Free Market Dogs: The Human-Canine Bond in Post-Communist Poland


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Free-market Dogs explores changes in the bond between dogs and humans in Poland after 1989, when Soviet rule ended, and Poland became more open to influences from outside. The seven chapters explore different themes, such as training, dogs in literature, and dog cemeteries. The first two chapters are the longest, covering changes as a whole since 1989, and changes in approaches to training.

Chapter 1, by Michal Piotr Pregowski, tells of how dogs are increasingly seen as family members in Poland, rather than as useful animals, such as guard dogs. Breeds popular as pets in the Anglo world, like Labradors and Yorkies have become more popular. There’s a desire to ‘catch up’ with Anglo countries, as well as a move towards pet rather than working dogs. It’s now considered OK to lavish special food on dogs, which shows changes in attitudes, as well as greater affluence.


Puppy farms never took off in Poland, while mutts have become popular, and even fashionable in some circles. Poland is unusual in having a state system that encourages dog catching, and keeping dogs in shelters. Alas, the adoption rate in official shelters tends to be low, so private organizations, including breed rescues, have sprung up to remedy this.

The story told in ‘Free Market Dogs’ is that of urban women, though there are occasional hints that practices of poorer folk in rural areas are different. Women have been pioneers in many Polish organizations geared to dog training, and canine welfare. Though Chapter 1 doesn’t mention this, the fertility rate for Polish women dropped after 1989. In a later chapter we’re told that some Polish Catholic priests blame cats and dogs as a reason for women not wanting to have children! Perhaps women simply delayed having children because they were studying for longer, and childless women have more time for dogs. Hunting and protection, and ‘tough’ breeds, identified with the old regime, tend to be male preserves . By focusing mainly on urban women, Free Market Dogs perhaps gives an exaggerated impression of how much practices have changed.

No book can cover everything, but I’d like to know more about the impact of dogs increasingly being treated as consumer items in Poland. Some Americans argue that a high level of demand for pups in the US means that puppy farms perform a useful role. In economic theory, consumers need to take informed decisions for markets to work properly. Consumers of puppy farm products tend to know much less than sellers about the product. Likewise, consumers who buy dogs bred for extreme features with built-in health problems, may be unaware of the long-term cost, in terms of vet bills. Furthermore, when people take on dogs they can’t control, this affects society as a whole, leading to ‘external costs’, paid by people other than the consumer. In Poland, breeds prone to health problems, like Bernese and English bulldogs, have become popular, so are consumers taking informed decisions? Pregowski mentions the need for education when he discusses problems with Polish legislation on puppy farms. Poles may be less individualistic than Americans, but in both countries, treating dogs as consumer durables can lead to unwise choices(1).

Chapter 2 develops ideas about training in a Polish context, and gives an account of changing approaches to dog training as pet dogs became more popular in Poland after 1989. The author, Agnieszka Orlowska, first defines three aspects of canine education, adapting a model used for the education of children. She separates three elements, firstly, ‘upbringing’, or ‘emotional education’ which includes socialization; secondly, ‘training’ which she defines as ‘cognitive education’, including competitive obedience and utility; and thirdly, ‘teaching’, which she defines as ‘emotional-cognitive education’, and which includes the skill of a dog in being able to take independent decisions. A dog’s education combines these three elements, upbringing, training and teaching.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Polish training books used the word ‘tresura’ to mean ‘training’. ‘Tresura’ is only used to refer to animal training. However, modern Polish training books use the word ‘szkolenie’, better translated as ‘education’, a reflection of changing approaches to training.

Working dogs have always been trained, but Orlowska sees dog training as truly taking off in the modern sense, in the early 20th century, with the development of military dog training. She contrasts two Polish approaches, that of Brzezicha, based on Konrad Most’s work, with that of Giezynski, who placed a greater stress on upbringing. Giezynski’s ‘softer’ approach didn’t catch on during the time of Soviet rule, however, dog training in Poland changed after 1989 with a move towards a ‘softer’, less military approach that reflected Giezynski’s views. Orlowska describes this as a move from ‘traditional’ to ‘positive’ methods.

A key influence on Polish dog training after 1989 was John Fisher’s ‘Think Dog’, published in Poland in 1994. He proposed using food to lure, shape and capture behaviours, combining this with using status markers, such as eating first, and being in a higher position than the dog, to show your ‘dominance’. Later he revised his views on the usefulness of such markers.

