Whole Dog Journal's Blog March 22, 2016

How Much Risk Should We Expose Our Dogs To?

Posted at 08:25AM - Comments: (12)

A colleague sent me this link to a video of famed BASE jumper Dean Potter flying off a cliff wearing a “wingsuit” with his dog, Whisper.


I had seen the video before. In fact, when I first saw it, I was tempted to write a blog post about it – but I got caught up in something else and forgot about it. At least, until the news broke that Potter and one of his best friends – but not his dog – had died in the middle of a similar wingsuit jump. Authorities aren’t certain exactly what happened, but some sort of miscalculation or errant current of air blew the adventurers into unforgiving rock. My colleague was unaware that the guy in the video had died, but when I sent her a link with a news story about his death, she was sort of horrified. “How could he risk his dog’s life like that?”

I was horrified, too – because I’m aware that the sport has a high fatality rate, a fact that no dog could ever be aware of. It begs the question: If the dog understood the concept of death, and what a risk they were taking, would she choose to go with her owner, whom she clearly adores?

Maybe. Just maybe.

As just two examples: There are bomb-sniffing dogs who accompany members of the military, and who have witnessed the horrible sight of people (and perhaps their canine compatriots) blown up before, who still choose to go out each day with their handlers. There are police dogs who have been shot by bad guys and have returned to duty with just as much vigor and enthusiasm as before.

One could argue that we risk our dogs’ lives every time we put them into a car (seat belt or no seat belt), or put them in the cargo hold of a plane, or even just walk them on leash on our city streets! (I’ll never forget this story, or get it out of my head . . . it makes me run across streets rather than walking when I’m with my dog, always.

Is it different, risking a dog’s life for mundane activities, than in the pursuit of something unique and dangerous? Is it more noble to risk a dog’s life when he’s a partner in the service of an activity that may save other human lives?

I guess we all have to decide for ourselves. What do you think?

Comments (12)

When imfirstbsaw this video I looked at the dog's face and what body language I could see. He didn't look happy. That's enough for me.

Posted by: Jean | March 24, 2016 8:16 PM    Report this comment

Yes, exactly. Mary's post is right on:

"I'm increasingly of the opinion that we need to get out of other people's business. There are a lot of ways to look at this, and I'm not sure that one is more valid than the other. If we want to continue to be able to take care of our dogs as we sit fit, we need to allow other people to do the same, too.

Posted by: septembermary | March 23, 2016 9:00 AM"

Posted by: Christine4444 | March 24, 2016 12:29 PM    Report this comment

I may be opening a whole other can of worms here... I've been in practice as an animal communicator and metaphysical practitioner for animals for some 30 years. In that time, I can tell you I have had cases where animals have voiced their opinions about inclusion in all kinds of activities and a wish to not be included more often than you would think. In my professional experience, they do not always wish to do the things we think/assume they do. There is that absurd idea and belief of dominion amongst the majority of humans that does hugely impact this. There is also another piece and it's a fairly big one. When we, as humans, deal with horrific incidents (cadaver dogs, bomb sniffing dogs, etc.) we have a support network a place to go to work through our trauma or our experiences of witnessing trauma and disaster. Where do our companion animals go? In my experience, they do not "shake it off" the way animals in the wild do (they have been our companions far too long for that instinct to be thoroughly viable at its deepest levels any longer) even though they do exhibit the behavior instinctually. In my practice, I see so many animals (and this includes therapy animals-horses have an extremely difficult time-hospice animals, even animals who help other animals) who have behavioral, emotional and even health issues because they have been offered up as service animals without the tools and support to deal with the impact. I see it, too, with activities that we think are so cute or fun for our companion family members or our wanting them to have certain experiences because we enjoy them so much, but they don't (I have clients who travel with animals who would just rather be home with a pet sitter and vice versa). We assume if we like it or want to do it, they will (I see this so much more than I did in the early days of my practice and I question its rise on the rise of narcism in our culture and people's animal's just being an extension of their own egos). In terms of therapy and service animals of all kinds, just as there are people who excel and instinctively know how to manage these kinds of stresses, there are animals who do also, but not every animal that is placed into service by humans who assess their temperament as being "right", do. All that said, I have also seen some dogs ask to be included in some activities with their humans we would all shake our heads at or get a good chuckle from. Bottom line, we, as their guardians, must do everything in our power, using all options available to ascertain is this really what our animal companion wants? Is it safe or good for them? And, if they want it in spite of the risks, drawbacks, emotional baggage it could create, etc. then how do we best support them fully in this activity (that includes preparation before and support following, too).

Posted by: Rachel/Shaman4Animals | March 23, 2016 4:02 PM    Report this comment

When he lands this dog showed two classic signs of stress, he licks his lips and does a stress shake off, so I don't know how much this dog liked flying through the air. I think the question of whether this is appropriate or not raises some interesting questions about our relationship with our animals and how we view them. How great it would be if dogs could talk? Would he say "wheeee" or "holy crap put me down?"

