Why Every Person and Their Dog Needs More Gretas and More Davids

Change is in the air and it is causing anxiety. As we learned from the latest instalment of the climate change debate, strong emotional reactions are not limited to the change itself—be it the change in climate or the change required to deal with it. We also quarrel over how to change people’s minds. How do we package and deliver the message that change is necessary? Is it the factual narrative of someone with decades of expertise and experience, like David Attenborough, or is it a passionate and emotional plea from someone who is young enough not to be a cynic, like teenager Greta Thunberg? I say it’s both.

We Need Both Passion and Wisdom to Combat Suffering and Injustice

We need more Davids and more Gretas to help us adapt to the changes which are an inevitable part of life and social living. We need them so we can combat suffering and injustice. We need them so we can make the world a better place for all. We need them so we can all live long and prosper. vulcan-salute-emoji

Passionate calls to and for action are crucial to every major social change in our society. We need Gretas, so we take notice of problems, and we need Davids, so we can understand and tackle the problems. Unfortunately, we allow demagogues, salespeople and politicians to manipulate us with their one-liners and misleading promises. We are, overwhelmingly, impulsive shoppers and unaware consumers—not just of products and services but also of information—and it does not bode well for us and most of our fellow creatures.

Gretas can talk to us on the same emotional level that prompts us to buy miracle anti-wrinkle cream and magic dog training collars. But there is an important difference: Gretas have Davids behind them to back up their enthusiasm with solid scientific data. Sometimes they are even the same person.

Traditional Dog Training Methods Are Still Causing Suffering and Distress and It Needs to Stop

As a teenager I wanted to scream from the rooftops, just like Greta, about environmental destruction, about animal abuse, about social injustice. These days, I have more than my passion to add. I have made a career in animal welfare and while my focus is on dog training and behaviour, my work is relevant to community safety and human welfare.

While trying to help dogs and their people, I have witnessed the fallout from traditional training methods and equipment. The lack of change in dog training, and in animal welfare in general—despite decades of research and a heightened awareness of animal sentience—is maddening. At times I want to be a Greta and vent my frustration in a passionate speech to the world: Why are we still forcing animals to do what we want by making them fear us and causing them pain and distress? Why don’t we have better laws to protect animals and send offenders to jail instead of letting them off with petty fines for animal cruelty? Why do governments continue to show knee-jerk reactions to dog bites, such as discriminatory and entirely useless breed-specific legislation, instead of being proactive with community education programs on animal welfare and safety? Why are aggressive dogs labelled “vicious” instead of being recognised as victims? The list goes on.

Despite the frustrating state of things, I have to be more of a David than a Greta, at least in my work. I don’t change people’s minds with emotional pleas but by showing them a better way to solve their problems and achieve their goals. The ones who insist on using force—despite the known fallout from coercion, despite the risk for the animal and the wider community and despite having learned about force-free alternatives—are the ones who will be left behind.

on tight leashes at busy pet fair.

Population Growth Increases the Risk for Aggression in Dogs and People, so Let’s Act Fast and Make a Better Future

Human societies have survived and prospered because of their ability to change and adapt. But now we have to change faster. We don’t have the luxury of space anymore. We are increasingly crammed together in urban communities and the risk of conflict is rising. With an ever growing number of people and domestic animals, complaints and confrontations become more likely and more acrimonious and mental health problems affect humans and other animals alike. We need to take care of ourselves but we also need to treat our animals kindly and with respect. A stressed dog is a much higher bite risk than a dog who is allowed to make choices and feels safe and happy because of it.

We can all be Davids and Gretas and play a role in facilitating change, no matter how seemingly small the contribution. A conversation at a dog park, a casual comment, a friendly suggestion is all that may be required to set a person and their dog on the path to success and away from tools and techniques which cause pain, fear and frustration.

The change in dog training is already here but it is not happening fast enough. This is why we need many more Davids and many more Gretas. You can be part of the change.

Is Your Dog a Hippie Dog?

What’s a hippie dog? That was the first question that popped into my head when a friend once asked me why hippie dogs were always so well behaved. The dogs she had in mind were the type that you would see off leash in public areas, typically hanging out with people who were, well, also just hanging out. I went through a hippie phase as a teenager and I remember it was all about being “anti-establishment”, whatever that meant. I think, what I mostly loved about it was the sense of freedom, the sense (or rather illusion) of not being bound by any societal rules. You could say, a hippie dog—not giving a care about leash laws and not forced to follow anyone—is a dog free to choose. So, why do they choose to hang with their people?

