The Evolution Of Companion Dogs
Today, companion dogs are viewed as family members who receive many luxuries that were unthinkable in the past. Dog toys, services, clothing, bedding, and medical treatment make up a multi-billion-dollar industry, all catering to the pampering of our four-legged friends. Compared to free-roaming village dogs, companion dogs in urban environments benefit from the safety of living inside our homes, better nutrition from specialized diets, and improved health from regular veterinary care. In fact, a companion dog’s life expectancy is three times that of a village dog. However, research shows that due to unrealistic social expectations and poor breeding practices, our companion dogs are at risk of poor welfare. These human-created problems are less likely found in free-roaming village dogs, who live more like dogs throughout their evolutionary history of thousands of years.
Picture a village dog who gets to walk wherever she wants, play with whomever she prefers, and explore whatever she finds. She is more able to avoid people or places that she doesn’t find pleasant and discover those she enjoys. Overall, she has more autonomy and freedom. In contrast, our companion dogs rely on their guardians to go outside, are usually restricted to a leash, and move at the pace of our choosing. Then, when they’re left alone, they tend to be more isolated from other animals or people. This can cause our dogs to become stressed and anxious. It may even cause them to chew things apart, house soil, or bark. Unfortunately, the typical urban lifestyle that includes an eight-hour workday with a long commute may not leave enough time to fulfill our four-legged friends’ social needs.
Village dogs live together and are rarely alone. They’ve had this socialization and exposure to their own kind since birth, and because of it, they tend to show lower rates of inter-dog aggression. In contrast, companion dogs are usually isolated from other dogs until they’ve received their recommended vaccinations. They’re socialized more with humans, and the dogs they do get to be around may not be to their liking. If there’s no option to avoid or escape an unwanted social situation, it may cause a dog to behave aggressively. This, in turn, can lead them to be more isolated or even at risk of being surrendered to a shelter.
So, what can we do to fix these problems we’ve created? We can work on changing our expectations of dogs and improving their environment. We need to recognize that not all urban lifestyles are compatible with having a companion dog, if the dog’s social needs cannot be met. Being alone is a skill that a dog needs to learn, and we should gradually habituate them to isolation slowly. Giving our dogs time to adjust to schedule changes can reduce their stress levels. We also need to ensure our dogs receive quality socialization with other dogs, understand that our dogs may have social limits, and allow them to withdraw from situations that appear to cause them stress. Recognizing when our dog is feeling uncomfortable, such as when she cowers at unwanted interactions, can help set more realistic expectations and support the dog’s happiness and well-being.
Another reason why companion dogs tend to have reduced welfare is due to the way they are bred. Free-roaming village dogs are outbred, meaning their breeding practices increase the genetic variation within their population. Alternatively, the selective breeding of companion dogs limits the genetic variants to produce more uniform physical and behavioral traits, such as color coat, size, or herding ability. If you’ve seen one King Charles Spaniel, you’ve seen them all! The consequences of these breeding practices can result in breed-related diseases that compromise a dog’s welfare. For example, dogs bred to have a flat face and short nose, such as a Pug, are more at risk of breathing problems. Despite our fondness for these animals, we cause them harm when they are bred in such a manner.
To prevent the loss of genetic variation that helps produce healthier offspring with less exaggerated traits, the authors argue that breeders need to use many animals for breeding rather than just a few and focus more on health instead of aesthetics. Introducing genetic diversity helps prevent inherited diseases that are seen in purebred dogs. Village dogs are an example of this, where the puppies that survive have adapted well to village life and thrive within their environment and culture. However, from an animal advocacy standpoint, the ethical qualms with breeding new companion animals while millions go unadopted at shelters brings the larger practice of breeding into question.
We gain a better understanding of how to meet the needs of our canine companions when comparing them to free-roaming village dogs, who represent the way dogs have evolved throughout history. If we change our expectations of dogs, better recognize their social needs, and acknowledge the harms of breeding, we’ll reverse the trend of intense ‘petrification’ and improve their welfare.