By Cecelia Sumner
Not surprisingly, I love living with dogs. I embrace their essential dogginess. Barking, jumping, digging, hunting, these are all normal canine behaviors. I recognize I need to provide an outlet for these behaviors to keep my dogs happy and stress-free.
Many pet owners struggle with understanding their dogs’ behavioral needs. While dogs evolved alongside humans, in recent history, our environment and expectations of our dogs have changed. Increasingly we fit our dogs into small compartments in our lives, often rendering us unable to allow them an appropriate way to express innate behavior. This can be stressful for them and, as a result, dogs may resort to destructive behavior or vocalizations to relieve their anxiety. These issues may then create a division between the owner, the dog and quite likely the neighbors too.
There are a multitude of things dog owners can do to help their pets cope with life in our human world. Choosing a dog with the right temperament to suit individual lifestyles, providing an outlet for energy and exercise and, most of all, taking the time to learn how dogs communicate are all great ways to avoid stressful situations and increase the fun for all involved.
I encourage prospective dog owners to take an honest look at their lifestyle. Selecting a dog that fits into their regular activities is the first step to a great relationship. I like to pick a dog based on personality more than appearance. An athletic person might do well with a sporty type dog, provided they include the dog in their exercise regime. A more sedentary lifestyle might require a more mature dog or one with a less energetic character. Take some time when selecting a pet. You will most likely be spending 10 to 15 years together. It is important to find a compatible personality.
Remember, you might love your friend’s Labrador, but there is a huge variation of dogs within a breed. Don’t just select a breed, choose an individual. There is great variety of canine personalities. Take advantage of that and find a dog who appeals to you, not just physically, but emotionally. Setting up you and your dog for success will make your lives together much easier.
Aside from that, having a dog you truly connect with will make meeting his emotional and physical requirements much easier. We all like to spend time doing things we enjoy. If you love your dog, you are more likely to find the time for walks or games or training. Dogs feel calmer when they get exercise and have a few moments to indulge in important canine activities, like barking, running and digging.
Because dogs are companion animals, just letting them out in the yard does not fulfill their emotional needs. You need to actually interact with your dog to keep unacceptable behaviors at bay. Leash walks are a good start. Put your cell phone down and focus on your pet when you walk. Practice loose leash walking, eye contact and attention exercises. This increases the connection between you and your dog. Interacting via training creates a relationship based in communication. That spills over into other aspects of your relationship with your pet. By increasing your ability to understand with each other, you will be lowering stress levels and creating good habits. This does not involve spending any extra time training your dog. You are simply using your time together more effectively.
There are many acceptable ways to give your dog an outlet for innate, but less acceptable behaviors. If your dog likes to dig, provide a digging pit in your yard. Chose an inconspicuous place, fill the area with play sand and bury some puppy prizes. This will help direct your dog to an appropriate way to indulge in his need to dig. If your dog barks, put it on cue. Then turn barking into a trick. If your dog likes to run, try teaching him to fetch a Frisbee or tennis ball. The dog gets exercise while you stand, or even sit, in one place. If your dog likes to hunt, try hiding a treat among a multitude of boxes. This gives his nose and brain a workout without a huge amount of effort on your part. You can also feed him using a food toy so he has to work to obtain the food. There are countless ways to provide enrichment in your dog’s life. Take a few minutes and be creative. These types of interactions are enjoyable for both of you and help keep canine anxiety at bay.
The most important thing we can do to lower stress for our dogs is to learn how to really interact with them. Even though we live with dogs, in my experience, most people do not take the time to understand how dogs communicate. Because we are compulsively verbal, we pepper dogs with an unending variety of words. They can learn to understand our vocalizations, but they understand body language much faster. Being clear and consistent makes everything easier for all of us.
It is not just the dog’s job to understand us. Being the (supposedly) bigger brained human, we should be able to understand communication is a two-way street. I spend a good amount of time just observing dogs. They are often eloquent in their body language but people just miss the cues. This must be so frustrating for the dogs. If you just take some time to focus on your pet, you will be surprised by how much he tells you. Watch his body postures. Are they soft and wiggly? Stiff? Ears forward or back? Is he soliciting attention? Or moving away? You will begin to become more aware and recognize a lot of these situations when you realize their importance.
Living with dogs is about more than a few minutes cuddling on the sofa at the end of the day. Living with dogs is about you taking the time to understand how to meet their physical and emotional needs. By being proactive about supplying an outlet for innate behaviors and listening to your dog, you can avoid behavioral stressors and create a satisfying relationship for both of you.
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, January 2015, pp.40-41. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.
About the Author
Cecelia Sumner CBCC-KA, CPDT-KSA owns Best Behavior Dog Training in Vero Beach, FL and is dedicated to fostering understanding and communication between dogs and their people.