The overlap between the way humans and dogs behave
Pioneering dog researchers at Family Dog Project in Budapest, Hungary, summed up the strong dog-human connection by saying that “there is a large overlap” between the way humans and dogs behave “because during their evolution in close contact with human groups, dogs evolved functionally similar social skills.” Studying these similar behaviours “widens our possibility for understanding human cognition.”
In other words, dogs aren’t slobbering idiots. Complex things are actually going on under their furry hoods. And understanding dog behaviours allows us to better understand human behaviours.
Lassie Come Home
Other people have what I call “Hollywood Syndrome”.
Whether they’re five years old or fifty, they have a bunch of sentimental dog movies looping through their heads. They think that having the golden retriever, the Dalmatian(s) or the Lassie dog will automatically open up some magical, perfect world, complete with the dancing, the music, and the Technicolor. People get so caught up in the fantasy that they can’t see the amazing dog-in-waiting sitting right in front of them.
Movie-star dogs have to go through months and even years of training and education. Like human movie stars, they are surrounded by a team of professionals: a number of different trainers, stylists and makeup artists, sitters, managers, agents, lawyers, as well as canine stunt doubles and stand-in dogs to do certain scripted tricks. How can a typical family compete with these pro dogs? They can’t, and they shouldn’t even think of trying. But some dog owners refuse to let go of their illusions and choose to believe that somehow, they got a doggy dud and there’s a better Lassie out there somewhere. Too often, that means the entire family unit has to suffer through a sixteen-year prison sentence or the dog gets packed off to the animal shelter or put to death. Whatever happens it’s not a pretty picture after all.
Before you start shopping around for a dog, ask yourself why you want one, and do your best to make sure that you’re starting your relationship with realistic expectations. If it’s too late for that, its still a perfect time to start training yourself to be aware of your own expectations of your dog and of yourself.
What do you want your dog to be able to do
When I ask my second question, “What do you want your dog to be able to do?”, people often respond by telling me they want a certain breed. In my opinion, our culture is much too breed-centric about dogs. Instead of really digging into what kind of relationship they want with their dogs, people often focus on the look of the dog.
While it’s important to choose a breed that fits your lifestyle and your needs, remember every dog has a unique personality. People will say. “Well I had a Labrador seven years ago who was calm and mellow.” And assume that’s how all Labs will be. They don’t realize they’re describing a dog’s personality. They get another Lab and the feel let down because she isn’t like that at all.
Imagine if you expected that from children: “Oh the first baby was so sweet and mellow, she slept through the night and rarely ever cried. But the new one… We can’t get a night’s sleep anymore! We can’t figure out why we he’s not an exact match!” You wouldn’t think that about people, so why view dogs in that way? Every member of your family should be on the same page, or at least in the same book, when they commit first to getting a dog and second to defining what kind of dog suits their lives. But family members will often have very different wants and expectations that would be impossible for any dog to live up to. To illustrate the point, here’s a dialogue I recently had with a married couple:
WIFE: I want a pug
Brad: Okay, that’s a shorthaired breed. It will need to wear a coat in the winter if you want to spend a lot of time outdoors.
Husband: I want a bulldog.
Wife: What about a husky?
Brad: How’d you go from a pug to a husky!?
Wife: They’re beautiful and fluffy.
Husband: I don’t want a dog that needs grooming. I want a dog I can take for runs on the beach.
Brad: Sounds romantic, why don’t you take your wife to the beach?
Husband: She’s not a runner.
Brad: And you wouldn’t put your wife on a leash and expect her to chase after you for five miles, yanking at her to keep moving when she gets tired or wants to pause to talk to a friend, right?
Husband: Of course not!
Brad: Then why expect that from a dog? Even dogs that like to run like to stop periodically to smell the territory and check out old and new dog buddies along the way. You need to be willing to do that.
Wife: I just want something to cuddle with.
Brad: Sweet. Why don’t you cuddle with Two Legs? He’s there 24/7 for you.
Wife and Husband (in unison): Oh Brad don’t be crazy!
What’s so crazy about assuming that a married couple should meet each other’s needs for companionship, love, and affection instead of expecting a dog to fill that role? There is nothing crazy about having realistic expectations of our dogs, like wanting to have a dog that can go off-leash, is well-behaved around kids, respects our human possessions, and doesn’t have a melt-down every time we set foot out of the house. Canines don’t come to us pre-programmed like computers, so its’ our job to teach them how to do these things. And if we are not meeting their needs, they will rebel. No dog could possibly live up to a wild mix of human expectations and be a healthy, well-adjusted dog. They don’t come with an on-off switch that can be used to shut down inappropriate human expectations. And they don’t come with a two-year warranty, though like appliances. They often fall apart around that time, and far too often, it’s only then that owners go looking for someone to “fix” the dog.
There’s no shortage of doggy mechanics out there who are willing to peek under the hood, diagnose the dog’s issues in a seemingly authoritative voice, and promise to quick-fix anyone’s troubled pet. Some will even provide a warranty or claim to provide you with lifelong training. Even if they live up to that promise, why would you give them a second chance to wreck your dog even more? Too many dog trainers will actually screw your dog up on the first try, kind of like the shady car mechanic who messes with your brakes, carburetor, and windshield wipers along the way, even though these parts had no problems before you walked into the shop. I’ll get into the dog trainer con artists in greater detail in Chapter 4, but for now let’s just say the pet industry is a dog-eat-dog world. I’ve seen many dogs with great potential turned into ticking time bombs because of bad training.
