Well, today you are in luck. Recently I heard that Sweden was a serious dog-loving country, and as your intrepid columnist on all things Dog, I thought I should investigate.
First off, my wife Laurie — controller of all budgets — laughed when I mentioned that I should fly to Sweden to see first-hand their dog culture. That was how determined I was to bring you this story. But, chastened, I fell back on plan B. Instead, I interviewed Tobias Gustavsson, the Manager of Scandinavian Working Dogs in Stockholm. Tobias works all over Europe, Canada, and the United States training working dogs.
A quick note about Sweden: It’s about the size of California, but with a third of the population. (Ten million vs. thirty-five million).
And, a spoiler alert: It’s good to be a Hund (Swedish for Dog).
According to Tobias, for hundreds of years, Swedes have had a close relationship with their dogs. Of course, we, like most dog lovers, have a close relationship with our three dogs. But the difference is that dogs in Sweden are trained. Tobias pointed out that having untrained dogs or dogs that just live in the house or the yard seems just weird to Swedes. I imagined him sitting there with his three German Shepherd mixes calmly sitting at his feet, while our two Berners and our rescue dog, Maisie were going crazy barking at the UPS guy.
Swedes take their dogs everywhere, although like in the US, Swedish dogs are not allowed in cafés or shops because of dog allergies, although that seems to be changing.
In Sweden, there are working dog clubs in every little town. This tradition goes back almost one hundred years. It’s a rarity in Sweden to have a working dog that is not part of a club. It is, and Tobias stressed this, very organized. The average dog owner knows a lot about dogs. They train and work with their dogs on a regular basis.
The Swedes also seem to be crazy about dog obedience and agility games. The waiting lists are long, and it takes a lot of work and time to be accepted into the competitions.
Almost every dog, if they are part of a club or their humans want to breed them, are required to take an intelligence and personality test at seventeen months. Since 1971, all those results have been stored on a national Data Base to help individuals choose puppies.
A note: Our free-wheeling American dogs, Nellie, Tank and Maisie, would not do well with any test. They just wanted me to tell you that. No tests!
But what did intrigue our dogs was the amount of walking they do in Sweden. It is a dog walking paradise. In Sweden, most land is open to walk on, even “private” farmland. It’s a Scandinavian tradition called “freedom to roam.” (Quit grumbling, you private property folks, it works for them!) Everyone walks their dogs — Tobias walks and runs with his dogs up to 9 miles a day. (This led me to think, no wonder their dogs are so obedient, they’re exhausted!)
Finally, I asked Tobias how Sweden deals with stray and abandoned dogs. In the US it’s estimated that over seven million animals enter shelters yearly. He said that it is simply not a problem they have. There is only one government-funded shelter in Stockholm that receives strays and prepares them for adoption.
If this was the case, I thought, Sweden must spay and neuter most of their dogs. But Tobias told me that neutering is not a routine procedure. When a male dog becomes stressed by other dogs in heat is the only time they will turn to neutering. To help tamp down aggressive behavior, they focus on training. The belief in Sweden is aggression is learned behavior, and it is the dog’s owner who is responsible.
What struck me by the end of the interview was a cultural commitment to close companionship. Tobias emphasized that keeping dogs physically and mentally stimulated was thought of as a daily responsibility for dog partners in Sweden.
By the time I was done writing this column, our dogs had their bags packed and Swedish flags festooned their collars. They were ready to go. I told them to settle down; they couldn’t handle nine miles a day!