Clicker training became popular in Poland at the turn of the 20th century, partly through the work of an Australian, Barbara Waldoch, who was active in Polish internet discussion groups, and after the publication of Karen Pryor’s ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’ in 2004, followed by Jean Donaldson’s ‘Culture Clash’ in 2007.
Orlowska also notes an increasing interest in ethology, mentioning Turid Rugaas´s ‘Calming Signals’, which arrived in Poland in 2005, and an interest in cognitive ethology vs behaviourism, citing Horowitz´s book, Inside of a Dog’, in 2010, and John Bradshaw’s ‘Dog Sense’ (In the UK, ‘In Defence of Dogs’) published in Poland in 2012. However, Orlowska doesn’t mention how Horowitz and Bradshaw brought a more ethological approach to training. In fact, Horowitz is dubious about the value of training, and Bradshaw’s chapter on training in ‘Dog Sense’ takes a behaviourist approach, though Bradshaw does cover developments in ethology in the rest of his book.

This chapter is more about changes in approaches to training than about where they fit into Polish society, for example, the growth in the market for training classes, and where the trainers and clients come from. It’s probably less easy to earn a living as a trainer in Poland, because wages are lower, and the idea of pet dog training classes is relatively new. The upside may be that people who work as professional trainers have a stronger commitment, though it may also be less easy to build up skills where there are fewer openings for professional trainers. Perhaps this merits a separate chapter in itself!

It’s difficult to find reliable statistics, but looking at attendance at pet dog training events, there appear to be far more female than male pet dog trainers in the US. Owners taking dogs to classes are also more likely to be female than male, which perhaps fits with dogs being seen as family members, so, like children, more of a ‘female’ responsibility. From the cast of characters mentioned by Orlowska, this appears to be true for Poland as well. This ‘feminisation’ of dog training may help to explain the shift in views towards canine education that Orlowska describes . Military and police dog trainers have tended to be male, and to some extent, the dialogue between ‘traditional’ and ‘positive’ is a dialogue between men and women (2 )

The way that Orlowska adapts concepts from children’s education to canine education is very interesting, because she teases out different elements in what we teach dogs. Her analysis reflects a holistic view of training, or perhaps more accurately, of canine education. The linguistic issue is also interesting. Where I live, in rural Spain, people most commonly use ‘educar’ when they talk about training pet dogs – the same word as is used for bringing up children. There’s also ‘adiestrar’, which is to teach skills, and ‘entrenar’, used for formal training sessions, where the owner is consciously training the dog.

Orlowska argues that the word ‘training’ is seen as objective and transparent in the English-speaking world, and that few people in the Anglo world oppose the label of ‘training’. This is to some extent true - the label ‘training’ tends not to be explicitly discussed, but there’s no clear consensus on what ‘training’ means - different authors use the term in different ways. Steven Lindsay, for example argues that most canine behavioural problems can be tackled with training. In contrast, John Fisher and Cesar Millan distinguish between training and efforts to improve canine behaviour. In ‘Cesar’s Rules’, Millan emphasizes that dogs trained for obedience or as working dogs can still show serious behavioural problems. Horowitz, in ‘Inside of a Dog’, also takes a narrow view of training when she says that she can’t see the point of it. (3)

Other writers tend to steer clear of the word ‘training’, such as Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills, who aim to teach resilience and the ability to cope, in their ‘Life Skills for Puppies’. The shift to a holistic approach reflects changing goals, which include dogs’ needs. Leslie McDevitt also stresses teaching dogs to cope, in her ‘Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program’. Lindsay, too, states that the aim of training is to help dogs to cope.(4)

If you take a holistic view of canine education, as Orlowska does, then the work of ethologists, such as Adam Miklosi, is relevant, especially in relation to ‘upbringing’ (5). You need an understanding of the nature of dogs in order to guide them through early socialization, and to help them continue to learn human and canine social rules as adolescents. Ethologists can also help with understanding how dogs learn from one another. Lindsay, who takes an interdisciplinary approach, mentions ‘social contagion’, which may be helpful, as when one dog calms another, or unhelpful, as when one dog encourages another to behave in dangerous ways. One route to encouraging good behaviour in an adolescent dog is to find a mature, confident and well-behaved canine walking companion, who sets a good example. The older dog could be described as ‘socially dominant’, when the younger dog takes his cue from the oldster.

