Reality Check: Nine Things That Your Dog Wants You to Understand
Knowledge in all forms seems to wax and wane according to the dynamics of the times that we live in. This is consistent on all subjects but in particular, with dog behavior knowledge. We have come so far with an understanding of dog behavior and how to modify it, yet old school techniques and thought processes remain in the forefront of the public eyes and ears. The past refuses to die a proper death and dogs pay for this with their psyches and sometimes, their lives.
The only part of the ancient dog behavior knowledge that is truly accurate yet hasn’t seemed to be retained as common sense knowledge is to allow dogs to actually be dogs. Now they must be little furry humans who have reasoning powers beyond their species, along with impeccable and preprogrammed manners.
We expect dogs to live serenely and effortlessly in a world of human’s making, without showing any signs of being dogs. Then we are surprised when they act like dogs. We need to learn to respect dogs for who they are rather than the fantasy of who we think they should be. Lassie is a fallacy, made up for good ratings.
The renowned dog behavior expert Jean Donaldson once said, “Just a generation ago if you went near a dog when he was eating and the dog growled, somebody would say, “Don’t go near the dog when he’s eating! What are you, crazy?” Now the dog gets euthanized. Back then, dogs were allowed to say “No!” Dogs are not allowed to say no anymore. They can’t get freaked out, they can’t be afraid, they can never signal, “I’d rather not.” We don’t have any kind of nuance with regards to dogs expressing that they are uncomfortable, afraid, angry, in pain, worried or upset. If the dog is ever anything other than completely sunny and goofy every second, he goes from a nice dog to an “AGGRESSIVE DOG”.
This is completely and utterly accurate. It appears that the more we progress into modern times, the more that we expect dogs to be some sort of furry humans that can make critical thinking decisions at the drop of a hat. My dogs are super smart but they are not humans and I don’t expect human intelligence level decisions from them. Especially when in relation to behaviors and situations that I have not spent an iota of time training them for.
Dog’s lives can only be enriched with spreading this information to the masses, so here we go. Please accept your dogs for the wonderful creatures that they are. Understand that we expect them to live in OUR world, so it behooves us to spend time learning about how they learn, so that we can effectively communicate with them. They deserve nothing less than us safely and humanely teaching them to how to live in a world of our choosing. This is nothing more than we would want for ourselves. Below are the just the high points. There is so much more but for now, this will suffice.
- Dogs are entitled to have their meals uninterrupted. This means you, dear dog parent. Placing your hands in your dog’s food bowl only makes them annoyed, not under some delusion that you are some deity that deserves their undying gratitude. If someone repeatedly or even regularly but infrequently stuck their hands in your dinner plate, are you more likely to consider violence against them or think them your master? Enough said. This also goes for any high value (or not) recreational chew items that you give your dog. (If your dog threatens you when you are near these items, hire a professional please.) If you truly want your dog to think you are a rock star, then drop a piece of boiled chicken in their kibble bowl anytime you are near it and then you will get kudos from your dog, to all of his friends. Thinking that the former is the way to go is actually a really effective way to create the resource guarding that you are trying in vain to prevent. Don’t go there.
- Along those same lines, dogs are also entitled to sleep uninterrupted. I could retire young if I had a dollar for every single time I got a complaint about someone’s dog growling/snapping when touched/petted/hugged while sleeping. I don’t know about you but I am also pretty prone to striking out unintentionally if touched unexpectedly, while deeply sleeping. Add to this equation a newly adopted dog who has not yet formed a relationship of trust with his current humans and you have a serious potential for problems with this expectation. Don’t expect more of your dog while sleeping than you would expect of a human new to you. Every being deserves some body respect.
