Saturday, October 11, 2014

Is it Fair to Just Take One Dog?

I am unfair to my dogs. I frequently favor one over the other, and normally take only one on any given outing. I do this because I firmly believe that attempting to be "fair" to my dogs would be far worse for all of us.
Photo by Erin Koski

What does it mean to be "fair"? I meet a lot of families with multiple dogs who truly believe it would be unfair to ever do anything with just one of their pets. If both dogs can't go to the park or visit the pet store, nobody goes. Taking just one dog for a walk would be unforgivable. The fact that the excluded dog throws a fit is seen as confirmation that the dogs hate to be treated unfairly.

It's bad enough when "fairness" results in two unrelated dogs doing absolutely everything together. It's even worse when they came from the same litter and have been together since birth. The term "littermate syndrome" describes dogs from the same litter raised in the same family, who become dependent upon each other to the point that they cannot function as individuals. Many people confuse this for a close bond rather than an unhealthy codependence. Littermate syndrome dogs tend to lack confidence, sometimes neither can function as an individual, and sometimes one of the pair becomes the confident leader while the other fails to develop their own ability to cope.

Ru and I took an obedience class with a chihuahua and a sheltie who's owners tried to be "fair" by always doing activities with both dogs. The two dogs were so insecure that they were visibly stressed at having another dog in between them during obedience exercises. At work I often see "bonded" dogs where the less confident half of the pair had other anxiety-related behavioral problems. When separated, the less confident dog tends to spend a few days getting their bearings, and then begins to finally develop some confidence all their own.

Addressing behavior problems can be nearly impossible with dogs that cannot handle being separated. Positive training is most effective when the handler has excellent timing and can pay close attention to their dog. This just can't happen with two, I've tried it. When one dog is doing something I'd like to mark and reward, the other may be doing the opposite. I walk my dogs separately so I can teach them each the behaviors I would like them to know, and only include them on group walks when I know their manners are firmly entrenched. I cannot effectively teach a dog to walk on a loose leash, pass other dogs without having a meltdown, and pay attention to me when I am attempting to wrangle a second, equally unruly dog. Of course, a dog that behaves itself reliably can be a great asset for teaching manners to a newcomer. I just don't have any well-behaved dogs.

Dogs in multi-dog households also deserve to have individual playtime at least occasionally. I feel terrible for dogs that absolutely love to play fetch, but never get to enjoy it because their sibling always steals the ball, chases and bites them, or otherwise makes the whole game less fun. Brisbane will stop chasing the ball if another dog goes for it. Ru and Ulysses can't handle competition and are willing to fight for the ball.

So I am wildly unfair to my dogs. I normally only take one with me to the pet store. Only Brisbane and Ru are allowed to go to the off-leash dog beach because Ulysses gets overstimulated and bites other dogs. Ulysses gets to go on long hikes and training walks around the neighborhood. Ru gets to go on out of town trips and into stores because he fits in a purse. Brisbane and I just spent an entire weekend at a dog festival while Ru and Uly stayed home because they wouldn't have enjoyed it. They are each wonderfully unique dogs, and I owe it to them to treat them as individuals rather than parts of an indivisible unit. I think they prefer unfairness.

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