How Dog Ownership Has Changed

Dog ownership has changed a lot over the years from healthcare to behavior.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how different the experience of dog ownership is today than it was in my youth.

In the April issue, I wrote an article about the various flea preventatives (oral and topical, prescription and over-the-counter) that are available to dog owners. I mentioned in that article that many young pet owners have never even seen a severely flea-infested dog, whereas when I was a teenaged and then a young adult dog owner (in the late 1970s / early 1980s), pretty much all the dogs I was familiar with had at least some fleas. The preventatives that we have available to us today are so much safer and more available today than they were back then.

That article also mentioned how these parasite control treatments have made it so much more appealing to live with dogs in our homes, on our sofas, and on (or in!) our beds. My parents loved dogs and we had a lot of them when I was growing up in the 1960s and’70s, but only a couple of our dogs (an intact purebred Cocker Spaniel and an intact purebred Miniature Poodle) were largely kept in the house – and this was probably more about keeping them from getting bred by random intact male dogs (though that happened more than once). But, as a child who wanted all the dogs to sleep in my room, I recall my mom citing everything from the possibility of fleas and worms to ringworm and mange as reasons the dogs could NOT sleep with me. Today, many (if not most) family dogs sleep in the rooms or on the beds of the dog-loving kids in the family, if not the parents’ room or bed!

kid with dogs
WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns and some of the family dogs, perhaps 1972?

Obviously, spaying/neutering was highly uncommon before the 1970s. Euthanasia rates at what are now called shelters (then commonly referred to as “dog pounds”) were very high – as much as 10 times higher than they are today. We can thank nearly ubiquitous spay/neuter – and of course, much more responsible and enlightened social attitudes about managing our dogs’ reproduction – for the reduction in the euthanasia of unwanted dogs.

I love the fact that dog-friendly, positive-reinforcement-based training is so common now. It was absolutely not the norm when I was growing up. If a dog was formally trained at all, it was with yanks on a choke chain, with no exceptions.

But I’m sad about the fact that canine separation anxiety is so common today. I never heard of a dog who panicked when left alone before I was 30! I don’t know why so many dogs seem to suffer from some amount of this anxious behavior now.

Dog-dog aggression also seems more common. Though it seems insane now, 50 years ago, most suburban dogs, some urban dogs, and nearly all rural dogs were uncontained most of the time. They wandered at will and worked out their own relationships with other dogs. I remember a few dog fights between neighborhood dogs, but I don’t recall any of the participants being labeled as incorrigible or repeat offenders.

kid holding puppy
Nancy  and a puppy in 1970. Nancy’s mom bred the family’s Cocker Spaniels and Poodle for purebred puppies at least once or twice. But the females also had a number of accidental mixed-breed litters. That was normal for the time.

About that “wandering at will” – getting hit by cars was so common when I was a kid, that veterinarians used an acronym (HBC) for the cause of a dog’s injury or death. My family alone lost at least a half-dozen dogs to traffic on the rural road we lived on from when I was about 6 years old until I was about 12. Today I think, how stupid and avoidable was that? But at the time, every family we knew had lost a dog by HBC. That’s so nuts!

Healthcare for our dogs when I was growing up was strictly limited to vaccinations and treatment for injuries or illness – and the diagnostic tools and treatments that were available seem rudimentary compared to today. If a dog survived being HBC, the vet was likely to x-ray him or her. Ultrasounds, CT scans, MRIs – these are all commonly employed with great frequency today, but those tools only started to be made available to dog owners in non-university based veterinary hospitals in the past 20 years or so. Today, dogs are undergoing cataract surgery and liver transplants and treatment for every type of cancer imaginable!

This is both amazing and wonderful – and a guilt-inducing phenomenon for dog owners who can’t afford extensive treatments or high veterinary bills. “Economic euthanasia” is an evergreen problem that causes trauma and stress to owners and veterinary staff alike.

What are the most remarkable changes you’ve seen in your dog-owning lifetime?

19 COMMENTS

  1. The biggest change I have seen is dogs being treated as children – undisciplined children. Reward based training works for many things if the owner is consistent, understands the concept and has good timing. That rarely seems to be the case and the obnoxious spoiled “children” are everywhere. Some traditional training with consequences would sure be an improvement in many cases. My neighborhood once had well behaved dogs. Now most of them are incredibly obnoxious.

    • Today I saw what appeared to be a perfectly healthy dog in a stroller. He was standing up and looked like he would have preferred walking or even running around.

      More dogs being carried like babies. I don’t remember dog strollers and dog carriers being a thing. Dogs walked on their own four feet.

