Sextiped Valley: Dogs also need K–12 education
January is National “Train your Dog” Month. Instead of harping on the same old exhortations to teach dogs good basic manners, I want to suggest a different approach to the whole subject: We should wake up to the amazing possibilities of cultivating our dogs’ inherent abilities.
Everyone knows that a K–12 education is the barest minimum to enable a human to survive in 21st century USA. Yet 100 years ago, a high school diploma was required for less that 25% of jobs. By the time adolescents reached 18, they had enough work and life experience to face the world as adults. Parents now invest far more getting kids ready for college, and they still might not even be able to cook a meal or wash a load of laundry.
The canine equivalent of an 18-year-old human is about 16 months. And with the equivalent to K-12 preparation, a dog can be ready for a full, useful and satisfying life as a companion, and ready for college level work in a rapidly expanding number of occupations in which he can be an essential partner in well-paid jobs with his human.
Earlier, such partnerships were rooted in shared lives: Sheepdogs lived with shepherds. But modern attitudes regard working dogs as technologies; since the USDA began to deploy “beagle brigades” to sniff out contraband at ports of entry, the dogs live in kennels, to be called for when needed. As nearly as possible, the modern world has tried to make working dogs as close to automatons as possible.
And yet, the largest demand for dogs in the U.S. today is for companions. Family members, and even surrogate families. We are witnessing a huge shift in the status of dogs, including legal challenges to their status as chattel property. Science supports this, demonstrating that attempts to reduce the complex integrity of beings to simple functions lead to a multitude of individual and social disorders. In human families and communities, the goal of “work-life balance” is being succeeded by one seeking greater work-life integration. There’s pushback in the form of dogs going to work, going on vacations, participating with their families in newly invented sports, learning in the process how satisfying and pleasurable it is to share purposeful endeavors. When that work builds on inherent capacities, developed into occupations and appropriately rewarded, the human/dog partnership thrives. For instance, current demand for certified bed bug detection dog teams greatly exceeds supply in the hospitality industry, where handlers both make good salaries and save hotels and resorts a lot of money. Did you know that the salary for TSA detection dog/handler teams in airports ranges from $47,000 to $98.5,000? If these jobs require some higher education for dogs, what are the prerequisites?
Basic education for dogs starts out teaching, through reward-based methods, self-restraint and taking direction from humans. That’s what traditional “obedience training” aims at, though now we know it has been too restricted in scope and too focused on corrections instead of the inherent pleasure of learning. The companionship skills a dog needs to be as socially competent as the rest of his human family, are easily taught via games and sports. They love activities that play to their abilities and respond to encouragement and rewards. High school level modern dogs learn to do agility and skijor and find lost objects, people or pets. They build mutual vocabularies for useful and entertaining purposes. We’re just too slow off the mark. It’s at the kindergarten level that we fail to appreciate their potential. Puppies are little sponges, soaking up learning every waking moment. Yet, we too often put off basic training because we forget how rapidly they mature, compared to human children. Given that discrepancy, if you spend your puppy’s first year getting him through K–12, you’ll have a happy, useful, well-mannered companion for the next 12 or more years.
When your kids leave for college at 18, they’re more or less fledged. Out of the nest. Your HS graduate dog, at 16 months, is ready to give you another 12 or more years of rewarding companionship — even if you don’t educate him for an even higher level of working together.
We’re so fortunate in this valley to have so many excellent dog trainers offering a wide range of opportunities to enrich your life with your dogs, no matter your schedule. Don’t wait.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.
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