Treating Our Dogs With Dignity


“Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.”
~ Laura Hillenbrand

The other day I was hiking with my dogs Bhakti and Bodhi, when we came upon a mountain biker riding toward us.  I called the Dogs off the trail and had them sit while I waited for the biker to pass.  He stopped and exclaimed, “What good dogs!”, and then he rode off.  I was struck by the idea that to many of us, when it comes to Dogs, “good” has become synonymous with “obedient”.  

Every day, social media is filled with photos and videos of Dogs being obedient, but I often wonder, who is this for?  Is it for the Dog’s benefit or the Human’s?  The answer seems obvious – it’s for the Human.  We love to show off to the world how much control we have over our Dogs.  We feel proud of ourselves when we can make our Dogs “sit”, “give paw” and “roll-over”.    We use our Dogs to boost our egos.  We are filled with what psychologists and sociologists refer to as “B.I.R.G.” – Basking In Reflective Glory. 

“Roll-over” is the perfect symbol for what we are actually doing to them.  We are making them subservient and submissive. yet we call them our “Best Friends”.  If a person treated me that way I certainly wouldn’t consider them a friend at all.  

Organizations that make millions of dollars from the promotion of genetic manipulation and production of Dogs, such as the American Kennel Club, have contests that showcase how much Humans can make Dogs conform. An example is the AKC Good Citizen Award. I wonder if Rosa Parks or Ghandi had been these “good citizens” what our world would be like today?

 Entire industries and professions exist for the sole purpose of canine conformity. I’ve witnessed this for 30 years as a former professional dog trainer and an animal behaviorist.  The tools and techniques, especially the Skinnerian behavior modification “brainwashing” methods, are all designed to achieve blind obedience, like something out of a George Orwell novel.  Again, I ask the question: For who’s benefit?  

There are many who will rationalize that it’s “good for the dogs – it keeps them safe.”  I used that line myself for many years.  However, turning your dog into a mindless subservient robot is a steep price to pay for this safety, especially when there are more respectful and effective ways to help our Dogs live happy, productive and self-determined lives. 

Instead of teaching them to conform, our goals with our Dogs should be to empower them.  That’s what friends do.  We need to be respectful and not coercive.  We must strive to be friends and not owners.  Rather than ask our Dogs to be obedient, we should work together in cooperation and collaboration.  To help them to be “safe” we should share our wisdom with them and build a friendship based on trust and respect.  As the educators Jean Piaget and John Dewey suggested, learning is best when it is the sharing of ideas.   Our focus should be on creating well-being, not performance.  This is treating our dogs with the dignity they deserve. 

Donna Hicks, Ph.D., an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, speaks of the “Essential Elements of Dignity”, and when they are violated they can destroy relationships.   These elements should be applied to our Dogs every day.  The following are her10 Essential Elements of Dignity.  Although Dr. Hicks is referring to Human to Human dignity, we can include Dogs (and every non-human) in these ideas:

  1. Acceptance of Identity: First thing you need to do when you want to honor peoples’ dignity is to accept that they are neither inferior nor superior to you. By virtue of being a human being, we all have the same inherent worth and value and the same human vulnerability. Everyone should feel free to express their authentic self without fear of being judged negatively. When you have an interaction with others, start with the orientation that no matter who they are, or what their race, religion, gender, class, or sexual orientation, it is your obligation to humanity to accept them as your spiritual equals and to do them no harm.
  2. Acknowledgment: People like to feel that they matter. Acknowledgment can be as simple as smiling at others when they walk by to formally recognizing them for something they have done for which they deserve credit. It is especially important to acknowledge the impact of your actions on others when you violate their dignity, instead of trying to save face by diminishing or ignoring the harm you have caused.
  3. Inclusion: No one likes to feel left out or that they don’t belong. When we are included, we feel good about who we are. When we are excluded from things that matter to us, we feel an instant reaction of self-doubt. What is it about me that I wasn’t included? This is an affront to our dignity at all levels of human interaction, from the political, when minority groups feel left out of the political process by the majority, to the interpersonal, when we’re not included in the decision-making that directly affects us.
  4. Safety: There are two kinds of safety that are important to dignity: physical and psychological. Physical threats need no explanation but psychological threats are more complicated. Honoring others’ psychological safety means not shaming, humiliating, diminishing, or hurtfully criticizing them, especially, but not limited to, violations that are public.
  5. Fairness: We all have a particularly strong knee-jerk reaction to being treated unfairly. If we want to honor the dignity of others, we need to ensure that we are honoring agreed upon laws and rules of fairness—both implicit and explicit—when we interact with them.
  6. Freedom: A major dignity violation occurs when we restrict people and try to control their lives. Honoring this element of dignity requires that people feel free from domination and that they are able to experience hope and a future that is filled with a sense of possibility.
  7. Understanding: There is nothing more frustrating than to feel misunderstood, especially when you are in conflict with others. Extending dignity means that you give others the chance to explain themselves, actively listening to them for the sole purpose of understanding their perspective.
  8. Benefit of the Doubt: Treating people as though they were trustworthy—giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are acting with good intention—is honoring their dignity. This is, paradoxically, especially important when people are in conflict with one another where the cycle of mistrust is difficult to break. Treating others as though they were trustworthy, as difficult as it is, often interrupts the negative expectations, creating opportunities for a change in the relationship.
  9. Responsiveness: We all want to be seen and heard. Treating people as if they were invisible or ignoring them by not responding to their concerns is a violation of their dignity.
  10. Righting the Wrong: When we violate someone’s dignity, it is important to take responsibility and apologize for the hurt we have caused. It is a way for us to regain our own dignity as well as acknowledging the wrongdoing to the person you violated.

Donna Hicks
Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Harvard University
January 30, 2009

When we treat our Dogs with dignity, and view them as someone rather than something, not only will our friendship grow beyond our expectations, we will grow as individuals as well.  Then, and only then, will we be able to truly say we have “good Dogs”.

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Author: Path of Friendship™

Corey Cohen is an animal behaviorist, mindfulness and emotional intelligence instructor with over 33 years of helping people connect to their dogs on a deeper level. His unique Mindfulness-Based Animal Behavior Therapy™ and his Path of Friendship™ programs are inspiring alternatives to standard dog training. His mindfulness seminars for individuals, universities, wellness centers, and top corporations has helped reduce stress and anxiety and given people a fresh perspective on life. He is the owner of A New Leash on Life Animal Behavior Services in Northeastern PA and Northern NJ. He’s also the owner of Awakenings Meditation in Northeastern PA.

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