      And a plethora of what my childhood dogs would have considered gourmet dog treats. They only knew plain Milkbones. Now even the Milkbones come in many sizes and many flavors. There are a lot of different cookie and biscuit type treats, plus meat based like chicken jerky and dehydrated beef lung.

      My Dad spoils his dog with treats. She has only minimal training and I noticed today she is starting to do some jumping up again, even though she is almost 3 years old and should know better. She’s put on a little weight. I know he will give her an entire chicken strip at a time and he’ll do it a dozen times a day. Plus he gives her table scraps during meals. He doesn’t even make her sit for them so she has learned to beg. She has even stuck her nose in his pockets to steal them.

      • Amen to this! I have three dogs. One is an older pitty/beagle mix (about 12), a GSD/Malinois mix (about 7) and a husky ( 18 mos). When I took my husky in for his first adult exam and shots, my husband insisted that I ask the vet if Fergus was too skinny. I didn’t think Fergus was, but I asked him anyway–and my vet laughed. She said that there are soooo many overweight dogs that when people see a healthy one, they think the healthy one is underweight. She said Fergus was an ideal body type (weighs 69 pounds) and to keep up the good work.
        The “everyone is used to fat dogs so they think healthy ones are skinny” is ominously close to the human mindset, sad to say.
        Yes, our other two are chubby, although we’re working on it. They got chunky because when we got Ferg the breeder told us, “He likes adult food. If it’s different from the other dogs, he won’t eat it.” And she was right. So, we had to feed our grown dogs puppy food in order for him to get the right amount of nutrition…which caused our grown up dogs, well, mainly Angus the GSD, to get a little porky. Lilly, my senior, was slim until she pulled her ACL…she got a bit chunky due to the inactivity. But everyone is slimming down now!

  2. More dogs have separation anxiety because more people are anxious/depressed and they pick up on it. Aggression has increased because dogs don’t socialize as much. Dog parks have become a place where aggressive, unruly dogs run in packs and aren’t safe. So many owners take little responsibility. Six Great Danes tore a poodle to pieces, literally, in front of its horrified owner at our local dog park. Nothing was done to the owner of the great Danes. As always, the problem with dogs are their owners – humans are the cause of virtually all dog problems. It is a sorry situation.

    • I hesitate to go to dog parks because I worry more about the lack of vaccinations and vandalism by people more than anything..but they’re usually sectioned off by the size of the dog. Was this a standard poodle, or was someone in the wrong spot?

  3. Sadly, I know many (mostly) rual areas in southern America that are still stuck in the 1970’s dog ownership mores or normes. Pets are still just objects to own for some people.

  4. You and I must be fairly close in age (with me being the older one, having grown up in the mid-50s to early-70s). I remember pretty much the same scenarios. Our miniature poodles were part of the family; but I remember many of my and my brother’s friends’ dogs living in dog houses in their back yards. And I remember our vet suggesting euthanasia of both poodles when they became very ill because there really weren’t any reliable treatment protocols back then. I’m so glad that my own past dogs had the benefit of advances in veterinary medicine. They are all in Heaven now, but they had longer lives, I’m sure, because I was able to afford excellent care. We did lose our puppy earlier this year to a speeding hit-and-run accident when he escaped our back yard before hubby could catch him. We are still devastated by the loss, but we are getting emotional support so we’re okay.

  5. We just moved from a Colorado city to rural Kentucky Appalachia. I am continually saddened by how dogs are left on chains or in small pens their entire lives. I don’t know how to change it except through prayer. I realize poverty limits options, i.e. not everyone has a large fenced yard, but the area generally lacks any awareness of a dog’s needs.

  6. Great article. I am a dog lover since I was a child. And my dogs sleep in my bed. I have had small dogs most of my life. So a lot of things are easier if they’re small. But I have a couple rules: they can’t roll in grass, and they get a bath at least every month and more if needed plus good brushing But the one thing I do not do is put on flea and tick medicine of any type. Including the collars. In the last few years it has come out that these are dangerous to our dogs because of the chemicals that are used. So I suggest our author check that out and see how she feels about that. I looked for my info and can’t find it. But my vet agreed that this is a good change.

  7. Breakaway collars.

    My family lost two dogs to choke chains. One was during our childhood. The people a few blocks away had a litter of Viszla and my Dad got a puppy for free. One day I came home from school and Penny wasn’t there. My Dad had come home during lunch and found her hanging from the dog house. There was a nail that was sticking out only a quarter of an inch but enough. She loved to jump at the birds. This would have been in the mid sixties.

    More recent that it never should have happened was my sister’s German Shepherd when she lived in Nebraska. This would have been about 20 years ago. Dog in a dog run too small for it and again, jumping up at birds. Choke chain.

