How Does Your Dog See and Understand the World?
Scenario: A pleasant neighborhood on a sunny day, we observe a human and her dog taking a walk together. All of a sudden, the dog strains on leash, barking and lunging. The human tries to calm the dog down to no avail. She keeps looking around and sees nothing that should make her dog react this way. She gets frustrated and tries to pull her dog away from the “phantom”. The dog resists, straining against its collar, barking and snarling. She yells and pulls harder. The dog finally follows her, but keeps looking back, growling at what seems to be nothing. The human is angry, frustrated, and discouraged. She makes her way back home and vows never to walk her dog again.
So what just happened? Why would a dog seemingly bark and lunge at nothing? First, let’s get one thing straight. Dogs never bark and lunge at “nothing”. There is always “something” that causes this behavior. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum. As a human, it is sometimes difficult to understand, but it is our role to try to figure out what is making our dogs react this way and to help them work through it. Dog owners are often perplexed when their dogs apparently start to bark at “nothing”, see “imaginary” things in the car, or see something benign, like a flag fluttering in the breeze, and react by barking and lunging. Why does this happen?
Let’s start with a little background. Dogs don’t see the world as we do. We can understand concepts. For example, if I say the word “shoe”, as a human, you start thinking of shoes. Hmmmm, I am wearing a pair on my feet right now but I wish I was wearing my comfy sandals. I have about 20 pairs of shoes, dress shoes, running shoes, boots (do they count?), shoes with heels, flats, red shoes, brown shoes and so on. When I go shopping and see a new shoe in a store, one I haven’t seen before, I am still able to recognize it as a shoe. I know what it is and it doesn’t scare me.
For dogs, this is not the case. Although it is not possible to know what is going on inside the mind of a dog with any real certainty, we think that dogs see the world very differently from us. Their understanding is not language based as ours is, but rather sensory: visual (see), olfactory (smell), auditory (hear) and tactile (touch). We believe that dogs see and understand the world in images/smells/sounds and are not able to conceptualize the way humans are able.1
A dog’s ability to understand and cope with the world is rooted in their experiences as a very young dog. We talk a lot about socialization for puppies, but what does this mean and what does it actually do? How does it contribute to the raising of a well-adjusted dog?
The experiences and exposures that a young dog has in the first four months of life2 form the basis of how they cope with the world. The more positive experiences a puppy has, and the wider the scope of those experiences, the better adjusted he will be. The human caregivers of that new puppy are responsible for providing a vast array of sights, sounds and positive experiences so that the dog can develop a really big “catalogue” of experiences – pictures, sounds, smells, tactile experiences – that they will be able to use as reference points when they encounter new things later in their lives. That means taking your puppy to many different places (parks, playgrounds, stores, schools, coffee shops, cities, countryside, animal hospitals, lakes…), introducing them to many different people (men, women, children, toddlers, babies, seniors, people in wheelchairs, on crutches, with canes…, black people, white people, big people, little people) wearing all kinds of different things (hats, coats, gloves, glasses, helmets, beards...), exposing them to a wide variety of everyday items, animals and sounds (cars, trucks, tractors, boats, lawnmowers, bicycles, skateboards, vacuum cleaners, brooms, ironing boards, plastic bags, bells, flags, whistles, cats, horses, cows, thunder, lightning, fireworks…), introducing a variety of surfaces for them to walk on (concrete, wood, sand, gravel, grass, plastic, carpet, rubber…). Wow, that’s a lot!
Here is a link to a free puppy socialization guide that can help you keep track: http://www.petprofessionalguild.com/Resources/Documents/Puppy%20Socialization%20Check%20List.pdf
There is a great app called Sound Proof Puppy Training that you can use to help your dog learn to love sounds. Use an external speaker to get good sound quality. Check it out here: https://www.facebook.com/SoundProofPuppyTraining
By working to give your dog a really big “catalogue” as a frame of reference, your dog will be better able to cope with novel situations later in life.
There is only ONE RULE regarding puppy socialization that must ALWAYS be respected. Socialization means not only increasing your dog’s experience and exposure to new and novel stimuli, it means that your dog must form POSITIVE associations with all of these new things! This is the KEY!!! Your dog must ENJOY all of these new experiences. If your dog is fearful or unsure in any situation, DO NOT push your dog towards the scary thing, it will only INCREASE her fear. Instead, work to make your dog change her mind about the situation, sound or thing. Do this by pairing something your puppy loves (chicken, liver, etc.) with what she finds scary at a distance or volume that will allow her to be aware of it but not overly concerned about it. If you are unsure about how to accomplish this, please get professional help from a positive, force free trainer! Check here: https://positively.com/dog-training/find-a-trainer/find-a-vspdt-trainer/. It will be money well spent to ensure that your dog is off to a great start and on the right path to becoming a well-adjusted dog.
So why was that dog barking and lunging at “nothing”? Just because we can’t see, hear or smell something doesn’t mean the dog can’t. There may be some small change in the environment, a new fluttering flag on a neighbor’s lawn, a new scent that is reminiscent of a bad experience, the distant sound of a car backfiring, all of which could spark fear in your dog. So be empathetic, give your dog some distance from what is scaring her, increase the distance by jogging away with her or by taking her inside. Then pause and take a moment to really look at the environment. What was it? Take a closer look to see if you can figure it out. Then work to help her cope. This will help build a bond of trust that will carry you both into a long and happy life together.
Watch for my next article on Dogs and Fear. It will be an eye opening experience!
1 This concept has been explored by Dr Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University in her many lectures and books.
2 Research that indicates that the critical socialization period begins at 2 weeks and ends at 16 weeks. Freedman et al., 1960; Fox and Stelzner, 1966, 1967; Cairns and Werboff, 1967; Fox, 1969; Wright, 1983 and many more.
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