What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine and what’s theirs is mine if I can get it.
Our canines’ views of property rights are quite different from the usual Western legal constructions where property is transferred by sale, exchange, gift, inheritance or abandonment. Their concept of property rights are more akin to discovery, forceful acquisition, and, if need be, protection. These rights extend to their owners, their homes, vehicles, home ground, toys and an unusually large number of chew-food-smell items which they may claim as their own.
Humans generally have only a partial grasp of the different manifestations of these rights that are generally gained from observing of their pets. This is the case here where my insights are derived through the observation of a number of dogs owned over the past 70 years. Anyone who has tried to take a bone from a dog quickly realizes that to them possession is truly nine-tenths of the law. They may become quite possessive, and perhaps even hostile, if you attempt to take their bone away. These expressions of hostility are often loudly vocalized to other dogs along with a show of teeth – the canine equivalent of drawing a knife.
It is perhaps beyond our understanding to appreciate a dog’s attachment to a piece of rotten smelling animal hide that may be crawling with maggots which they will fight to protect and enthusiastically chew, while the very thought of eating something like that is almost guaranteed to make us lose our lunch. We also do not have the physical equipment to appreciate the rich world of smells available to our canines. Many things they find delightful we consider rank at best, and often foul and putrid are not too strong a term to describe them.
We humans also fail to appreciate the value of a good chew, even though the object being chewed may have no food value. Old shoes, plastic, cloth, metal and even glass bottles are appealing to our canine companions. Why? Apparently these items feel good between the teeth and give our dogs a feeling of accomplishment such as a woodsman might feel when splitting a piece of wood. These found and splintered trophies will often be accumulated in particular parts of their yards just as human possessions are displayed in one’s home. Because they have no hands and their feet are not suited to do delicate manipulations of objects, their mouths must serve them as hands do us. They feel with their mouths. They may take your hand and gently mouth it as a sign of affection and sometimes to draw your attention to something that they feel that you must see.
When your dogs steal
While we might consider taking property from others stealing, dogs consider such activities a proper exercise of their property rights. They may conduce such activities singularly or together. Once I arrived home to find three colorful western shirts in my yard that my three Labs had drug down the red-mud road to my house. They had obviously pulled them from someone’s line and brought them home. The shirts’ pearl buttons and colorful stitching were things that might be worn to a square dance or by members of a country band. I washed them with the intention to find their owner and return them, but to no avail. The red mud permanently impregnated the fabric.
My sister and her husband who live next door had some solar powered lights that were largely made of plastic that they used to illuminate the walkways around their house. One by one the chewed remains of these lights turned up in my yard. At first I was puzzled as to exactly what they were and where they came from. I am not at all surprised when they might bring a piece of shed antler that they find into the yard, but these strange pieces of plastic and metal and wires puzzled me. Ultimately I found one that was complete enough to identify. Anything plastic in the ground is apparently to be brought home and chewed on. For some reason plastic is apparently more appealing that sticks and limbs, but these also serve the same purposes.
When our canines go on raiding expeditions and return with our neighbors property, our only recourse is to attempt to make restitution, however difficult that might be. While we might view such activities as a fault, they consider them only an exercise of their natural rights.