    When I first got Caesar I bought him a choke chain because that is all I knew. Same with Goliath. But Ramses was smaller and such a gentleman I started buying him the decorative break away collars. Even though Diana is 105 lbs she has an entire wardrobe of them and now Freyja is gaining a collection. With them I am even adding little bows and flowers and sparkles. Each has some matching ID tags. They can change for every holiday.

    So for me, it is out with the choke chains and all of the danger they invite and in with the break away collars.

    As an addendum, both Diana and Freyja have tested car harnesses. Ramses had a car harness but at that time there were no tests. Caesar sat shotgun unrestrained and Goliath slept in the back seat, also unrestrained.

    So, breakaway collars and crash tested dog car safety harnesses. Those are my two big things.

    Shout out to chips.

  8. Hey Nancy!
    I’m currently writing a similarly titled article. When I read your title, my heart did a little flip! I figured “What? Great minds think alike?”. But no, mine is more focused on the changes in family dynamics, costs and dog sport (3 part) of what dog ownership used to be, to what those have evolved to look like today.

  9. Shoot! My comment only half posted, sorry.
    The remainder:
    I really enjoyed your POV, Nancy, I hadn’t considered those things, though the few dogs my family had when I was a child, were always tied out when they had to go out, and indoors dogs otherwise. As a child, I earned money by walking neighbors’ dogs but I never walked my own, lol.

  10. I’m 56, a little younger than the author. We always had dogs, at least two, and mine was named George. He was intact, and a wanderer…got out whenever a female was in season, at least once a month. My dad said George was like a king bee… had to pollinate the neighborhood. There were SO many dogs walking around with George’s face! He was mainly an outside dog…until he saved my baby sister from a cottonmouth snake in our backyard. After that, George went in and out as he so desired. We lost him to heartworms, but then, he was 18 years old when he died. I wonder how long he would’ve lived had heartworm preventatives been available back then?
    When I was little, for fleas, we used vinegar and pinesol in the dogs’ bath water and who remembers the Hartz flea collars? I thanked God when the flea preventatives came out…my ex and I had huskies in the early 90s, and fleas were a B back then!
    While I know a lot of people despise choke chains, I think that sometimes they are a necessary evil as a tool, but am glad to see their use lessen. Ditto for physical discipline–whooping your dog with a newspaper isn’t even a thing anymore, is it?
    But my absolute favorite thing when it comes to now vs then? The acceptance of dogs as a member of society. I absolutely adore the dog friendly restaurants, businesses, and acknowledgment that they get today.

  11. I remember when canned dog food was primarily made from horse meat. This was in the 1950s (I think). My mother had German Shorthaired Pointers and that food made them so gassy!! I grew up with dogs that were pretty much not obedience trained, except only for the show ring.

    Today I am a Professional Dog Trainer with 20+ years of experience. I am very happy to see all of the improvements in dog care & training, especially the positive reinforcement trend. Things have gotten so much better, but there are still many, many uneducated dog owners and people who neglect and abuse our canine friends. I wish I could make it all go away.

  12. When I was growing up in the fifties I had a rat terrier mix, and we lived across the street from a park, where she was walked daily. We didn’t pick up her poop–people just didn’t do that then. Even 40 years ago, I used to let my dog out every morning, and she’d go out for 10 minutes, and come back home…probably after pooping on someone’s lawn. Now, as I walk my 2 dogs, the normal is to clean up after them, and I can’t believe we used to leave the stuff lying around Ugh!

  13. My late doggie Kila had undergone two TPLO surgeries when she was 2 or 3. One ligament gave out followed by the other a few months after that first surgery. Committing to the surgery and recovery allowed her to have full function of her back legs for the rest of her life. She passed away at the age of 7, afflicted by bone cancer. Even in her lifetime, paying for two such surgeries was quite uncommon, so I would say, in my state anyway, seeing more and more owners considering corrective surgery for their doggies is one amazing change in the culture of dog ownership. Another incredible thing is how much new info comes out every year. We had made a decision to spay her before she turned 1, but I believe research came out over the last couple years suggesting that spaying that early made the dog more susceptible to torn knee ligaments in the rear legs, which was the catalyst for the TPLOs for our doggie.

  14. I got my first dog ( a JRT rescue) nearly 30 years ago…he would find varius ways of escaping every time I left the house. By today’s standards we would probably identify his behavior as separation anxiety. But back then, he was just an escape artist…and the only solutions I was aware of were crating, tying up, or an electric fence (none of which helped, of course)… So, maybe separation anxiety existed back then too, just under a different name. I can only hope that we, as owners and trainers, are evolving as fast as the situation is changing.

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