Dog “Ownership” A Basic Human Right Or Privilege?

(Updated 2020)

I was speaking with a Los Angeles dog training friend of mine and we got to talking about traditional and balanced dog “trainers” with regards to corrections (typically used as a euphemism for leash popping, force, and punishment-based dog training) in the plethora of dog sports and hobbies that are common within the dog training world.  The conversation quickly escalated to how many people, breeders, trainers, and hobbyists feel the need or entitlement to abuse their dogs in “certain/selective” situations (often in the ring, or proofing and finishing stages of dog training) to achieve their agenda.  But it’s a person’s goals, plans, expectations and agenda, not the dogs.  I can assure you that force, fear, and punishment aren’t in your dog’s best interest and puts all aspects of a dog’s health at risk.

We should first discuss terminology. I try not to use the word “ownership” when it comes to sentient beings as the word “owner” refers to inanimate objects (things) and strips an animal of any and all rights in a court of law. Contrarily, we use a more realistic and legally correct word, guardian or better yet, pet parent wherever possible.

I believe that it is never O.K. to abuse a dog. When dog training, expediency should never trump the humane treatment and welfare of your dog. Many dog guardians and competitors argue for positive reinforcement and verbally defend the philosophy, yet they don’t practice what they preach when it comes to dog sports, hobbies or competitions. In theory, they do not practice using punitive techniques when in the company of clients, but when in competition a subtle (or not so subtle) line gets crossed, and it is no longer positive reinforcement by any stretch of the imagination. As I hear so often, the dog needs a little extra “incentive,” correction or force in order to obey and to achieve complete compliance. I do not agree with this supposition.

Dog Training Techniques and Compassion

Why did you get a dog? Love typically come to mind. But ask yourself, did you get a dog to subjugate it to your every whim, to win dog sports championships (for your ego), to make money breeding your dog, for companionship or for protection? Whatever the reason, I guarantee your dog doesn’t want to be afraid, forced, choked, poked, prodded, kicked, punched or electrically stimulated in order for you him/her to win a medal or any competition. Who really cares about a dog sport or dog hobby, the human or the dog? The answer is obvious but sometimes gets lost when dog trainers, breeders, and competitors feel the end justifies the means. There is no justification for fear, force or abuse. There is no excuse to abuse a dog in the name of training.

Animal rights

Nonhuman animals (hereafter referred to as animals) have rights and are sentient beings that feel joy, love, pain, depression, and profound grief just as we do. Those rights and feelings don’t disappear because a pet parent wants to win a dog competition or get their pet to do some behavior faster or better. Could you imagine if we used that rationale with people? Dogs are not here solely for our pleasure, for humans to abuse when we see fit. There is no justification or difference in abusing a dog in normal everyday life settings versus when in a competition. If your skills or your dogs are not up to the goals, expectations or plans that a person has set, it does not give a person the right to force or abuse the dog. There is no situation under any circumstance where this would be O.K. The old Yiddish proverb, “Man makes plans, and God laughs” holds true for both one’s children and pets. A parent’s grand plans for their son to be the next Michael Jordan or dog to be a top competitor are just that, one’s plans.

I am all for dog sports but within the realm of fear-free and force-free positive reinforcement dog training and not abuse. When I hear pundits tell me, you must convince people that positive reinforcement works better than abusive traditional or balanced dog “training” I believe they are missing the point and forgetting these core tenets, pets are individuals, and it is never O.K. to abuse animals regardless of the circumstances. If you are involved in competition or law enforcement and think that force-free positive reinforcement is not effective, then I would suggest that the person or their dog does not have what it takes (the drive, temperament, skill set, cognition, etc.) to be involved in those fields.

Dogs may not have voices, but they have rights. Or at least should! Human(e) decency should dictate this. Animals have the right to autonomy, live and be free. Dogs (and all animals) do not deserve and should never be abused under any circumstances. In order for ignorant, outdated, constraining thoughts beliefs and habits to be abolished we must evolve and enter into a new paradigm of compassion, respect, care and love for animals or animal abuse will continue in perpetuity.

This circuitously brings me to the core question, is dog “ownership” a right or privilege?

What is Pet “Ownership”?

