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!