When I was a young boy, my mother would ask me each year what I wanted for Christmas. So each year, my answer would include the stuff of boys’ dreams like a G. I. Joe, a new BB gun, a train set, model airplanes, and fishing poles. One year, I really went big and asked for a new Yamaha dirt bike. However, to my disappointment, when each Christmas morning rolled around, I was seldom given the toys or other items I had so desperately wanted and instead, handed freshly wrapped boxes containing socks, underwear, boots, jeans, and flannel shirts. Decades later as I was holding my mother’s hand while she lay dying in her bed, the bitterness of all those Christmas’ of discontent bubbled to the surface, and before I could stop myself, I asked why I was rarely given what I wanted. My mother, a fiery redhead of unstoppable power, even with death at her doorstep, didn’t flinch. Nor, did she feel compelled in those final moments of her life to ask for forgiveness. Instead, while maintaining the same expression that I had observed since my childhood as one of disdain for weakness, she turned to me and replied, “Because, you were not wise with your wants.”
Understanding the difference between needs and wants and the requirement to make a judicious decision regarding either may not seem so apparent to us when we are young, but the knowledge is instinctive, and it’s not lost among most parents. For instance, parental wolves need food, water, and a safe dwelling place for their offspring. At the same time, they want warmth, escape from pests, distance from humans, and less competition with alien wolves. Wolves may not always get what they want, but the fact that they are still roaming the earth is a testament to their ability to get what they need for themselves and their cubs. Our dogs and we are similar in that we need food, water, a mate (if we wish to continue the perpetuation of our species) and a safe dwelling place for our offspring. Also, like wolves, among many things, we want warmth, privacy from our neighbors, good health, and less conflict with other countries. We may not always get what we want, but the fact that domesticated wolves (dogs) and we are also still roaming the earth is a testament to our abilities to get what we need as well.
My mother resembled an alpha wolf, in that her instinct for protecting and caring for her offspring was the greatest driving force behind everything she did; part of which included providing for her children’s needs before their wants. As dog owners, we must rely on this instinct and do the same for ourselves and our dogs if we wish to achieve the happiness that we want from dog companionship. Successfully accomplishing this requires us to know the difference between needs and wants and then making wise choices of action regarding them both.
For most of us, unless you are disabled, companion dogs land squarely in our WANT column, not in our NEED column. Nowadays, with the advancement of technology, transportation, and business delivery services, you may want a dog, but you don’t need one to survive. Therefore, before you get the dog you want, make sure you can meet your dog’s needs. To do so requires a commitment to provide for good nutrition, proper veterinary care, sufficient exercise, trustworthy containment, permanent shelter, and "quality time" with you. “Quality time” is defined as the weeks, months, or years (you read correctly) of appropriate training and interaction with your dog that enables it to fully and safely meld with you and your family, its home environment, and the people and places you intend to visit. Unfortunately, “quality time” is the commodity that is in shortest supply for most people, but the least considered by prospective dog owners before they satisfy their “want." As a consequence, when they are not able to provide the quality time their new dog needs, undesirable and sometimes, dangerous, behaviors develop, which quickly reminds them of the fact that dogs fall in our WANT column, not in our NEED column, and off to the shelter or rescue the dog goes.
Ensuring you can provide for your dog’s needs is only one-third of the equation for successfully fulfilling the “want” part of dog companionship. The other two-thirds involves providing for your needs and the needs of those outside of your immediate family that come into contact with your dog.
In taking care of your needs, if you want a large, powerful dog, you will need to be strong enough to control it effectively. If you want a dog that has tons of energy, you will need to be physically fit enough to keep up with it or have the ability to use an alternative energy releaser such as a nearby dog daycare or dog park. If you want a puppy, you will need patience and the ability to count to ten before you act. If you want to own a dog and keep your sanity at the same time, you will need quality time AWAY from it (yes, you read correctly again). In this instance, “quality time” is defined as the amount of time it takes to execute tasks required of your family, work, and your personal physical and emotional state. In other words, life doesn’t come to a halt the second you quit wanting a dog and actually get one. Dinner still needs to be cooked. The laundry still needs to be cleaned. Kids still need to be picked up from school. Your boss still needs your full attention for several hours a day. Your home and yard still need maintaining. The list of conditions needing your time and attention goes on and on and therefore; if you want to provide “quality time” for your dog, you will need to carve out “quality time” for yourself. Otherwise, you will be too distracted, too frustrated, and too tired to make good use out of the precious moments you have to share with your dog.
Lastly, safety should be given the highest degree of consideration when providing for the needs of unfamiliar people your dog might encounter. You may want your dog to be friendly with everyone, but you need to understand that dogs don’t recognize every stranger as a friend, regardless of their behavior, and as a result, should they ever feel threatened by them, they may use aggression as a means of neutralizing the threat. Therefore, for the safety of people you meet, you will need to take a “trust but verify” stance until your dog has proven to be trustworthy in their presence. You will need to teach commands such as sit, lay down, and stay, and couple them with relative socialization so that you can safely manage your dog while it learns through its self-discovery those actions of unfamiliar humans that do not pose a threat to it. Until this is accomplished and you can “trust” without needing to “verify” your dog’s acceptance of the strangers it meets, you will need to abide by the adage, “If you can’t be nice, you need to stay home.”
At the time, my mother’s answer to my question as to why I seldom got what I wanted for Christmas didn’t make sense to me. After all, the answer came from a woman who “wanted” to live, but “needed” to quit smoking to get it done, and she had failed to do so. Thankfully, time, as it always does, soothed my blind anger enough for me to look back on the moment from a different perspective. Through the eyes of a husband, father, dog owner, and son, I eventually recognized her final words for what they were; her last attempt to provide me with what I needed, not what I wanted. I wanted my mother to live, but she knew she wouldn’t so instead, she allowed the last words spoken to her son to serve as a reminder of the wisdom it had taken for her to know the difference between disappointment and appropriate development and the courage it had taken for her to pursue the latter.
This Christmas, whether for yourself, your family, or your dog, may you be wise with your wants.
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