Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Working Like A Dog?

One of the Christmas gifts received in my dog-loving family was Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw (Basic Books, 2011). The book starts with the observation that "dogs today unwittingly find themselves on the verge of a crisis, struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of change in human society" (p. xvii). Sounds a lot like the human struggle! And similar to the human struggle, work is an important part of this story.

To continue to quote from the opening of Dog Sense, "Until just over a hundred years ago, most dogs worked for their living. Each of the breeds or types had become well suited, over thousands of years and a corresponding number of generations, to the task for which they were bred....Their agility, quick thinking, keen senses, and unparalleled ability to communicate with humans suited them to an extraordinary diversity of tasks--hunting, herding, guarding, and many others, each an important component of the economy....Then, a few dozen generations ago, everything began to change...Indeed, an ever-increasing proportion of dogs are never expected to work at all; their sole function is to be family pets."

So why is this a problem? Because the fundamental behaviors and traits of dogs cannot be instantly changed to fit (unrealistic) human expectations. So Dog Sense describes the research on dog behavior to help us better understand their needs. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys dogs, but let's get back to the connection to work. I certainly don't want to claim literal parallels between the situations that people and dogs face (e.g., people should not be bred for certain tasks!), but at a more general level I think it is interesting to think about the fundamental importance of work for people and, at least historically, for dogs.

For both people and dogs, we should ask important questions about what happens when work disappears or is hard to come by. It appears that both people and dogs need meaningful engagement as part of a healthy life, and work can be a major source of opportunity for this engagement. When we lose sight of this and instead reduce work to simply a source of money, we can look to man's best friend as a reminder that work should be structured so that it can be about more than money. We need to create high-quality jobs to provide deeper rewards, not lousy jobs with excessive burdens. Otherwise, we'll just be "working like a dog."


  1. Interesting topic! I am also a dog lover. I can feel my Welsh Corgi Zaizai often shows his unwillingness to be a pet(just follow and behave), but to be a friend of us with equal status by trying to tell us sth or invite us to join him for fun, etc. It is just like the deeper needs from workers, like you said above.
    And I am really interested in this "Dog Sense", which can help me know more about Zaizai's behaviors and his "words". But I am not sure if I can buy it on line. Have your family benefited more from this book? :)

  2. Hi Mi,
    Glad you are enjoying this. I remember your fondness for dogs. You asked whether we benefited from this book. Not directly in that the book is not a training manual. But it's very interesting, and contains important insights for how to better understand dog behavior. These understandings, in turn, can directly lead to improved dog training methods, but the book does not develop these methods. In some ways, I guess this is like my book on work--the understandings have very important implications for improving the practice of work, but my book's focus is on developing those understandings rather than the concrete steps for improved work practices.