Is That Dog Fortunate or Tragic?

The truth depends on your experience and worldview.


My father, a nonconformist from his youth to his death, frequently used to say, “Everyone has their own reality.” Since his reality was augmented by his daily intake of a certain leafy herb, I used to take the grammar and the sentiment with a grain of salt. But the older I get, the more I appreciate what he meant – even without herbal assistance.

For example, sometimes when I see a dog trotting alongside a road in my rural part of northern California, I can tell that wandering is routine to that dog – he’s not lost, he hasn’t been abandoned; he’s out doing his usual rounds. Whereas the friend sitting in the passenger seat of my car, seeing the same dog, will probably say, “Stop! We should help that dog!” She sees him as in need of immediate assistance. We’re experiencing the same visual input, but our realities are completely different. Which one of us is right? Which one is seeing things the way they really are? (Well, sometimes it’s obvious that a dog is lost and in need of assistance, and I’ve rescued more than a few of them!)

There’s a similar effect at work when one of my dogs is curled up on top of a nest he’s made of all the throw pillows and blankets on my sofa. This vision will make me coo; I am happy that my dog looks so happy and comfortable. I see a secure, happy dog. The same sight will raise my husband’s blood pressure. He’ll likely roll his eyes and say, “Get off the couch! We’ve got dog beds in every room for that!” He sees a dog who is spoiled and opportunistic. (Full disclosure: My dogs are welcome on the couch, and they know that most of the time, they can ignore my husband’s directives. We have negotiated this agreement over the 25 years we’ve been married.)

A well groomed and cared for poodle may not enjoy the stress of grooming or performing.
It takes many, many hours of grooming in order to present a dog in this condition in the show ring – and the dogs don’t particularly enjoy any part of the process. Photo by Justyna Olichwier / 500px/Getty Images

Here’s another situation where the objective truth is hard to determine. Once many years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Whereas many people saw fabulously well cared-for dogs with fantastic shiny coats, I saw unhappy, stressed, shut-down dogs. The area where the dogs were kept and prepared for the show rings was so hot, loud, and crowded, I started feeling like I was going to have a panic attack. I left the show after just an hour or two and changed my flight home to that evening, instead of the next day as previously planned. I am still haunted by the overwhelming impression of hopeless resignation I had from the dogs I saw there.

What about the dogs who accompany unhoused people? Some might feel sorry for them, having to spend their lives wandering the streets, sleeping in rough situations, and subsisting on a diet of whatever their owners are eating. But others may see dogs who are seemingly completely content to be with their owners 24/7, unfazed by anything and everything happening in their environment. They get plenty of fresh air and exercise and tons of attention from their people; there are plenty of family dogs who aren’t so lucky!

Here’s a classic “different realities” scenario: I see my sister’s little dogs as fat – hideously obese, even. She sees them as happy!

In this case, at least, I think we both have a fairly good grasp on reality!

What canine encounter have you seen very differently from others around you?


  1. One of my Shih Tzus used to squeeze under the fence when rabbits made a space, and was once found trotting happily down the middle of the road, looking like he was on a quest. A kind passerby picked him up and drove him home. He would have been run over for sure, so a dog that doesn’t look “lost” may well be a happy escape artist.

  2. Just wanted to comment about the dog show and that poodle cut. I adopted a standard poodle puppy when he was 12 weeks old. He was in a kill shelter then a foster home down in Kentucky and they drove him up to New York. Ever since I’ve had him I’ve let his hair grow fairly long, but not to the point where it’s unhealthy, and I do have to take him to the groomer and she always wants to shave him down, but she respects me that I don’t want him to have a poodle cut . I tried to do the bare minimum, there are loud blow dryers and other dogs barking. It feels stressful to me and she has a very small clientele. There’s only a couple of dogs, maybe three in at one time but I always take him first thing in the morning. I try to get him there at 7 AM so he’s the first one and he’s out really quick and I think sometimes people don’t realize , that dogs just like people can be sensitive to lots of noise and lights and constantly having people pulling at them !

  3. I’ve been involved in showing dogs for more than twenty years and disagree with your assessment of their emotional state. As you said, the objective truth can be hard to determine. Not all dogs are show quality and it isn’t just about their appearance. Health and temperament are important too. One of the most important attributes is a love of showing. A stressed, unhappy dog will not show well. What you saw as stressed, shutdown dogs was far more likely a calm demeanor. These dogs are accustomed to a lot of fuss and activity and know how to relax. Do you think agility dogs are bothered by the hubbub at a trial? The dogs who do well thrive on all the noise and activity. Dogs (or people, like me) who don’t like it stay home or pick another sport.

    My heart dog competed in rally and obedience. We often missed qualifying because he’d get an attack of the zoomies and and dance around the ring in pure joy. He was also part of a dog dancing team. Loved to perform. He’d light up at the sight of a camera or the sound of applause. But away from the ring, he’d hang out in his crate, just as calm as could be. Maybe some saw that as shut down or stressed, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Dogs are different, just like people.

  4. Recently our local animal shelter held a street festival and parade inviting all dogs and their people. They were dressed up in all sorts of clothing and hats and even sunglasses or swim goggles with a prize to the crowd favorites. The dogs looked anywhere from resigned to scared. Many were panting and lip-licking. When I look at dogs that are dressed as children, or clowns, or other animals, I have to look away. I just can’t stomach it. It seems so disrespectful to the dogs.

  5. I think you have to know your dog. Some are extroverts who love to party and be the center of attention. Some are introverts who like a quiet fenced yard with their people close by. I’ve watched the dog shows and some of those dogs just love the spotlight and applause. You can see it. I also agree about the dog companions of the homeless. The owners may not have chosen that existence but the dogs are unfazed by it and just love being with their people.

