Why Do You Have A Dog?

Endless reasons, endless joy
By Karen B. London PhD, June 2018

My parents, despite being otherwise lovely people, are just not that into dogs. My Mom once said, completely seriously, “I just don’t understand why people would want to have an animal living in their house.” Though her view presumably matches exactly zero people reading this blog, I think the question of why we want to share our lives and our homes with dogs is an interesting one. There are certainly plenty of reasons NOT to want a dog (cleaning up vomit, fur on the furniture, budget woes and trash parties anyone?) Clearly the up side of having a dog outweighs the inconveniences of having one, much like the cost-benefit analysis of having human children makes them worthwhile despite the many drawbacks of parenthood.

In my work with people and their dogs, I often hear unusual reasons for having a dog. No matter what the initial motivation was, all that really matters is the level of commitment people show to the dog once they become dog guardians. I have met people at opposite ends of the spectrum in this regard.

I once showed up at a client’s house for some training of an unruly, but generally sweet dog, I knew right away that success was not likely in this case, despite realizing that the dog would probably be a delightful companion in the right environment. The people had hired me to come over for a behavioral evaluation and training but were too preoccupied to be involved at all. I was only one of a number of people there who the guardians had hired for various jobs. In addition to me, there was a gardener, a house cleaner, an interior decorator, a painter and a life skills instructor for their child. These were dog guardians who were clearly used to hiring people to get things done and were not likely to do much of the required follow-up work themselves. When I explained that I was there to teach them how to work with and train the dog, they seemed exasperated and told me they wanted me to “just take care of it”, which I came to realize meant to teach their dog to sit still and not bother them. At one point, I asked them why they had gotten the dog, and the answer still shocks me. I was told, “We thought it would be adorable to have a dog in our family Christmas picture.”

That is not the only time I have been surprised by the response to the question of why someone acquired a dog, but it is the only time I was genuinely appalled. One of the most memorable answers to this question was from a shy young man who sheepishly replied, “To meet women.” To his credit, he was committed to the dog, they had a wonderful relationship, and the dog’s quality of life was top notch. After all, in order to help him meet potential dates, the dog had to be happy, charming, well-behaved AND be with him a lot of the time. So, while his reply might not seem like the ideal answer for most trainers and behaviorists, the adoption was an absolute success for both man and dog. This man wanted his dog to be happy, healthy and well-behaved because he cared about the dog and in order to convince women that he was a great guy, which he was! He also wanted the dog to be a social facilitator by encouraging women to approach. (Spoiler alert: He met his long-term girlfriend while out hiking with his dog, and to make the story even more perfect, his dog helped her shy dog gain confidence and learn how to play.)

Most people have dogs for predictable reasons. They want the companionship and friendship that comes from sharing life with a dog. Lots of people have always had dogs and can’t imagine living without one. It’s common to adopt a dog to grow up with the children, in order to raise someone with their spouse before having kids or because they want someone to hike, run or walk with them. There are people who live without other humans and feel both safer and happier with a dog in the house.

What wonderful aspects of having a dog that constitute the “up side” of being a dog guardian to you? In other words, why do you have a dog?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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