- Dogs are not robots. It is an extremely unrealistic expectation to want a dog to walk by your side without a leash in a public place. Occasionally, I get asked “what breed of dog can I get” that can do this. None. Breed has nothing to do with this. It’s a relationship based behavior, as well being a lovely goal to aim for in areas appropriate for off leash fun, that allow this to be done legally. However, this is AFTER a whole lot of incremental and lengthy training to get to that point. But understand that even then you take your chances, again, DOGS ARE NOT ROBOTS. They will weigh their options and if that deer (or turkey or bear, etc.) appear to be more rewarding in the moment to chase, they will do so, regardless of how much training time you have invested. No individual of any species is 100% exactly the same each moment of each day. No matter how many times I have allowed my superbly trained dogs off leash in any given situation outside of secure fencing, I have 100% of the time breathed an sigh of immense relief when reattaching the leash. Free will, dogs have it too. This same theory applies to allowing one’s dog off leash in unfenced yards as well as expecting them to stay somewhere in public unsupervised without any constraints or anywhere at all without constraints for that matter, supervised or unsupervised.
- Puppies are babies. Babies of any species take time to grow up. This means poop and pee to clean up for months, without a complaint. You signed up for this, remember? House training takes time. Manners training takes time. If you have human children, you know they were not “done cooking” in a week or two or even a month or two. Human kids do attend school for twelve years for a reason! Learning is incremental. Dogs don’t need twelve years to learn to potty appropriately and to have decent manners, thankfully. But they do need for you to not be impatient with their normal progress. They do need for you to understand that they have developmental stages and that those developmental stages all have different levels of cognitive powers. Do not expect your 12 week old puppy to have the level of understanding or the attention span that an adult dog does. Here is a good place to read about developmental stages.
- Socialization is a very misunderstood word in the dog world. Let’s say that you were forced as a child to go a lot of places that scared you and you were very stressed inwardly at all of these places yet you never showed how you felt outwardly. Would that then mean that you were socialized to these places simply because you were repeatedly exposed to them? The adult you knows perfectly well that you did not like these places that you went as a child and would now go out of your way to avoid them. And at some point when you felt pushed beyond all endurance, you would likely have a meltdown at such a place if forced to go again against your will again as an adult. This is exactly what happens to puppies who tolerate places/things/people/experiences as a puppy and then one day when they feel safe with their own voice, “speak up” about how they really feel about these situations. In a nutshell, exposure does not equal socialization. The exposure has to be enjoyable to fall into that category. Make your puppy’s socialization enjoyable. Read more about that here.
- If you are a normal well adjusted person, you do not like everyone you meet. It’s an impossible expectation, am I right? Then why expect your dogs to like all dogs? Most dogs actually do not want to greet other dogs when out and about. Of course there are many that do, but they are the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, dogs generally like to spend time with their humans rather than other dogs, even if they do sometimes enjoy the company of some other dogs. Read about that here. And here is another fabulous article about on leash greetings. The take away here is that polite dog parents do not allow their dogs to approach other dogs in a huge variety of situations such as on walks, in the veterinarian’s waiting room, in pet supply stores, anywhere really unless this is a mutually agreed upon by the humans AND dogs type of situation.
- Most dogs generally don’t enjoy being touched by strangers. There, I said it. I realize that this comes as a surprise to many people but it’s quite true. After all, YOU generally don’t want to be touched by strangers, do you? So please do your dog a favor and don’t allow them to be intruded upon like that. I could write at length on this subject but since I already did, I will just link you to that right here. There are exceptions to every rule, but they are just that, exceptions.
- You are a social being. You like going to a variety of places. Your preference is taking your dog to all of the places that you can possibly get away with taking him to, right? However, I can guarantee that your dog does not always enjoy these places/events/situations as you would have hoped. Too many people, too much noise, people being intrusive into his personal space, scary looking actions, etc. all contribute to a recipe for a very stressed dog. Sometimes this is visible outwardly, sometimes not so much. Here is more on that subject.
- “He doesn’t know his commands”. That phrase makes me cringe, dear dog parents. Dogs don’t come to you knowing what words and phrases mean. It’s up to YOU to teach them. But before the words are used, teach the behaviors and THEN attach the meaning to the words. And then instead of calling them commands, call them cues. Because that is what they really are. A signal, whether environmental or verbal, that triggers the dog to a specific behavior that you have taught. Here is some info on why the word command is something best left behind.
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Articles from Victoria Stilwell
- 2021 Dog Behavior Conference Announced
- Why I’m Not a Purely Positive Dog Trainer
- Becoming a Dog Trainer
- Social Bullying
- Does Your Dog Respect You?