Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Master?

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, things were quite different for dogs. Not necessarily better but definitely different. Generally speaking however, I think the dog had more things going for them than against. It is my belief that if one were to compare the family dog of yesteryear to the “fur-kid” of today's “pet-parent,” yesteryear's dog comes out on top because he was happier whilst enjoying a more balanced and fulfilled life.

As I recall the community in which I grew up, there certainly were plenty of dogs; some were pure-bred, far more were of unknown parentage. In that community every child knew all the dogs living there and at some point would have played with most of them. All the dogs were loved and lived in family homes – though many of them could be found at times just about anywhere in the neighbourhood. A few were tied up but most were not. Very few people had an actual fence and those who did only put up the small decorative picket variety around a garden.

Dog food (if owners chose to feed what has become today's standard fare) was supplemented liberally with furnishings from the family table, and dogs were generally quite healthy. Trips to the vet were few and far between – usually for a very sick animal. One seldom saw a fat dog, as most were active and well exercised. Formal dog-training (“puppy training”, “basic,” “advanced classes” etc) was pretty much an unknown...however almost all the dogs could be described as mannerly. Also worthy of note, as I recall almost every dog had either a master or mistress.

While still around today, the term master (or mistress) is rarely used in relation to dogs any longer. Instead a number of substitute terms have been adopted to describe the relationship one has with their dog(s). In thinking about this, I wonder what (if anything) the significance of this fact is. How might this fact be reflected in the dog-owner relationships of today?

It is noteworthy that there is even a certain level of discomfort associated with use of the word when referring to oneself in relation to one’s dog. Indeed, some of the words used instead have been employed to try to fill the void left as the terms “master” or “mistress” seemingly fell out of favour. At first the terms used were words such as, “Alpha,” “leader,” “pack-leader,” “boss” or simply “responsible dog owner.” More recently even those terms have come under fire by some (who question the essential nature of the dog-owner relationship) to be replaced by very politically correct words such as, “guardian,” “pet-parent” and “fur-child.”

Corresponding to this trend, we note the changing of other terms as well. The term for giving direction to the dog used to be “command” which has been gradually abandoned and replaced by, “cue.” What was once referred to as, “praise and corrections” has been largely replaced by “rewards and punishments.” Note that “cue” is a much softer, less demanding term than “command” while “rewards” is seen as a more appealing term than “praise.” On the other hand, “punishments” which has a decidedly more negative connotation than “corrections” has been selected. Even the term “obedience,” (when used) has been moved away from the literal meaning it once held toward a more generic meaning and, when possible, has often been replaced by terms such as “trained” or “conditioned.”

When terms are changed, the language selected is often used to help influence attitudes and actions. I believe this is the underlying motivation for changing so many terms that had been used by the dog owning, showing and training world for so many years. Indeed, the whole “politically correct” movement, that has become so entrenched in our culture, was instituted as part of a larger social engineering effort. I have come to the conclusion that unfortunately, dog ownership has not escaped the same motivation.

So why get rid of the master and mistress? What idea or principle did these terms help anchor that some within the progressive movement might want to break loose and change? Both words have a number of different meanings but the two I’m primarily interested in have to do with: 1) owning or keeping animals and 2) holding or taking a position of authority, control or ownership.

Among the stated goals of the Animal Rights movement is the intention to severely restrict and/or eliminate the ownership and keeping of animals. Attacks to further their cause come in many different forms – some extreme and some far more subtle. So in addition to pushes to eliminate meat-eating and the wearing of fur we see efforts to have “owners” replaced by “guardians” and pets referred to as “fur-people.” As part of their agenda, the idea of owning or keeping animals can be more successfully attacked if they can effectively get rid of concepts such as “master” or “mistress.”

As this progressive ideology has gained hold, the focus has been expanded to include training, controlling or working with the animals within our (guardian) care. It has long been demonstrated that well-trained dogs are very easy to live with, can provide invaluable services to man and are a joy to own. This bond is so solid and has such strong roots in our history that it must be first weakened before it can be openly challenged. One way to do this would be to undermine the training, redefine all associated terms and persistently promote the idea of “pets as people.”