For all of us that makeup Fun Paw Care this is a frustrating topic because pets (and all human animals) are treated as a brick. Expendable inanimate objects with no rights. It is obvious that being a pet parent is a privilege, and the question of “ownership” is one for lawyers and the legal domain.  Just because legally pets are inanimate objects, doesn’t mean that laws are fair, just, compassionate, healthy or correct. Being a pet parent or guardian is a privilege, not a right. While I agree about the symbiosis between pets and humans and the fact that most people benefit greatly from animals (not just companion animals) and nature as stated by the International Association of Humane-Animal Interaction Organizations (IAHAIO), it is another situation entirely to take care of an animal in a responsible, reliable, compassionate, humane and intelligent way.

The (IAHAIO) is an umbrella of national associations and related organizations interested in advancing the understanding and appreciation of human-nonhuman animal (hereafter animal) interaction. They recently devised a set of proclamations including “it is a universal, natural and basic human right to benefit from the presence of animals.” The affirmation of this general principle has left a lot of a grey area as to where the line is drawn from right versus a privilege. While I agree entirely that humans benefit greatly from interacting with animals and nature, I do not go as far as to state that it is a right of all humans to benefit from the presence of animals. The IAHAIO’s statement leads to the logical conclusion that interaction between animals is a right.

Human Rights vs. Privilege

Plodding through the landscape of rhetorical jargon and intellectual debates of what the differences are between a right and a privilege, can give you agita. Ponder these thoughts that I think we can all agree upon: a right is something all humans are born with, such as the right to breathe, live, think, drink, eat and so on. The word “right”, connotes legality and contractual law which IMHO does not fit well with living sentient beings. Rights are more in the jurisdiction of legalese jargon, whereas privilege occupies the domain of something earned and achieved. The Canine Good Citizen test (CGC,) which I am an evaluator for, encapsulates this ideology and tests the parent’s level of competence, responsibility and care as much as the pet’s ability. This is a privilege, not a right.  Not everyone will pass or earn the CGC title. It takes responsibility, dedication, discipline, work, education and drive of both the pet parent and the dog.

In addition, a privilege is something that is earned or been awarded. We may lose our privileges much easier than we can lose our rights. Privileges can be taken away for a variety of things, such as failure to honor an agreement (like the CGC) or driving drunk, failure to follow directions, taking unfair advantage of opportunities and failure to renew fees and dues. There are far fewer circumstances that cause the loss of rights than the loss of privileges. If being a pet parent is truly a privilege, what are the universal metrics for earning that privilege going to be and who will enforce them?

To elaborate further with other analogies, there is no “right” to drive, or “right” to carry a concealed weapon/handgun without the caveat that you must become sufficiently knowledgeable and tested on your skills, proper care, and usage before earning that responsibility. There is not even a “right” to get married or to procreate in some countries. In China, you were limited to the number of children you could have, and in some states, in the United States and many other countries, same-sex couples may not legally get married. Handguns and drivers licenses are both examples of the need to establish a minimum knowledge of an inanimate object before earning the privilege of using them. If used incorrectly, they both could kill you and others.

Obviously, a dog or cat is far from an inanimate object or owned, but no difference in respect to the danger that a dog poses to the general public if they or their parents are uneducated. A guardian must take on a great responsibility by being a pet parent and that responsibility and privilege should be regulated. By that standard, being a pet parent deserves a greater reason to have licensing for people to earn that privilege. Taking care of your pet, sustaining mental, emotional, and physical health and the safety of all who come into contact with your pet are all vital aspects to prove you are sufficiently knowledgeable before you can be a guardian for another’s life. I would like to jettison the idea that a pet is a right. The axiom that your pet is not an inanimate object, but another living, breathing, sentient being and life form must be honored, respected and appreciated. We can honor that life form by bestowing the basic privilege status upon being granted this great responsibility. Any abdication of that responsibility, unintelligent misuse, mismanagement or abuse, could endanger lives. I contend that there are deleterious outcomes because pet parenthood is a fundamental human right and not a privilege. Perhaps putting the cart before the horse, a more accurate and astute debate would be to first tackle the phrase and legal meaning of pet ownership before moving on to rights and privileges. We believe the answer couldn’t be any more lucid.