Dogs, Not Bombs
Too often it is my job to defuse that ticking time bomb or pick up the pieces after the explosion. I love working with dog’s, but I don’t exactly relish being called in as a “last resort.” I’d much rather start educating dog owners before they’ve begun window shopping at pet stores or cruising shelters, and certainly before they bring a four-legged friend into their lives.
Considering the bizzaro state of current interspecies relationships, I guess you could call my picture a sort of fantasy too. But I don’t expect perfection in myself or my dogs and ditto for my clients and their dogs. Flaws, quarks, frailties, self-esteem issues, and biases are just part of any relationship package, and program. With dog training, one size does not fit all.
All animals foster their young and teach them how to survive and prosper in happy contented life. If we choose to bring a dog into our lives, it is our job to take over the reins and do our best to protect and safeguard our dogs. But if they’re going to fit into our pack, they need our leadership first and foremost. Failure to establish and maintain consistent leadership with our dogs is the number one reason interspecies relationships start going off track. And dogs can get even more messed up when they are forced to play wishbone to caregivers with incompatible ideals about how to raise the dog. A dog can’t possibly function healthfully around that kind of human friction. I’ve seen firsthand how problem dog behaviors escalate in that kind of environment, and sometimes those issues become the tipping point in a relationship, leading to divorce and ugly custody battles. Sometimes I think I’ve seen it all, but then a new client pitches me another goopy curve ball or someone e-mails my website with crime scene photos of a good dog gone bad, and I realize that there are more problems out there then I imagined.
Deadly Consequences of Human Neglect
Millions of dogs are abandoned, sent to shelters and euthanized every year. How many of these dogs could have been saved if their needs had been met and they’d been offered some sensible, practical training? More than we would like to know. But I create some of these statistics myself because I am sometimes obliged to make the call to euthanize a dog. It’s the worst part of my job. Nine times out of ten, dogs who end up being put to death because of apparently incorrigible behaviors sent out warning signs for many years that were lost in translation or ignored by their human caregivers.
Bad behaviors sometimes include biting, and every year, there are about 4.5 Million of those in the United States alone. In far too many cases, the biting dogs become aggressive because they were neglected by a string of individuals long before they lashed out: bad breeders, pet store operators, rescue groups who hawked puppies who’d been ripped from their litters weeks before they should have been, and owners failed to make sure that their dog’s needs were met. Aside from the rare dog with neurological damage, dogs aren’t born killers. They don’t wake up thinking, “Hmm, can’t wait to bite the hand that feeds me.” But that is exactly what happens when their needs are not met. After all they are carnivores with forty-two teeth, just like wolves and foxes, and they can use them to injure or kill when they’ve been mistreated or neglected.
We’ve all read the occasional news stories about killer dogs (and subsequent breed bans in some American states) that vilify certain dogs, when in reality, these animals are the victim of bad breeders, trainers, and owners. Dog breed profiling fails, to take into account all the recent academic research that has found little to no correlation between specific breeds and behaviors but instead underlines the personalities and individual dog owners in shaping dogs’ characteristics. Whatever the dog breed, we ignore that important factor at the peril of both species.
TRAINING SAVES DOG’S LIVES
Sixty-three percent of American households have a dog, but millions are abandoned and sent to shelters every year. Only 16 percent of these shelter dogs are adopted, and approximately 5 Million of these dogs and cats are euthanized annually. Statistics from the National Council on Pet Population revealed that a whopping 96 percent of dogs shipped to shelters had received absolutely no training.
The third question I ask my clients is probably the toughest of all because it often gets to the deeper issues in people’s lives. Asking someone to define what a successful dog-human relationship is in their view sometimes means putting all their cards on the table about their own life and looking at whether they’re meeting their own goals and definitions of success. If you were asked this question, you might say when you first got your dog, success meant being able to go on off-leash hikes every weekend. But maybe the demands of your job got in the way; you’re now working weekends and there’s barely time for quick walks around the block. Your life is stressful and your dog isn’t getting what he needs, so even those short walks become tug-o’-war matches.
When dog relationships come under strain, those hopes and expectations go out the window and people revert to a sort of survival mode. Many of my clients become prisoners in their own homes because they are too afraid to step outside with the dog. That kind of siege mentality just makes matters worse for everyone.
Of course, these problems don’t develop overnight. Many of my dog clients’ negative behaviors have been going on for months or years. But they haven’t taken them seriously enough until the dog does something really bad or there is an impending change: a baby is on the way, a new partner is laying down the “It’s me or Rover” ultimatum, or the dog bit another dog, for example So now, not only do they have to fix the learned behaviors and bad habits, they have to do it within a short period of time—or else?
But you can’t fix problems if there are issues among the human pack members. I’m no marriage counsellor or family therapist, but I often have to find creative ways to get people operating in harmony before they can start doing the same with their dogs—like asking a couple to take dance lessons while their teen kids work on dog training or incorporating some dog training into a family picnic so build up a family’s teamwork skills. The goal is to get people bonding and communicating with each other effectively. That often means getting honest and acknowledging that they’ve veered away from their own hopes and ideals about a successful family life.
With dog training, every single member of the family unit should be 100 percent on board, acting as a team to provide coordinated and consistent structure. People sometimes need to be reminded that any good relationship doesn’t just fall into their laps tied up with a pretty bow—it takes time and effort, openness to change, and some sacrifices along the way.
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