Posted by: barnbutt | March 23, 2016 2:14 PM    Report this comment

In many ways, this is a beautiful, moving video. But watching it, I also recognized that we have been presented with a much larger and somewhat disturbing spiritual landscape, one which should elicit a deeper questioning of our values and archaic belief systems. Although the human in this video may express the euphoria and bliss of an ecstatic experience, it is difficult (for me, at least) to ascertain exactly what the dog is feeling. It's no secret that, as "man's best friend," canines are, by their very nature, loyal creatures. They follow their masters down streets, up mountains, on surfboards and into battlefields and may, if the sad opportunity presents itself, lie, in apparent grief, by the grave of their master. Knowing this, it seems important to remember that just because a dog is by his/her master's side, following loyally and unquestioningly along on whatever activity this master deems fit, does not necessarily mean that the dog is "enjoying" the experience. As I reflected upon this, I concluded that, perhaps, at the heart of all issues surrounding animal cruelty and abuse is the deep-rooted religious belief that, as humans, we possess a God-given dominion over all creatures. I personally do not agree with this. In my humble opinion, it is only when dogs can tell us -- in a mutally shared language -- what they are feeling, whether it be fear or joy, that we can truly know if they are choosing to go willingly along as we jump off cliffs into the unknown or are blindly trusting us to protect them from harm. Every day, canines are sent by their "masters" into burning buildings, minefields and gun battles. Canines are sent into these situations for two reasons. One: No sane human would willingly go there. And, two (and perhaps most importantly): Because we see their lives as far less valuable than our own. In short, we take advantage of a dog's loyal nature to accomplish our own agenda, whether we deem it dangerous or "fun." As witnessed in the video, there are humans whose personal psychology is fueled by risk and danger. But it is doubtful that any of us can state, with any scientific certainty, that canines possess this same psychology. Perhaps the ultimate litmus test for assessing whether or not an individual is treating a dog abusively rests on some very simple questions: Would an infant, unable to speak and totally dependent upon us for protection, be placed by a loving guardian in the same situation? And if a guardian did such a thing, would they be legally charged as negligent and abusive? The answers to both seem obvious to me.

Posted by: Fgiancana | March 23, 2016 10:56 AM    Report this comment

I would never do something like this with my dog, but then I would never do something like this at all. Ever. If you're the kind of person who's going to do this kind of thing, I don't see why you wouldn't also be the kind of person who'd bring your dog along.

Posted by: VirginiaS | March 23, 2016 10:24 AM    Report this comment

I'm increasingly of the opinion that we need to get out of other people's business. There are a lot of ways to look at this, and I'm not sure that one is more valid than the other. If we want to continue to be able to take care of our dogs as we sit fit, we need to allow other people to do the same, too.

Posted by: septembermary | March 23, 2016 9:00 AM    Report this comment

When I first saw the video, I thought, "How FUN!" Then I read some of the comments condemning the man, saying, "How could you risk your dog's life like that?" Bottom line: A dog loves nothing more than being with his/her human...no matter WHAT you're doing. The man obviously took precautions by putting goggles on his pup. And he was very well strapped in. Soooo...my final conclusion: If they had died, at least they would have died TOGETHER...doing something they both LOVED. Yes, I'm SURE the pup loved base jumping with his person. And, odds being what they are, if the guy died during that jump, the pup probably would have survived. Unfortunately, the guy died on a separate jump. And I'm sure his pup misses him TERRIBLY. :'-( RIP Dean Potter. I hope you and your best friend get to jump again some day...at the Rainbow Bridge.

Posted by: growlady | March 23, 2016 5:29 AM    Report this comment

Life is not meant to be lived avoiding any and all danger. To learn and to grow one must take chances and move out beyond your comfort zone. If your have a best friend, they probably want to share your adventure. If your dog is your best friend, well---- there you are. If you want to stay safe and don't take any risk, stay out of the bathroom at home. More people die every year of injuries in the bathroom at home than of anything else in the world. Live life to the fullest, don't waste it.

Posted by: Pennyannie2 | March 22, 2016 7:41 PM    Report this comment

As a dog guardian, I've made a promise to take care of my dog's well-being. If I've chosen to be reckless with my life, it's on me. I would never risk my dog's life just because I think it's macho fun to include him in a video. Sure, your dog might want to go everywhere with you, even into the bathroom; but only you know the dangers of certain activities and your dog does not. Insisting on strapping your dog into a wingsuit borders on abuse and your dog should be protected from you. Would you put your toddler into this video?

Posted by: Czerny | March 22, 2016 1:36 PM    Report this comment

I've never believed I've 'owned' my pets, just as I've never 'owned' my children. I chose to have pets (and children!) and so they are my responsibility. I do enjoy having fun with them but it's irresponsible to put them in any position where they might injure themselves. We have to protect them from themselves (safe fences, safe equipment etc) and definitely have to protect them from our own risky behavior.

Posted by: Judith999 | March 22, 2016 12:11 PM    Report this comment

I understand why you might want to run across the street after reading the terrible story you cite. But, I ran across a street and tripped and fell flat in the middle of the road. Was not hurt but, I don't run across streets any more. I really look carefully at cars approaching and wait for them to stop or pass having seen a car go right through a red light inches in front of me.
Be safe.

Posted by: carol323 | March 22, 2016 11:45 AM    Report this comment

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