Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Space Between the Notes

Most dog owners are pretty familiar with how to meet a dog’s basic needs. These include quality food, fresh water, proper shelter, proper grooming, and veterinary care. Dogs require the above primary needs to survive.

Many dog owners also understand that dogs have additional needs, as well. The ones they typically recognize are proper identification, exercise, affection, playtime, and training (house manners and obedience). These secondary needs enable dogs to not just survive, but thrive. Dogs are incredibly adaptable, and can survive without the above, but they will not be their best, or their happiest. Their humans will also be frustrated with their behavior, too, and may elect to relinquish them.

What many dog owners do not know is that dogs have additional secondary needs, also needed to thrive. These are:

· Confinement
· Structure
· Elimination of confusion
· Mental stimulation
· “Work”
· Passive bonding
· Stress reduction
· Leadership


Though all dogs benefit from the above, some need less of each, and some need more, and some need different tools to get there. Every dog has personality differences, and different breeds have different specific needs.

People are sometimes quite surprised to find that the Corgi (or German shepherd, or Dalmatian, or Lab, etc.) that they acquire in adulthood acts differently than the one they grew up with. Personalities vary within breeds, and even within individual litters. And let’s not forget the concept of “selective memory”: many people’s memories of their beloved, long-dead childhood pets are rosy and sentimental. They tend to forget the hardships (or the fact that Mom or Dad actually trained the dog) and mistakes.


That's me above, circa about 1977, with the dog we got when I was 5, a Springer spaniel named Hanna. I helped a little with her training, and she really was a friendly dog. But I'm sure my whole family whitewashes her; I can't recall a single bad thing she ever did. However, I would not own the breed again, so my whitewashed memories do not override what I've learned the last 30 years.
This "rose-colored glasses" syndrome isn't just associated with our pets, either. Neuroscientist blogger Patrick, on the blog veryevolved.com, writes

It’s not surprising to say nostalgia is all about memories. These recollections of our past are usually important events, people we care about, and places we’ve spent time at. What is perhaps a little surprising is that nostalgia is almost always associated with positive emotions – even when the trigger for recalling a nostalgic memory is something negative. In the study I’ve linked to [link is broken] the negative memory people reported was usually a bad situation that was eventually overcome – a bad memory tempered with a good outcome and association.


Sorry for the digression, but I talk to people on a daily basis who are dealing with this syndrome. I hope to write more about "the dog you have, not the dog you wanted to have" sometime in the future.

Anyway, let’s look at each of these additional secondary needs briefly:

CONFINEMENT enables the dog to make fewer mistakes in the home when he first arrives, until training “takes.” Crates are the most effective confinement tool, but other tools can work. All dogs in a new situation need confinement when they are not being directly supervised. And contrary to what some people believe, the majority of dogs appreciate confinement, especially during that somewhat stressful acclimation period but often throughout their entire lives, more than you’d think.

STRUCTURE is what helps dogs relax and understand boundaries. It involves consistency and predictable consequences. Dogs do not need or want to be completely “free” and unstructured. The vast majority of pet dogs value structure over pure freedom. It’s a lot less scary to know exactly what’s ahead, right? A shelter dog put into a new home situation and left to his own devices can suffer a mild meltdown. I've often written and said that shelter dogs are not in shelters because of too much structure--they are often there because they never received enough. For children and pets, proper structure is a gift of love.

ELIMINATION OF CONFUSION is training, done with lots of rewards for the right behavior and clear instruction to help the dog “get it.” Set him up for success so that mistakes are fewer, and correct dispassionately if you catch him “in the act,” or, ideally, just prior. (A correction can be anything from an attention-getting "EH-EH!" to a leash "pop", always followed by redirection and reward.) Do not punish after-the-fact. Nearly all dog misbehaviors are the human’s fault. It’s not fair to be confusing. If you ever find yourself saying, “But he KNOWS better!” it’s very likely that he actually doesn’t. So show him.

MENTAL STIMULATION keeps the brain from getting bored. Many destructive behaviors stem from lack of mental stimulation. Use interactive toys (such as the I.Qube at left), daily walks with obedience thrown in, car rides and outings, nosework, and mental games like hide-n-seek or “Find It.” Dogs with jobs are happier than dogs without. And one of the coolest things about mental stimulation is that it tires dogs out as well as (or sometimes better than) physical exercise. Most pet dogs are vastly understimulated mentally.

WORK is part of your dog’s heritage. All dogs were bred for a specific purpose, even the toy breeds. (Sitting on royal laps is a vocation!) Learn your dog’s tendencies, and give him appropriate jobs to do. There are tons of dog sports or activities you can become involved in, even as an amateur, but it need not necessarily be intensive—even obedience and “fetch” can be work for “less intense” breeds and mixes. Work provides mental stimulation, too.