This is in fact what has been happening. Witness the growth of the so called “Positive Dog Training” movement, in which adding or removing rewards is the only accepted means of addressing behaviour. Along with this, there has been condemnation of any form of compulsion, force or correction and a strong push to restrict and/or eliminate training tools that have been demonstrated to be both effective and humane when used properly and responsibly. Working and service animals that have long held a special place in our society – having been regarded with great esteem - have more recently been repackaged to be described as enslaved and exploited. As ineffective training (what remains of “training” after effective control and correction has been removed from the process) begins to fail the dogs in our care, we see dogs without control, limits or direction getting into trouble. Once this occurs, can restrictions on dog ownership be far behind?

Master or Not - You Must be in Charge

In recent years we have seen a number of efforts made in an attempt to address what has been going wrong in the dog-owner relationship. We’ve witnessed efforts to address the lack of discipline, structure and limits which leads to so many problems. Attempts have been made to help people see the dog for the pack animal he is – and what that means in terms of his needs. Terms have been drawn upon such as “Alpha,” or “pack-leader” to try to help people understand how important it is to STOP HUMANIZING THE DOGS. Owners must begin to start treating and appreciating their dogs as the creatures they are and then, most importantly, see the need for taking charge in their dogs life.

Watching a four to five month old puppy running out of control, solely motivated by something akin to, “I want, I want, I want,” is truly disheartening. Lacking in boundaries and discipline, permissively raised puppies face a truly dismal prognosis. It is the role of the responsible owner to set those limits, provide the necessary discipline and teach the dog to behave in such a way that they will always be welcome in our homes and in society. It is time to take another look at being your dog's master – you both will be happier for doing so.


  1. So true! I agree that we can be great dog OWNERS, with happy dogs, and also keep our communities content and safe when we raise and train our dogs appropriately. The best way to do this, as you suggest, is to treat them more like dogs and less like children. They can be even more valued members of the family, in a sense, when we see them for what they are and recognize what they are not.

  2. The dog-child analogy is disturbing on many counts, not least in the manner it diminishes dogs while pretending to elevate them.

    I've alway preferred the term Master to any other, by the way, and was so happy to see your post for that reason. I still try to slip it in here or there, usually settling for Owner, but am hereby recommitting to using it more often.

    Ironically, both dogs AND children have lost a lot of freedom and independence over the past generation or two. Both are more isolated, tend to be aggressively managed more than trained, and are rarely allowed to take any responsibility.

    Must go now--my dogs are waiting for their mistress to get her boots on and take them for a walk.

  3. I grew up in a small community and have many of the same kind of memories you do. Dogs all over the town and you knew where the dog lived and it's name. The dogs had a place in our community and for the most part the dogs knew their place in it.

    As a dog psychology coach, I teach my clients to take their place as pack leader to create safer dogs, homes and neighbourhoods. My experience shows that dogs that are NOT properly commanded tend to display more aggression, more dominance over humans and far less societal manners than dogs of previous years.

    The most humane thing for humans to do, for our canine pack members, is to take our place as "top dog" and give them proper guidance to what is acceptable in our shared environment.

    Our shelters and rescue groups are filled with dogs that have not been properly guided. Many of these dogs meet a fate that is unnecessary and completely avoidable, euthanasia. If more owners saw their pets as a wonderful addition to their lives and less of a hairy extension of themselves, these dogs would still be alive. (Harsh? yes. True? absolutely)

    Understanding the nature of the beast is the most loving and respectful thing we can do for our canine companions.

  4. Great discussion of the rhetoric used in dog training and how dangerous words can be if the people that use them aren't held to account. I suppose it's been done on both sides of the argument--saying "remote training collar" instead of "shock collar," or "training collar," instead of "choke chain."

    Great post!