometimes results in scraps. Most scraps are non-injurious and non-fear-evoking, but in some cases a dog may end up scared (rare), injured (rare) or even dead (very rare). Sometimes anxious dogs may become scared during normal play, as well.

MITIGATE the dangers of play by supervising, learning how to safely separate scraps, interrupting dangerous play moments like two-on-one chase games or very small dogs and very large dogs playing, and allowing or prompting your dog to distance themselves from particular dogs they find anxiety-provoking. For anxious dogs, select appropriate play mates.

Other trade-offs?

There are literally hundreds of other trade-offs we make every day. Bringing a dog in the car to run errands means a fun excursion, and maybe even a special treat from the drive-through. But it exposes them to the possibility of vehicular accidents and heat stress. Walking your dog in the deep freeze of winter gives them exercise and enrichment, but they may get cold or even frostbite.

Not all enriching activities are unsafe, and not all unsafe activities are enriching, obviously. No trainer would suggest you allow your dog to play in traffic, chase tigers, chew on metal posts or swim in riptides. But not allowing them to run free, play with dogs, or gnaw on a good chewie does involve trade-offs. The more cognizant we are of these trade-offs and how our own decision-making processes influence our dog's lives, the better we can meet our own particular dog's needs, no matter where we fall on any continuum.