Dogs in the “good old days”

When I hear my parents and grandparents talk about how they lived with their dogs, I am sometimes filled with a sense of envy and even nostalgia for a lifestyle I never experienced.

Dogs back then, in the “good old days,” seemed to live in such freedom and off-leash harmony with human society.

Source: Boston Public Library.
Source: Boston Public Library.

According to all the stories and books and records I’ve heard, the common traits of dogs, back then were that:

  • Dogs never wear leashes. Unless these dogs are living in Manhattan, leashes are rarely, if ever, used. You take walks with your leashless dog at your side. (Sigh. This one makes me especially envious. Pyrrha could be such a different dog, I think, in a leashless world.)
  • Dogs usually run free throughout the neighborhoods, sometimes in friendly packs. I recall Temple Grandin describing this in her book Animals Make Us Human. Grandin recalls seeing packs of neighborhood dogs roam around daily, and she still longs for dogs to be able to live in this way.
  • Dogs often take on larger-than-life qualities, in the form of family fables, and are often very human-like in their abilities and powers of reasoning. Maybe everyone was watching too much “Lassie” or “Rin-Tin-Tin,” but we all know stories of dogs who played tricks on their humans, saved babies from drowning, rang doorbells, and begged for food at the neighborhood butcher. My dad regaled us with dozens of stories about his childhood dogs and their antics. I can’t imagine my dogs doing any of these things, and so I wonder if it’s because we don’t give them the opportunity to act in these ways, or if these dogs have acquired these mythic qualities as the stories get told and re-told, in the form of hyperbolic legend.
  • Training seemed to be more organic, rather than formal or structured. Dogs learned how to behave in households in a natural, unstructured way and often learned a repertoire of party tricks. But I get the sense that if a dog went to obedience school, it was much more rigid and discipline oriented than we are accustomed to today.
1934 - 1956: Dog drinking from water fountain
Source: Leslie Jones.

I wonder if reactivity was far less common in those days. Perhaps without much containment, dogs had less opportunity to practice reactivity. Pyrrha interacts with dogs in a totally different way when she’s off leash. One of my happiest days with her was this past Christmas, when we took her to a big farm/park. She was on a 30-ft. drag lead, and there were tons of off-leash dogs there. She was just delighted to see everyone, and all of the dogs interacted with each other in this beautiful, peaceful, harmonious way. There wasn’t a bit of anxiety or reactivity in her that day.

The downsides of the way dogs lived in the “good old days” are, of course, also rather considerable. Dogs died fairly frequently in traffic accidents or other suburban misfortunes, merely because they were rarely contained. Dogs probably rarely went to the vet and were infrequently spayed or neutered. Thus, if you had a bitch, she likely got pregnant a few times, and then you had to figure out what to do with those puppies (pawn them off on the neighbor kids). I also don’t know of any data, but I imagine that dog bites (especially to children) were much more frequent, also because dogs were not contained or monitored. Knowledge of dog behavior and canine psychology was scant, and dog behavior was often misunderstood and grossly misinterpreted (hence the old “rub their noses in their poo” strategy of house-training, among others).

Source: Boston Public Library.
Source: Boston Public Library.

I don’t think it’s possible anymore, of course, to return to this way of dog-rearing in urban or suburban America. We have leash laws, vaccination requirements, and the encouragement to spay and neuter for good reasons.

This is why I disliked Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book so much. I felt like she was forcing her dogs into a “wild” lifestyle, which was not coherent with the fact that she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The scenes of her following her off-leash husky weaving through Cambridge traffic and watching her spaniel get “raped” (her term) by a wayward dog were just awful to me. As much as I may love and yearn for the off-leash lifestyle, that is not a life I want for my dogs. I know it’s not possible (or even legal) in my town, and so the girls wear leashes and we have a sturdy fence.

Some rural dogs may still experience this “good old dog days” lifestyle, and I love that for them. For example, our former foster Laszlo has an idyllic existence; he goes to work every day with his human at a winery in the foothills and lives his whole life off-leash, running around the giant, gorgeous property.

So, here’s my question. Do you think we can incorporate the good aspects of the old way of dog-rearing into modern society? For most of us, our dogs can’t go out without leashes or travel with you by running behind your truck. But is there a way that we can reduce reactivity and promote freer, more harmonious interactions with our dogs and our communities? Is that even possible with modern legislation?

Source: Leslie Jones.
Source: Leslie Jones.

I don’t know. But it’s something I like to think about. I think about that day for Pyrrha at Fisher Farms, which might have been her happiest day ever, and I long to capture some part of that in our everyday life.

Curious to hear your thoughts!

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9 thoughts on “Dogs in the “good old days”

  1. My grandfathers dog lived this life, I’m not even sure she had a collar. In my memories, she would go do dog stuff then reappear when called. There was a simplicity and balance that I think I now only see when I visit friends who have farms. I’m sure the intro of leashes, and laws play a role in our new era of dog ownership, but with so many more people around, and faster cars and crazy drivers/roadways… I just want them safe!

