Dogs of Homeless People vs. Trained Pet Dogs

Working as a vet I came across many hyperactive, ill-mannered dogs. They would drag their owners into the waiting room, jump up at the reception desk then terrify innocent cats in baskets. On entering the consult room they would ignore their owner’s screams of commands, bounce off all four walls and cock their leg on the examination table. It often proved impossible to conduct a full examination of the dog because they simply didn’t calm down enough in the allotted 10 minute slot. Owners would exclaim, “But they’re so well behaved at dog training!” In my first few years after qualification this surprised me, how could a dog that is so well trained ignore their owners on visits to the vets but perform a perfect ‘heel’ in the training hall?

Consider a different situation which is unfortunately all too frequent a sight in the city centres of the UK. That is the presence of homeless people on the streets. This is a sad and complicated situation with no simple solutions. Frequently the homeless have dogs for companions. Now I don’t know what your experiences are but mine is that their dogs are calm, content, and well behaved. All thisself-control amid all the hustle and bustle and potential distractions of a busy city centre? I don’t know for certain but I think it unlikely that many of these dogs have ever seen the inside of a training hall. Why is it that these dogs are so well behaved compared to some of our so called trained pampered pets?

This is a difficult problem to resolve when most dogs seem to enjoy the freedom to actively explore their environments. This pursuit of pleasure can bring dogs into conflict with human sensibilities. Why does the allegedly well trained pampered pet have bad manners in a veterinary clinic but the canine companion of a homeless person behave perfectly in the presence of extreme distraction?

The poor behaviour of the unruly pet has a simple answer. The dogs associated their training with the hall and did not transfer it to the real world. This was an exercise that they linked to a particular location and no where else. To overcome this issue the training has to be generalised, not just associated with one situation. Generalising training is important to ensure that the learnt behaviour can be reliably reproduced for longer durations in different environments with stronger distractions. This takes considerable commitment from owners and can take a long time.

The homeless person’s companion may not have received any structured training but it has probably had extensive social interaction with its carer. The dog and the person are probably together almost all the time at ground level; they possibly share food and sleeping arrangements. The dog and the person have an intimate relationship and bond to each other which is the result of their shared experiences. There is a friendship which is natural because the dog and person are almost equals and are confident in each other’s intent. The pair possibly walk long distances so there is no need for exercise for exercise sake. This seems similar to the situation that village dogs find themselves in within tribal societies. It is very natural and has probably not changed for 20,000 years.

So what can we learn from this?

  • Training is not the be all and end all
  • If you train your dog, generalise the training
  • Training must benefit your dog’s quality of life
  • Spend time getting to know your dog
  • Get down on the floor and cuddle your dog
  • Petting and play closes social distance which promotes mutual trust
  • Enjoy natural, spontaneous play with your dog, you’ll both enjoy it!

Next time you see a homeless person with a dog on the street why not give them something for their canine companion? A reflective collar, a bed to prevent the chill of the pavement, a dog coat or some dog food.

If we impose restraint on our pet dog’s behaviour, through training or other means, even if it is for its own benefit or safety, we have an obligation to give the dog something in return otherwise the dog could have a monotonous existence. Training should bring additional freedom to explore and play. Dogs of homeless people may have what appears is a monotonous existence but they have true companionship. There are no right or wrongs here, the situations are just different but dogs can enjoy a good quality of life in either.

David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®

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