    I have no doubt if either of my dogs got out they would look like they were making their rounds but in fact would be lost and eventually stressed they couldn’t find their way home. Diana pawPrints might stay in the neighborhood but Freyja would be long gone, perhaps even getting Diana to go with her.

    I took Ramses to the dog park a few times. He was stressed and stayed by my side on hyper alert, guarding me from all of the dogs and people. Eventually we stopped going. We stopped walking in my neighborhood for the same reason. He was only relaxed when we walked in my parent’s quiet neighborhood with their dog, Candy. Diana and Freyja love the dog park and look forward to it.

  6. “Hot, loud, and crowded” is also the description of any major city in the summer. Why would a dog on a busy city street with people, cars, trucks, buses, jackhammers, and sirens be less stressed than a dog in the busy, noisy, prep area at a dog show? The level of environmental stimulus doesn’t seem to be any better or worse for either.

  7. Several years ago, we went to Cuba as I had just read the chapter about the village dogs in the book “Dogs” by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger. I saw many examples of those dogs, seemingly happy in a calm sort of way, getting along and respectful of each other. They generally were skinny (but is being overweight better?). Some definitely could have use veterinary care for skin issues specially in the cities. However, they probably had more interesting days than most of our pets.

  8. I am reminded of an award winning film, from Turkey (Stray by Elizabeth Lo), about street dogs and one dog in particular, Zeytin, was the “star”. Those dogs made their rounds, were free from stress, had their routines. Water was set out, people would feed them. They were also mistreated by some, especially groups of kids that thought it was fun to harass the dogs. I think the benefit to dogs having an owner is medical care and regular meals. Their desire for companionship varies. I have read several stories of community dogs and cats. Those that are owned by no one and by everyone. For some dogs that would be an ideal life. None of my dogs have been like that.

  9. I understand the bad experience at the Westminster Kennel Club. I wouldn’t set foot in New York CITY if they paid me. But in my long, 77 years I have visited 2 dozen or more dog shows in Europe and California. Outdoors, in the shade of big trees or tents, the dogs are happy and have a great time. The best / most show dogs love it and they strut happily – attitude is a big part of winning. The training and grooming of show dogs provides strong bonding between man and his dog. The “sport” as we call it, has a major influence when it comes to popularize dogs, their grooming and training. There are several breeds to see, talk to the breeders, and touch the dogs, get information and phone numbers. Sorry, folks, not everyone wants to take home a rescue pit bull. Mike Gordon, Paradise, CA 95969.

  10. Those defending dog shows may not realize that Westminster is a benched show, where all dogs are required to be on display on assigned benches during the entire show, excepting only the time they’re being shown in the ring. I can’t imagine any dog would enjoy that experience. Fortunately, there are only a handful of benched shows left each year in the U.S.

  11. I’m happy homeless people have their pets. As long as those dogs are taken care of and not being abused, why not? More dogs are being euthanized due to backyard breeders and people trying to create their own mix. If I see an anxious, unhappy dog, then I feel anxious. If I see a situation I speak up. I don’t know why it affects me the way it does because it feels like a curse. Nancy, I believe you’re an empath like I am. It’s a blessing and heartbreaking.

  12. Mike Gordon: I love pitbulls and had the honor to be a foster failure of one. They are the most goofiest, mouthy and happy souls. People are what cause the problem, not every pitbull is bad.

  13. Thanks for standing up for pitbulls. I’ve two bully breed mixes (a male American Staffordshire/ boxer mix and a female pitbull/ Dalmatian mix, I think). The male had severe separation anxiety issues and had to kenneled whenever my ex- went to work, until we started living together and his dog stayed home happily in a crate on the opposite of the sofa from the crate where my two dogs stayed when no humans were home. Max, the AmStaff mix just needed to know he wasn’t alone. At dog parks, he was a true gentleman unless some foolish dog tried to dominate him. I once watched him seem to submit when a Golden that was bigger than him placed a paw on his back. When the Golden walked away, Max launched a sneak attack! Luckily, the two dogs were easily separated and no one (canine or human) got hurt. But it taught me a lesson about Max’s truly “Alpha” personality. On the other hand, my ex- and I met at a dog park when my female pitbull/ Dalmatian mix spotted Max on the opposite side of a dog park we’d just entered. She immediately charged across the park and jumped on his back. I heard my ex-, who was standing nearby, say “Uh oh!” Then to the surprise of us both, when his dog turned around and saw my bitch on his back, he wiggled his tail stump happily and the two took off playing tag together. They stayed besties from then on, much to the distress of male Dalmatian/ pointer who’d previously had a “little brother” relationship with the older, taller bitch. When my ex- and I started living together, the Dal/ pointer definitely showed jealousy toward Max, with whom Chloë preferred to roughhouse and who was too Alpha for the Dal/ pointer to directly challenge. One day, I was across the hall in my home office and heard a yelp in the master bedroom. When I went to check on the two male dogs, they appeared to be lounging there peacefully. Later on, though, I noticed Max was missing a big chunk of fur and flesh! The wound required stitches, but after the initial yelp stolid Max hadn’t made a sound. Knowing their personality differences, I assume the Dal/pointer had taken his “pound of flesh” while Max was napping. Strangely enough, there was no follow up to this incident as far as I could see. Max stayed the house Alpha male and preferred playmate of Chloë. When my ex- and I eventually separated after 5 or 6 years, the Dal/pointer resumed his exclusive relationship with Chloë, who nursed him with a maternal protectiveness when he was recovering from surgery for a foxtail that had migrated from one of his ears to a lung.