  2. Love this!
    I think with dogs given the opportunity to be… well, dogs, in the ‘good ol’ days’, there were probably fewer behaviour concerns. They were able to be outside, socialized, exercised, and there were few pesky leashes and over-protective owners in the mix to cause issues.
    But our expectations of dogs changed. They moved into the house full time even in rural places (rather than living on a porch or in a doghouse in the back yard), cities got denser, populations exploded, and with that we expected different behaviours and they have had to adjust different routines.
    I definitely think there are some great things about the good ol’ days like you mention – people less-up tight about dogs, more okay with off-leash behaviour. But the oopsie litters and traffic and poor diets of the time I think we’re probably better off.
    Canada sees most, by a large margin, serious dog bites/attacks from loose-roaming populations of dogs in rural areas, so the risk is legitimate.
    But I think the things we could learn are to be more relaxed about animals in society, let them be dogs – not furry humans, and have realistic expectations about their behaviours.

  3. Yeah, I’m not so sure about this. If there weren’t problems with the way dogs lived in our world, why would leash laws have come to fruition? If there weren’t outbreaks in diseases – parvovirus, distemper, rabies – why would we have instituted vaccination protocols at all (not speaking of the frequency here)? I think that the change in our lifestyle played a huge role in why things changed for dogs; they became “family” rather than “employees,” if you will; the emotional affects of losing our partners way too early due to disease influenced the dawn of vaccination, as it did in humans.

    More recently, I’ve been upset about the opposite effect in modern times – people living in the dark ages: annual vaccination protocols, grain-based diets, that show dogs (conformation) are the epitome of what your pet should look like, etc, etc.

  4. I grew up on a farm with dogs raised the way you’re talking about, and so did my dad. I think you’re wrong about the incidence of dog bites, because you’ve forgotten that people were raised differently, too. Common sense was common and people were taught that if you put your face in a dog’s mouth, or pull it’s tail, you’re going to be bitten and it’s entirely your fault if you do. As far as reactivity goes, the honest truth was that those dogs would be taken out behind the barn and shot. A dog that can’t handle the world wasn’t coddled the way it would be now. I know that sounds harsh, but it is also a lot about how it was. When I was a very little girl, two or three, we had a Dalmatian that would knock me down every day and hurt me. My dad shot it and buried it and that was the end of the story. It was a different time in a lot of ways.

  5. Interesting post! I think about these differences sometimes too. My parents have a house in the mountains in a neighborhood that has that great old school vibe. Dogs are always walked off leash and it is not uncommon to see some dogs wander on their own, stopping by to say hello and going on their way. The dogs all get along and are super relaxed and friendly. But part of what makes it work is that it’s a rural neighborhood and cars move very slowly.

    You’re right that there were downsides in the past as well. Even my parents generation still believe you teach dogs not to jump by kneeing them and not to go in the house by rubbing their noses is it and hitting them.

    It’s probably our all or nothing way of life that has hurt us in dog behavior. If dogs are allowed to roam and interact naturally, they will most likely be fine. If most of their interactions are restrained by leashes or forced in small dog parks, they will likely have issues. If dogs are given the option to follow you around or stay put, they will most likely follow you. But with leash laws and fast cars, most of us don’t have the option to find out if our dog would do it or risk even training the dog to do it.

  6. There is a compromise and that would be to make our country more dog friendly in general. Everything I’ve observed and heard from people living in Europe is that dogs with the freedom to travel more places with their humans become more relaxed from the excellent socialization.

    If dogs were exposed to other dogs and other settings more regularly, I think we’d have far less leash reactivity than we do.

    However, I have little hope of that happening. In my town, dogs aren’t allowed in the outdoor pedestrian mall or several of the not-particularly-well-groomed parks. Argggh!

  7. My mother, a child of the 50’s, has told me that no one made a big deal out of dog bites then. If a child was bitten, the mindset regarding the situations was “what did the child do to make the dog bite them?”

    Part of me wonders if the increase in dog reactivity has to do with overbreeding and poor breeding, and perhaps vaccinations. I am not anti vaccine, but it does make me wonder.

  8. The dogs in my parents’ rural “town” all roam off leash, and I can tell you emphatically that it is *not* the good old days. It’s a brutal hierarchy, and heaven help any dog that isn’t physically large enough to hold its own. My nephew’s dachshund/chihuahua mix was almost killed by other dogs roaming the neighborhood, and the neighbor’s terrier met a spectacularly violent end. I’ve never known a free-roaming dog to die from old age or age-related illness. So I’m always a little skeptical of people who imagine how wonderful it would be if all dogs were let off leash.

    The dogs in James Herriot books are my only other reference, and they seem to be a mix of leashed and off-leashed.

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