Interview with Lisa Tenzin-Dolma – Ethics of Dog “Ownership” in Society

by | Jan 3, 2020 | Ethics | 0 comments

Where do you stand on the ethics of dog “ownership”?  Do you use the word “companion” rather than “pet”?  What’s your opinion on spaying and neutering dogs?  How do we encourage more people to adopt a dog and not buy one?

Here’s my interview with Lisa Tenzin-Dolma where we discuss this interesting topic.

Lisa is the founder and Principal of the ISCP, and was the facilitator for the birth of ICAN, the International Companion Animal Network, an umbrella body for organisations and education providers who use and teach purely force free methods. Lisa developed the gentle Sympatico method of working with dogs that is now used globally. She has a medical and counselling background and is also qualified in Emotional Intelligence. In 2009 she was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Humanities for her lifetime achievements. Lisa founded the Dog Welfare Alliance, which brings together dog owners, behaviourists, trainers, health professionals, rescues and organisations around the world to promote dog welfare and positive training methods. You can find it on Facebook, too. She also founded The Dog Helpline, which is now owned by Theo Stewart, our ISCP Director. Until 2018, Lisa was Chair of The Association of INTODogs. She was Education and Career Development officer for INTODogs until 2019. Lisa is a member of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. She is the ambassador for HumAnima CIC, which provides counselling and animal assisted therapy.

Enjoy the interview!

  1. Of all the dogs that you’ve shared your home with, what’s the cheekiest thing that one of them has done?

Answer: Skye, my beloved Deerhound mix, was the culprit for the cheekiest thing any of my dogs have done. He was a puppy at the time, had just moved into adolescence, and, like all adolescents, he started testing boundaries. I had a tight book deadline so was in my office, writing, with Skye resting beside me on a huge beanbag he was very fond of. He decided it was playtime, and I told him “Not just yet”, which he usually responded to by entertaining himself for a few minutes until I could give him my full attention. That day he stood on his beanbag and, with his eyes on me the whole time, peed all over it. The expression of defiance on his face was so hilarious (I remembered that from when my children hit their teens) that it took all my willpower not to laugh. Instead, I waited until he stepped off the beanbag, then I calmly (though somewhat gingerly) picked it up, carried it out to the shed in the garden, and closed the shed door. Skye followed me, looking puzzled. When we came back indoors I had to shut myself in another room for a few moments so I could laugh. That never happened again!

  1. Recent statistics have shown that dogs are still the most popular animals living in UK homes. With regard to ethics and ownership, what’s your opinion on using the words “owner” or “guardian” and “pet” or “companion”? 

Answer: Although dogs are unfortunately still legally considered to be property in the UK, and a lot of people use the term ‘owner’, which of course is technically correct, I prefer to use the term guardian or, better still, caregiver – because that reflects better on the relationships between our dogs and ourselves. I prefer the term ‘companion’ to the term pet, because the ethos I strongly subscribe to views dogs very much as our companions, with emotions, needs and preferences.

  1. In current UK law, dogs are still classed as property, what’s your opinion on this and if you had the opportunity to change the laws, what would you change?

Answer: It’s sad that dogs are still classed as property in the UK and USA. We need to follow the good example of other countries where dogs are now recognised as sentient beings. In 2013, Austria included provisions relating to animal sentience, protection and dignity in their Constitution. So did Egypt in 2014. In 2015, France, New Zealand and Quebec amended their laws to recognise animals as sentient beings. In September 2018 the Slovak Spectator reported an update in Slovakian Civil Code – to quote from that: “animals will enjoy special status and value as living creatures that are able to perceive the world with their own senses. Provisions on movable things apply to animals but not if it contradicts the nature of an animal as a living creature.” In November 2018, the Brussels parliament unanimously voted that animals be classed as sentient beings.

We’re lagging behind in regard to animal welfare laws. I would change these to a recognition of all animals, not just dogs, being classed as sentient beings with rights. A great deal of research has taken place during the past 20 years, especially, that unequivocally confirms that dogs (and other animals) experience strong emotions, similarly to ourselves, that they are thinking beings who seek relationships, have preferences, form strong bonds, and who suffer when their needs aren’t met.

