Greater academic acknowledgement of sentience in animals is shamefully recent, and a wider understanding and recognition of their lot is still a long way off. As we improve our efforts to know other species better, we will recognise that they too have real awareness and sensory responses to positive and negative events in life, in many ways similar to our own. In fact, in some areas they have much heightened senses compared to ours. In spite of the overwhelming anthropomorphism that marks our thought, it can at last be said that emotional attributes and needs are no longer considered the exclusive preserve of humans.
If we are to call ourselves humane, we have a moral obligation to ensure that the basic needs of the animals taken into our care are met, and that they do not suffer from neglect, loneliness or abuse. Taking in a dog, whether rescued or bought, really does demand more than supplying something to eat and drink. As a behaviourist, I am often made painfully aware of the mistaken belief of many that a dog should automatically be programmed to diligently serve the double role of alarm system and protector and to know what is expected, together with all the rules of the house, simply by the supply of food and water. If we try to see this situation from the dog’s perspective, which would be so similar to our own in such a position, we will quickly realise that the animal is suddenly and uneasily confronted by the strange and probably frightening domain of unknown people and cannot possibly know how to feel or what his position is.
This is where patient and informed teaching and learning go hand in hand. The first acknowledgement should morally be that an animal not be considered a slave but part of a family. Make friends with your dog. Make him or her feel at home and secure. It should go without saying that a dog needs a complete and healthy diet, water, and a safe, warm and sheltered place to sleep. Other obvious needs will be inoculation and parasite control and the care of a vet as necessary. Health insurance should also be considered for the dog.
Being a gregarious animal, your dog will probably be happiest with the added company of another, most especially if left without human company for many hours during the days. In order to understand the dog’s predicament in such confinement, we need only imagine ourselves alone all day with nothing to do. It is a bad human failing, in spite of our much-vaunted brains, to fail dismally to understand and accommodate another’s perspective. As an exercise, try to imagine yourself as the dog. Left alone with no companion, no means of occupying your time, you might resort to barking all day, chasing the cat, digging holes, trying to jump the wall, chewing up the hose pipe, all as a consequence of the suppression of your natural need of mental and physical activity.
Give your dog love and attention. Read about dogs and try training with non-aversive, modern methods. Consider the advice of a reputable trainer. It should be fun to play with your dog, but there also happens to be good evidence indicating its therapeutic value to both of you. Two compatible dogs left alone will naturally be able to play together and share each other’s company. Take your dog or dogs for walks. This will benefit you too. Be patient while your dog sniffs the various messages along the way. Playing an enthusiastic game of tug (not too violently), throwing a soft ball (keep it low) and other shared activities will all be bonding. Groom your dog, talk to your dog, teach tricks, cuddle her, invent amusing games. Whether or not you wanted a watchdog, in the ways mentioned you will have earned your dog’s respect and love, and protection will come quite naturally.