For ethologists ‘dominance’ is a neutral term referring to who gets first access to resources. A stable dominance hierarchy in a group of social animals tends to reduce confrontations because less dominant animals defer rather than confront. It gets more complicated when you’re dealing with relationships between dogs and humans. Not all ethologists are happy with applying the term ‘dominance’ to interspecies relationships. Humans do generally control access to food and the outside world, so are in a dominant position in negotiations with dogs. However, ethologists see the use of ‘status markers’ by humans, like eating a cookie before feeding the dog, as of dubious value.

Miklosi’s team has looked at social learning in canines, both how dogs can learn from one another, and how dogs can learn from humans. This means that we need to be aware of the messages we may unconsciously send dogs. We also need to understand the messages that dogs try to send us, if we want two-way communication. Miklosi, Zulch and Mills, and Leslie McDevitt are among modern writers who stress the importance of understanding canine body language.
Experienced trainers have always been practical ethologists, learning from experience, for example, that handlers can be deaf to their dogs’ non-verbal messages, or may unconsciously encourage them to overreact. It’s when people write about dogs that they tend to oversimplify and propose ‘one size fits all’ solutions. This oversimplification is why, in the Anglo world, there are people who don’t easily fit the stereotypes, for example people who prefer not to call themselves ‘positive’ because of the behaviourist connotations, yet who don’t fit the ‘traditional’ stereotype either.

Orlowska’s chapter is very useful in pinpointing some key underlying disagreements about training which have yet to be resolved in the Anglo world. It will be interesting to look at both Poland and Anglo countries in ten year’s time to see how these issues have been resolved, and how research from ethology has been incorporated into writings on canine education.

Chapter 3, by Justyna Wlodarczyk, looks at the rise in popularity of canine performance sports in Poland since 1989. Protection events, which became popular from the 1970s, were gradually eclipsed by performance sports after 1989, and today there’s a wide range of acitivities available. Approaches to training and competing have also changed, with more stress on bonding, including communication between dog and handler, and extra marks in competitions given to handlers whose dogs appear to be enjoying themselves. This contrasts with the pre-1989 approach which focused more on submission, and dog and owner looking serious and disciplined when competing. Agility and canine disc are two competitive sports harnessing prey drive. There are many other sports available to Polish dog owners, including dog trekking and canicross, which can involve the whole family.

The author argues that there’s been a shift away from the needs of humans, towards the needs of the dog. Dog sports allow participants to find an outlet for the dog’s energy, and develop a closer bond, as well as to become part of a human social group of fellow enthusiasts. She also explores a claim by Paul Patton that animal training is suspect because it’s geared to making dogs share human values (6). Even if people use reward-based methods to teach dogs, training is corrupt, he argues, because dogs are being taught to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. But as Wlodarczyk points out, in the case of performance sports, the choice of sport is dependent on the dog’s enjoyment of the activity, with owners sometimes changing to a new sport because it suits the dog better. The dog’s values can be more important than those of the human.

It’s worth taking Wlodarczyk’s arguments on the ethics of training further, given that some dog writers, like Horowitz, can’t see the point of training. Patton is right to note that the ‘why’ of training is important if you’re looking at ethics, not just the ‘how’. In this he echoes Lindsay, who gives an example of Russian dogs trained using reward-based methods to go under enemy tanks, whereupon they and the tanks were blown up. ‘Positive’ methods don’t mean that training is 100% ethically OK, if it isn’t in the interests of the dog.

As Orlowska noted in Chapter 2, canine education includes socialization, and helping dogs to take independent decisions. This is valuable for dogs, because it helps them cope with the human, as well as the canine world. Dogs have evolved to live with humans. If they don’t accept some human values, for example that sheep are to be respected and not seen as prey animals, they can’t enjoy as much freedom. A dog’s ‘natural behaviour’ is to co-exist with humans in ways that vary from one society to another.

Wlodarczyk links the wide range of choice of dog sports to an increasing emphasis on individual choice in ‘postmodern’ societies as ties with family and social class loosen. Does greater emphasis on individual choice mean that there’s more risk of people trying to fit a dog to a sport, and win at all costs? Wlodarczyk also tells us that dog trekking in family groups is increasingly popular. Family ties may well be loosening in Poland, but the US stands out globally as a particularly individualistic society, so Poland may not necessarily take the same route.

Chapter 4, by Agnieszka Wojtkow, covers the development of dog-assisted therapy in Poland, and the rise of competing organizations with different approaches. She distinguishes between AAT (animal-assisted therapy, using dogs to help people with medical conditions), and AAA (animal assisted activities, essentially meet and greet activities).

