At the heart of so many dog training discussions there lies an elephant in the living room: freedom. For folks from the USA, freedom has an almost mythological meaning and importance – we see freedom as central to our identity. Not sure about that? Try telling any 9 year old raised in the USA to do something they do not want to do (or stop doing something they want very much to continue to do). The first words out of their mouth will be “it’s a free country.”
I believe our cultural obsession with freedom impacts our conceptualization of freedom for our dogs. At times we equate off leash freedom with happiness and goodness, and consider the leash tantamount to punishment. We obsess about off leash dogs – either insisting that our dogs must be able to behave themselves off leash and then employing draconian efforts to make it so, or vilifying owners when off leash dogs behave like rampaging maniacs. We long for off leash freedom tempered by safety, but are so conflicted about what it entails and how to get there.
When I adopted Cairo, the track rescue greyhound, the deal was never off leash. Period. That was in the contract from the rescue organization and that was the party line: these dogs cannot ever be trusted and you must never endanger the dog’s life by placing them in that situation. Similarly, before I met Tom, he owned a cairn terrier named Killian. Killian never experienced off leash freedom. Tom walked him on a leash every day for 15 years. Tom explained it to me early on – Killian’s prey drive was too great. Killian lived in an environment quite similar to Bramley Mountain and the wildlife opportunities were also similar. Tom never risked it.
My experience of allowing off leash experiences for my dogs has been different. I’m constantly weighing the pros and cons, assessing the situational issues and choosing for each dog in each specific situation how I want to handle it. I lean towards providing a lot of freedom, and my dogs experience some level of off leash freedom every day. I probably take more risks and greater risks than many dog owners.
I believe that the experience of freedom that I was able to give Mica extended her life, maybe by as much as a year. I am equally convinced that the experience of freedom ended Cinder’s life prematurely. Freedom, for dogs, and for humans, can be fatal.
It’s been one year since Cinder’s death. I think about it every day. I still feel guilty. I still feel shame. I haven’t forgiven myself. I still feel the sick, anxious, weight in the pit of my stomach every time I think about her. I deny myself any positive experience of her – I don’t look at photographs or allow the positive memories to bubble up to the surface, although I am starting to force myself to rethink that and honor all the good as well as remembering the bad. But I can’t sugarcoat it or squirm away from the truth of it: She died as a result of my approach to freedom. Had I been more strict, she would not have lost her life.
But it was only last week that it hit me that the flip side of this awfulness is that indeed, Mica benefitted from my approach to freedom. Mica hiked the 35 highest peaks in the Catskills, off leash, and yes, she did bump into porcupines and bears and likely a few coyotes and bobcats too (I can’t always see what’s happening in the thick vegetation). Mica began that journey at age 12, after being diagnosed with stage 3 mast cell sarcoma. She was very sick, elderly, and had spent her prior 11 years on the end of a chain in someone’s backyard. She was not a sensible hiking companion, and it was a huge risk to her health and safety to place her in such a different, challenging, stressful, and potentially dangerous environment.
I believe that freedom cured Mica’s cancer. She got better, despite the odds, and our choice to do no treatment. She healed herself, feasting on deer poop and sunshine and a bad attitude (she attempted to protect me from a motorcyclist one rainy day. It went badly. I had to apologize a lot. She didn’t break the skin, but motorcycle boots are pretty tough and protective. I’m sure it hurt.). I weighed the risks and benefits of every hike, every outing, every long car ride and hot day. And I kept deciding yes. Yes, she is benefitting and we should do this.
It wasn’t so clear with Cinder. She’d lived with me 9 years. I’ll never know what snapped that day. Something in her? Something in the others? She’d successfully negotiated the exact same situation literally thousands of times before. It was the definition of a freak accident, the thing that was always fine went horribly, fatally wrong. And I wasn’t there to stop it.
I’ve been obsessing about and dreading the one year anniversary of her death all spring. How do people move on after being responsible for the death of a beloved pet? I have no idea. I have no pearls of wisdom to share, no frames to place around the event to make it something we can all hang on our wall with reverence. I take some solace in knowing I am not alone. The people who reached out to me in the days and weeks immediately after her death were a lifeline. I shed gallons of tears reading your notes and holding you all in my heart as I slowly came to accept that this awful feeling is just one more part of being in it as deeply as I am. As deeply as we are.
This – this indigestible experience that will haunt me for the rest of my life – is the price of the rest of it. The depth of connection, joy, fun, amazement, accomplishments and brags, triumphs and quiet delights… all of that has a price. You can’t go that deep into pack life with 5 dogs, and embrace freedom without experiencing the price of such freedom. The price is that we cannot control everything. And if we could, if we were successful… then we would have traded freedom for control.
Having the others forces me to stay focused on not fucking up again. I force myself to do things differently. I tell myself that her death must not be in vain – that I must change and grow and learn, at the risk of having something that catastrophic happen again. In response to this clarion call, I have consumed more dog training advice, theory, ideology, methods, and propaganda over the last year than ever before. I watch videos, read books, listen to trainers talk about all of the above and more. The truth is, it’s extremely rare that anyone talks about living with dogs like mine in a household like mine. I am an outlier. That’s not a brag; it’s just a fact.
But to circle back to where I started, I think the appeal of freedom, despite the risks, is still powerful. I believe the appeal of freedom, for some dog owners, stems from the notion of conceptualizing the dog as a fundamentally free and fully separate being, able to make choices. I know that sounds sort of obvious, but I think it’s easy with pets to feel a bit like they are an extension of us. I think some trainers, if forced to use this concept of freedom to articulate what they do would say the end goal of training is to convince the dog that they do not have the choice. The purpose of training, I believe for some trainers and owners, is to ensure the dog embraces total servitude, and loves it.
Recently in an Instagram post, The Collared Scholar mused about what dogs might want, versus what humans might want, in terms of lifestyle. We work our asses off to make malinois into family pets, for example, or any number of other “square peg, round hole” situations, and when our dogs tell us as clearly as they can “I’d really rather not” we just double down and push harder. Then our community celebrates our hard work and effort… when maybe respecting who our dogs are and honoring their voice and their preferences might be a greater triumph…
To shift our thinking and see dogs as fully separate, independent, and capable of choosing how they interact with us is quite different from conceptualizing our role as that of a benevolent monarch that must (out of the justifiable need to be a responsible owner) control every aspect of their behavior. Whose love would you rather have: the love of a free being, able to choose to love you or not? Or the love of a manipulated and controlled being that can never truly choose to NOT love?
Finding the sweet spot on the continuum between freedom and safety is going to be different for every dog owner. Civilized, pleasant housemates that can perform the most basic commands to smooth out the rough edges of human-canine coexistence is pretty important. I’m not advocating for abstaining from training. And I’m not suggesting that all training is somehow an existential assault on the individual dog’s selfhood.
I just want my dog’s compliance to be meaningful. In order to be truly meaningful, they need to have options. They need to know they could choose otherwise. They need to see themselves as having that power and autonomy. To me, that’s it right there – that both of us, owner and dog, fully grasp that the dog always has a choice. That’s the stuff, that’s the ticket. Then, when that dog trades their agenda for yours, it’s powerful magic. It’s “shivers down your spine” deep because there was no compulsion, no trick, no hack, no technique. It’s just the result of an agreement reached by two independent parties.
Thinking this way doesn’t make me feel better about Cinder’s death. But it does help me feel better about Cinder’s life. And that’s the best I can do for now.