And do not acquire a field-bred dog or high-drive breed if you aren’t going to actually work him in the sport or job to which he was bred, or as close a variation as you can. It’s unfair.

The Belgian Malinois is a beautiful, alert, high-drive dog bred for police work. The breed excels at bitework (pictured above). It does NOT make a good pet for the average (or even above-average) household.
Active bonding
happens when you are your dog interact. When you play, cuddle, do obedience work, dog sports, or tricks, or walk your dog with purpose, that’s active bonding. You and your dog are in tandem, fulfilling each other’s needs actively and purposefully. But what about when you aren’t doing that stuff?

“Music is the space between the notes.” ~Claude Debussy



PASSIVE BONDING keeps the relationship humming. It is the space between the notes of activity. Passive bonding is watching TV/reading/knitting/working while your dog lies sleeping at your feet. It can be the dog sleeping in bed with you (if he’s earned it). It’s the dog gnawing a favorite chewy or toy while you hang out with your spouse, or even alone. For new puppy owners, passive bonding is taking place when your pup sleeps in his crate in the room with you (the sound of your breathing is comforting to him) as opposed to being crated in another room. Most dogs will fall asleep during this time, but that’s not a problem. What makes it passive bonding is that Fido is in the room with you, probably near you, maybe even touching you, but you are not actively interacting with him. Owners need self-control for this exercise (this is not “fondle time”), and some dogs are better at it than others. But all dogs can—and should—learn how to do it.

If you are constantly touching your dog, he is likely to become confused, neurotic, pushy, or even clingy, depending on his temperament. Our constant need to touch is more about what we want than what our dogs need. Ignoring the dog’s real needs increases stress and makes for an unhappy dog.

WHAT? Did I just tell you that you aren’t allowed to pet your dog? Absolutely not. That’s one of the main reasons people acquire dogs! Touch is important to both our species, but there is such a concept as “too much of a good thing.” Affection is necessary, soothing, lowers your blood pressure and releases a bonding hormone known as oxytocin, all positive things. But it should be (1) purposeful, (2) on your terms, and (3) not make up the bulk of your time with your pooch.

It's quite possible that you are, at this very moment, engaged in passive bonding with your dog as you read this; I was when I wrote it. (There's a cubby in my desk underneath my computer, and it's my terrier mix's favorite spot to be in as long as I'm working.)

STRESS REDUCTION helps your dog to feel safe in your world. The elimination of all stress is neither possible nor preferred, because in small amounts, stress aids the learning process. Without stress, we cannot grow. But our pets are subject to many types of unnecessary stress, and alleviating some of it makes a difference. Balanced training and structure are stress-relievers. Are you seeing a pattern here?

LEADERSHIP is the ultimate goal, the pinnacle, the summit. Dogs are born knowing they belong in a social group, and social groups always function more efficiently with a benevolent leader. Be the leader in your relationship with your dog, and he will be his very best. Leadership is about discipline, but not about force. Lack of leadership causes a host of behavioral problems, including many types of aggression. Want your pooch to worship you? Be a leader. Want him to “have your back”? Earn that respect by being clear, consistent, and following through.

3 comments:

  1. Confession. It is actually physically difficult for me to look at the picture of little you semi-hugging your childhood springer. I have a visceral response of alarm. It's like watching someone stick her hand into the dispose-all. (I had a wonderful springer, named Jack, as a kid.)

    I think we've learned similar things in the last 30 years.

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  2. Heather, that's amusing on a number of levels. I, too, usually cringe at these photos, but as I found and posted that one of me I never even thought about it...just the way I probably never even thought about it as a child as I was doing it.

    Now, as a trainer, I am hyper-alert to it. But not in my own photo. Is it because my dog was actually good? Or is it because I have whitewashed those memories?

    My partner and I were talking about the idea that the dogs we grew up with were more stable than dogs we see today. I have no way of knowing if this is indeed true, but it sure seemed that way. If it's true, is breeding a factor? Training? More folks not willing to put up with dogs' bad behaviors?

    Is the fact that the photo of me hugging my dog (and, simultaneously, any photos of my S.O. hugging her dogs or using them as walking aids) does not make me cringe a result of a fact that those dogs were more bombproof, or it is due to selective memory?

    I mean, we were kids then. That affects wisdom.

    As you noted, many dog trainers today would not consider a Springer to be the first choice for a family pet. I chalk that up to the breed (like many) getting more inbred over the years and becoming more unstable, as many breeds have. It could also be that "greeders" produce way more dogs than were available 40 years ago, and people tend more toward coddling than training.

    or, it could be the ghost of Tom Sawyer at work. ;-)

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  3. Excellent post! I will be sending this link to clients. Thank you!

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