The Polish Dogotherapy Association was set up in 2004 by a northern breed enthusiast, and was later eclipsed by the Kynotherapy Organization, which defined AAT in its own terms. AAT professionals were granted legal status by the government in 2010. Disagreements between different groups have hampered the development of national standards, which is a major concern, given that unsafe practices can put clients and dogs at risk, and an accident could lead to bad publicity for AAT. Some groups have their own internal exams, in an attempt to address the problem, but Wojtkow argues there’s a need for national standards on qualifications of practitioners, and guidelines on how dogs are used.

A major concern is for the welfare of dogs used in AAT, if practitioners become full-time professionals. Dogs can’t be expected to work 9-5 five days a week in what may be a stressful occupation for them. It’s expensive to select and train dogs for this work, and dogs will eventually need to retire, so it’s difficult for a full-time worker to set up a team of dogs.

Despite the disorganization, Wojtkow sees promising signs of progress as Polish organizations learn more from international organizations.
There’s no mention in this article of the related issue of fake service dogs which behave badly in public – an important topic in the US. Perhaps this is a particularly American problem for various reasons such as legislation, and attitudes to dogs as companions, explored in the next chapter.

Chapter 5, by Malgorzata Rutkowska, looks at the development of dog memoirs and novels in Polish, and compares those with similar publications in the US. Dog memoirs are a new development in Poland, reflecting a move to seeing dogs as family members. The Polish market for books is smaller, and literary traditions are different from the US, where was a shift to ordinary people telling their stories, during the 1980s, which didn’t happen in Poland.

The themes also vary. In US memoirs, the dog is more likely to appear as a saviour for the human, while in Polish memoirs, humans tend to tell a story of saving a dog. In the US too, dogs appear in emotionally intense. In Polish dog memoirs there is usually a married couple and several pets, and recognition that dogs need to spend time with their own kind. Polish owners are also more likely to take on adult dogs with a past, and accept their imperfections, whereas US writers are more likely to take on pups. Polish views on being kind to dogs reflect values of Christian stewardship, that one should treat the less fortunate with kindness, rather than the US concept of ‘rights’. Public grief for a pet is suspect in Poland, so grief narratives are more of a US sub genre.

In novels geared to women (chick lit), as opposed to memoirs, dogs do sometimes appear as saviours, for example, helping young men become socialized adults. There are also Polish novels where dogs appear as narrators, which tend to be very anthropomorphic, and reflect on human, rather than canine society.

This is a very interesting chapter, which points to a sense of social awareness in Poland in contrast to a more individualistic view of dogs in the US, where the emphasis is on one-to-one relationships. The more consumerist approach links to this, buying a pup that will be ‘yours’, rather than accepting an adult on its own terms. The notion that you can buy and mould a dog to become your savior perhaps gives clues as to why ‘fake service dogs’ are a problem in the US.

Chapter 6 , by Dorota Lagodzka, deals with depictions of Laika, the most famous of many Russian dogs sent into space. She became famous as an animal astronaut, and was a popular heroine for many people. Later the ethics of sending animals into space came to be questioned, especially if, as in the case of Laika, their deaths are planned into the mission. The shift in views was enshrined in the 1991 Polish Animal Protection Act which sees non-human animals as living creatures capable of suffering, rather than objects. This act is another way in which Poland has ‘caught up with’ western countries. Since Laika’s day, the term ‘laboratory animals’ is used, rather than ‘animal astronauts’, and there is less publicity about their use, which still continues, raising ethical issues.

Laika is depicted in different ways, as a symbol of human progress, and of betrayal, suffering and abandonment, a non-verbal commentary on the treatment of other animals by humans. Chapter 6 is powerful in terms of its images which use different ways to open our minds to ethical issues involved in using other species for human purposes.

The last chapter, Chapter 7, by Michal Piotr Pregowski , looks at pet cemeteries. Archeologists have discovered that some 16,500 years ago people were buried with dogs. In the late 13th century, the Catholic Church ruled against this practice, though it persisted among the upper classes and as a folk custom. Pet cemeteries were established in different parts of the world, such as London, New York and Paris in the 19th century. This trend reflected the growth of an urban, more secular middle class in the UK, US and France, and the increasing popularity of pets, especially dogs.

Poland didn’t have a strong middle class in the 19th century, and spent much of the 20th century under Soviet rule. The first pet cemetery was set up in 1991. By 2015, there were twelve official pet cemeteries. They are seen as ‘businesses from the heart’, responding to a need, rather than simply to make money. An association has been set up to promote ethical standards in the treatment of clients, and cemeteries share information with one another.

