It�s common to hear people with a strong interest in dog behavior and welfare referring to �the contract� they have with their dog. It�s a way to capture their feeling that they have real moral obligations to their dog, based on a relationship of mutual understanding. It sounds good, like a recognition of equality in a relationship, which is something that promotes the belief that dogs should have more control over their own lives and not be subject to the whims of humans. Unfortunately, the idea of a contract with a dog makes no sense.
A contract is a kind of promise with certain features, which creates a set of obligations that were not there to begin with. It is an agreement between two or more parties for the exchange of goods or services. If those goods or services are not provided, the contract gives the injured party the right to no longer supply the goods or services in question and to impose some kind of negative consequence. These can be legal, like being sued, or personal, like the loss of a friend.
Certain criteria have to be met for a contract to be valid:
- Both parties must be able to understand the idea of a contract, and the terms of this specific contract.
- Contracts can only be entered into freely, not under threat of violence.
- Morally speaking, both parties have to be able to levy consequences for breaching the contract - if you are unable to influence the other party, the contract has no power.
Our relationship with our dogs is not a contract because it doesn�t meet any of these criteria. Although it might feel like the relationship you have with your dog is reciprocal and contractual, it�s not. You are only contracting with yourself, because you are the only person who is free, able to understand, and capable of imposing consequences on yourself. Your dog has none of these abilities, he can�t hold you to account for your actions, even though it might feel like he can.
Whether your dog is purchased, rescued, fostered or adopted, he is not usually given much choice in the matter. You own a dog, you don�t employ him. If you were to keep a person in your house, refuse to let them leave and then claim to have a contract with them, it�s unlikely that contract would stand up in court. Dogs cannot freely enter into a contract; all the terms are set by the human, and the dog is not able to leave.
Dogs also cannot levy consequences on their guardians for breach of contract. If I don�t feed my dog, what can she do? If I stop grooming her, what can she take away from me? Nothing. Many abused dogs refuse to resort to violence against their guardians; living in fear, but not running away. The reverse is true, too - I wouldn�t be justified in stopping caring for my dog even if she started �breaching our contract�. If anything, I would have to find out why she was acting this way, and invest even more time and resources to addressing her problems. There�s nothing my dog can do that would justify withdrawing the services I am providing for her.
The only person that can compel me to hold up my end of the �bargain� with my dog is me. I can make myself feel bad if I don�t do the things I�ve promised myself I�ll do for my dog, but my dog will continue loving me regardless, and doesn't have the power to trade me in for a more conscientious owner.
A better way to explain the feeling of obligation we have to our dogs is the duty of care. By choosing to bring a sensitive, emotional, living creature into our lives, we give ourselves a duty to keep it safe and happy. In this way, relationships with dogs are like relationships with human toddlers - we don�t make contracts with two year olds because no matter how many diabolical tantrums and capricious acts of violence they perform, we have the same duty to care for them. They can�t understand the idea of a contract but that doesn�t mean we have no obligations to them.
Our relationships with dogs can feel reciprocal because of how close the bond is, but the dog doesn�t have obligations like we have obligations. We have a duty to care for our dogs; not because of something the dog supplies in return, but because of the choices we made.