Mans’ best friend is an animal.
On one level, we all know this. Forty-four percent of Americans own a dog, and from my personal experience, a lot of these dog parents are enthusiastic about learning more about their furry best friend. Nearly every pet parent I meet has an interesting factoid they’re excited to share about their favorite breed.
It’s easy to get swept up in these interesting bits of trivia, though, and to start viewing our furry best friends as a compilation of novel information rather than, well, an animal with animal instincts and needs.
We know that beagle was bred to dig, but we’re still shocked when one tries to express this natural instinct in our own backyard.
We know heelers were bred to chase and nip, yet we get frustrated when they try to herd small children.
This extends to dogs as a whole, too. All dogs are natural foragers, but we’re upset when they dig in our unattended trash cans full of table scraps and used napkins.
All of these scenarios are, indeed, annoying, but not at all unpredictable.
This is where traditional views of dog behavior and training have failed us. Outdated philosophies advise us to focus on shaping our dogs to fit seamlessly into our lives.
The focus is often on discipline and training instead of all-around animal care; the question too often becomes, “how do I get Fido to respect the house rules?” A more appropriate question would be, “what are some realistic goals I can have for the animal that shares my house?” Or perhaps, “how can I balance my human needs with my dog’s animal needs and instincts?”
It would be pretty naive to assume that a majority of an animal’s needs could be met through formal training, yet that is exactly the lie traditional dog training sells us. Exercise is often the only enriching experience tacked on to the care plan for our dogs. Even walking your dog becomes an exercise in discipline, though, with rigid rules about how much Fido is allowed to sniff and explore, and a strict rule for where he is allowed to walk being outlined; come, sit, heel, stop sniffing.
Over the years, we've been told that this is so that your dog won't think they are leading the walk; you can't let them think they're the alpha! (Wrong.) Or perhaps it's because your dog needs to practice self-control and needs to show you respect by walking at your side. (Still wrong.) Maybe controlling our dogs' actions to this extreme level will keep them in a calm state of mind, as dogs need to be reminded that it is us humans who are in control. (Still incredibly wrong!)
I believe the reason these myths have stuck around for so long is in part because we expect our dogs to fit into our lives completely comfortably and without change or compromise. It's convenient for us humans when our dogs' needs match our own. We have a strong preference for walking in a straight line at the same pace without too many detours. We need our trash to remain in the trash can, for our household to be quiet and mostly bark-free, and for our gardens to remain un-dug. Wouldn't it be nice if our dogs needed the same things out of life?
This isn't how it works, though. As animals, our dogs' needs will always be different from our own. Our dogs have a strong preference for ambling along on walks, sniffing, digging, foraging for food, chasing things, and vocalizing when excited or scared. These behavior have nothing to do with our relationship with our dog, and everything to do with their unique animal interests.
When we compare the domesticated dog’s life to the life of practically any other animal, our fixation on rules seems militant and misplaced.
The idea that the domesticated dog simply needs rules and discipline seems contrasted greatly with the way we view the needs of any other animal, except for possibly domesticated horses.
Caretakers for most other animals focus heavily on species-appropriate activities and enrichment. Like any other animal, our dogs have activities that are naturally soothing, engaging, and fun for them. They are genetically and biologically wired to enjoy aspects of life us humans would find boring, gross, or confusing.
As the caretaker in the relationship, it is up to us to facilitate safe ways for our dogs to express these interests.
Our dogs are genetically predisposed to enjoy foraging, sniffing, licking, chewing, chasing, shredding, and digging, among other things. Participating in these activities alleviates stress, and allows our dogs to connect with the world in a species-appropriate way.
Unfortunately, outdated training philosophies focused on creating complete compliance from our canine companions often neglect to address these animal instincts, choosing instead to hone in on rules and structures as the primary needs of our dogs.
The role of training should be to create a safe and mutually fulfilling means of coexistence between human and dog; training alone will never be enough to satisfy the animal needs of our furry best friends. Our dogs need safe outlets for natural behavior. Our dogs need time and space to just be dogs.
The more biologically appropriate activities we can give our dogs the option to engage in, the more relaxed and fulfilled we can (typically) expect them to be. Coexisting with a dog begins with recognizing their needs, including the ones dissimilar from our own.
This is how we demonstrate our value as a care-taker, and as our dogs’ best friends.
I have never had the urge to shred a couch cushion or sniff a fire hydrant, but I know that biologically, these urges are natural for my dogs.
As my dogs' care-taker and their friend, it is up to me to facilitate activities that are fun, fulfilling, and engaging for them. My primary goal as a canine care-taker is to create a safe, enriching, fulfilling environment for my dogs. Of course, I'll take common-sense precautions to protect myself and my property. Training will come second. Honoring the animal nature in mans’ best friend is part of the foundation for our cross-species relationship. It allows our dogs space to feel safe, engaged, enriched, and fulfilled. We can only expect the best behavior out of our dogs after their basic animal needs are met.