Poles see pet cemeteries as American , and follow some American practices, such as leaving flowers and candles, toys and snacks for their departed dogs. November 1st is All Saints Day, when people in Poland tend the graves of their relatives. In Poland, a day is also reserved for tending pets’ graves, the first Sunday in October after October 4th, the day of St Francis of Assisi, and World Animal Day.

Polish cemeteries use the rainbow pinwheel, an American symbol, to decorate their pets’ graves. However, in contrast to the US, where Christian symbols and biblical quotes are common, these don’t appear in Polish pet cemeteries, for fear of offending the Catholic church. Polish pet graves are also more likely to have inscriptions describing pets as ‘friends’, whereas US pet graves tell of ‘babies’, ‘girls’ and ‘sons’, and may include the human family surname as part of the dog’s name. There has been a call in the US for permission for humans and dogs to be buried together, a practice which is unlikely to be allowed in Poland due to the influence of the Church. However, burying humans and their dogs together has a long history from Paleolithic times. Ecclesiastes has a passage mentioning that humans have no superiority over animals, and we both breathe and die.

This is a touching chapter on saying goodbye to pets, and remembering them. I do wonder how much unofficial burying of pets happens in Poland, especially in rural areas, where people have land to spare. We’re told that it’s illegal, but it’s difficult to police private burials, and many people I know in the UK have a grave where they have planted crocuses and other flowers that come up in the spring, to remind them of their departed companion.

To sum up,  this is a very interesting and thoughtful collection of essays, which also has a great virtue of being relatively jargon-free. The authors took on an extremely difficult task, in using a multi-disciplinary approach to explain changes in Poland since 1989.

Some of the weaknesses of the book perhaps stem from the nature of humans as group animals, especially our tendency to simplify issues into ‘us’ and ‘them’, good guys and bad guys, for example, a view that pet owners treat their dogs better than working dog people. However, working dog owners may value their canine partners more than most pet owners do, and may grieve deeply when their partners die. Then there are dogs acquired for competitive sports. Are they ‘working’ or ‘pet’ dogs? Coren mentions that an emphasis on discipline may be more a male trait, and an emphasis on rewards more female (2).Dialogues between working and pet dog owners can be fruitful, and it’s generally a good thing when men and women can talk to one another. Try to slot experienced trainers into ‘traditional’ vs ‘positive’ categories, and you may be in for a surprise; it is not really as simple as ‘Free Market Dogs’ sometimes implies. Even so, this book is a treat to read, and it would have to be twice as long to capture to complexities of changes in Poland. As it is, it leaves a hunger to know more.

Review by Alison Lever, 2016

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Tiffani Howell for comments on an earlier draft of this article, and to Michal Piotr Pregowski for clarifying some issues in the book. Thank you also to Charson Chang and Ana Casareto for comments on the long section on Chapter 2, and discussions on training and culture. Also to Giles Tremlett for comments on the concept of individuality in different cultures.


  1. The US is often quoted as the most individualistic country in the world, eg Hofstede G. (2001) Culture's consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  2. It’s difficult to find statistics on dog trainers and gender, even for the US, but these articles are interesting:
    • Goebelbecker, Eric |  Sat, 05/08/2010 - 21:13 Why do women dominate the dog training field? Dogstar Daily
    • Coren, Stanley (2016) Are women better dog trainers than men? In Psychology Today .
    • London, Karen. Do Women and Men Approach Dog Training Differently?
  3. Lindsay, S. (2005) Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Volume 3: Procedures and protocols. Blackwell Publishing, and Millan, C. (2011) Cesar’s Rules Hodder and Stoughton
  4. Zulch, H. and D Mills (2012) Life Skills for Puppies. Hubble and Hattie, and McDevitt, Leslie (2015) Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program. Clean Run Publications, South Hadley MA
  5. Miklosi, A (2014) Dog Behaviour, Evolution and Cognition. Oxford University Press Miklosi’s work influenced Claudia Fugazza (2014) Do as I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs. Dogwise Publishing.
  6. A key writer who links etho logy with training is of course Patricia McConnell, eg (2002) The Other End of the Leash: Why we do what we do around dogs’. Random House.
  7. Patton, P. (2003) Language, power and the training of horses. In C.Wolfe (Ed) Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (pp83-89). University of Minnesota Press