  1. How do you think we can make sure that the animals who live with us have all their needs met?

Answer: Funnily enough I wrote an article about this subject just recently for Edition Dog Magazine. Linda Michaels’ Hierarchy of Dog Needs is Linda’s excellent adaptation of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It provides a wonderful illustration of how we can meet dogs’ needs and ensure they have the happy lives they deserve. The poster can be downloaded from Linda’s website – just search for Hierarchy of Dog Needs. At the base of the pyramid is biological needs, with emotional, social, force-free training and cognitive needs stacked above it.

We have a responsibility to the animals in our care: to ensure they’re fed nutritious meals, that they have adequate exercise for their age, breed and state of health, that we seek out good healthcare, that they have opportunities to play, to socialise appropriately, and to exercise their mental faculties.

One aspect that is coming to the fore lately, thank goodness, is giving our dogs the option to make choices. We control every aspect of their lives – when and where they eat, sleep, toilet, exercise, play – and to allow our dogs to make choices when that’s possible gives them confidence and strengthens the canine-human bond. Even small choices such as making the effort to find which areas they most enjoy walking in, giving plenty of time for sniffing, and letting them lead the way can make for happier, more fulfilled dogs. Ultimately, I feel that if we step back and look at the world, and life, from a dog’s perspective, that gives us insights into whether their needs are being fully met, and, if not, what we can set in place to ensure that needs are being met more fully.

  1. What’s your opinion on spaying and neutering dogs?

Answer: I’m not in favour of early spaying and neutering, unless there’s a very pressing health reason for that, because it can result in emotional and physical repercussions. The thought of pups being neutered at just a few weeks old, which has happened, saddens me. Regarding spaying and neutering adult dogs, that depends on the individual dog and the reasons for surgery. Many, if not most, rescues in the UK spay and neuter before adoption, or ask adopters to have puppies neutered when they reach a certain age, to make sure their dogs aren’t used for breeding. With so many unwanted dogs, and not enough homes for all of them, that policy makes sense. One situation in which I recommend caution when considering neutering is if a dog is experiencing fear issues, as this could make the issues worse.

  1. How can we encourage more people to adopt a dog who needs a home rather than buy a puppy from a breeder and how important do you think it is to do so?

Answer: I’m glad to see the media are putting out some great adverts about adopting rescue dogs. I think what we need to focus on in promoting this is that a great many dogs end up in rescue through no fault of their own, and will make wonderful companions, given the chance. Often family circumstances have changed, or the caregiver had died or been admitted to a care facility. The ones that really break my heart are the elderly dogs whose caregivers have handed the dog over because they’ve brought a puppy into the home. Yes, puppies are adorable, and I understand that some people want to buy a pup from a reputable breeder and have a lifelong companion, but there’s nothing more heart-warming and rewarding than witnessing an adopted rescue dog settle into life in a new home and start to relax, sleep better and feel secure again. Having adopted a lot of dogs, including elderly dogs, over the years, I don’t think you can beat that glowy feeling of seeing them settle in, bond, and have the happy lives they deserve.

  1. What’s your opinion on dogs being fed a plant-based diet?

Answer: I know dogs who are fed on plant-based diets and they’re happy and healthy and seem to enjoy their food. However, would they choose that food if they were offered an omnivorous diet or a raw diet? We can’t know that unless they are given that choice. We each have reasons for the diet we choose to adopt, and with plant-based diets our reasons are usually to do with ethics and compassion. I’m guessing that dogs don’t have an opinion on that.

  1. Finally, do you have a favourite breed of dog and if so why?

Answer: I love all breeds, large and small, and have fostered and adopted many different breeds of dogs. But I have an extra special soft spot for sighthounds. Skye, the great love of my life who died last June, was a lurcher, a Deerhound mix, and I adopted 3 elderly ex-racing greyhounds during Skye’s 11 years with us, too, as well as fostering other breeds. Although sighthounds are fast sprinters, they’re incredibly relaxed dogs in the home (they often get called 40 mph couch potatoes). They’re affectionate, very sweet, and I find those long noses and legs that go on forever to be just beautiful. It always amazes me how Greyhounds can settle so quickly into home life after being confined to living in kennels throughout their early lives. And I’m convinced they have a sense of humour. I’ve been played tricks on a few times.

To find out more about Lisa and the ISCP, check out these lovely websites:

The International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour Ltd

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