Hippie Dogs Are Happy to Stick Around

A common concern I hear from clients is that they worry their dog may run off, if let off the leash, and my first response (although I don’t always say it out loud) is usually “why would they?”. What are the reasons a dog would not stay with the people they consider their family? A dog who has just been adopted from a shelter and not settled into their new home yet is a good candidate for running off into the blue yonder, maybe never to return. So are, one would assume, dogs who are unhappy in their homes, because something causes them serious ongoing or repeated stress. But otherwise, running off is generally a temporary thing, for example to meet other dogs, say hello to people, chase after someone else’s tennis ball or bother the local wildlife. The dog, once satisfied with their adventure, typically returns to their humans. But, just in case you aren’t eager to wait that long or your Kelpie keeps herding the children playing soccer or your friendly Lab disrupts the Tai Chi class or your 50 kilo Bullmastiff makes a beeline for the young family having lunch on a picnic rug, read here how you can get your dog to come back.

The attachment a dog feels to their people plays a factor in staying within range, no doubt. However, I have seen dogs behave in a way that people call loyal despite not having a good relationship with their humans or not having a happy home. I assume this sort of loyalty is a behaviour favoured by evolution: to stick with what one knows, because there’s usually less danger involved. In particular dogs who are anxious and lack confidence are prone to fear what they don’t know and less likely to explore and venture far. On the other hand, any sudden scare can send them dashing off across the road. The behaviour of hippie dogs though is not fearful at all. Quite the opposite, these dogs are as chilled as a cucumber and nothing seems to faze them. My guess is, they follow their people around because they want to, not because they are afraid not to. A positive relationship, built on trust and reinforcement of desirable behaviours, instead of force and coercion, is certainly a good idea, if you want your dog to stick around of their own free will.

Hippie Dogs Have Seen It All

But there’s more, of course. Hippie dogs don’t seem to get excited about much at all (and don’t say it’s probably the drugs!). You don’t see them run across the road, if they spot another dog on the other side, they don’t chase after the cat on the fence, they don’t jump up at people and they don’t bark at the garbage truck. The crucial component which makes a hippie dog is, I suspect, their stellar socialisation. Genetic makeup matters too of course, but if we are lucky and our dog has happy little genes, then the environment the dog grows up in is the biggest thing we have to focus on. Hippie dogs seem to have seen it all. They are not afraid of new people or novel things, because apparently their early environment was so rich with everything our crazy human world has to offer that they feel comfortable wherever they go. The rarer something is the more attention the dog will pay to it, so a dog with an impoverished socialisation is more likely to get overexcited or anxious when they see other dogs and people than a hippie dog for whom other dogs and people are nothing special.

Make Your Own Hippie Dog: Socialise, Handle with Care, Train with Kindness

So, would you like to have a hippie dog? I have to be honest: I highly suspect that the hippie dog is a mythical creature. Or maybe they are extinct. Nevertheless, there’s nothing stopping you from trying. You and your dog may end up a lot happier.

By the way, the hippie dog has an evil twin. Well, to be fair, they aren’t actually evil. Most of them are just scared most of the time. Guard dogs are on high alert, if anything in their environment raises their suspicion—which is almost everything. They were either trained or bred to fear what they don’t know, or both. In Australian states trained guard dogs are automatically classified as dangerous dogs. Any dog who ferociously barks at or goes after strangers—no matter if trained, born or raised that way—is potentially useful as a guard dog but makes a lousy family pet. They also tend to have a pretty lousy life (imagine going through life constantly looking over your shoulder in expectation of danger). Guard dogs and other stranger danger dogs don’t relax around people they don’t know, they have a limited environment where they feel comfortable and they have a very narrow, or non-existent, social circle. They are the exact opposite of the hippie dog.

The bottom line is, if you want a companion dog you can take everywhere and be social with, do not put the fear in your dog. If you already have a fearful dog, do everything you can to help them fear less. If you want protection, get an alarm system. Let’s populate the world with hippie dogs. Ok, we don’t have to call them that.