Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

"Decoding Your Dog": Honoring What Dogs Want and Need

This new book offers a valuable guide for giving dogs the best lives possible

I just received a very interesting, useful, and practical book called Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones. What I like about this edited volume is that twenty authors weigh in on important questions about many different aspects of dog behavior and what they, the dogs, want and need and why this is so, and how to respect this and the choices they make as they interact with their human companions. Dogs come in many different colors, shapes, and sizes, and with different autobiographies and personalities, and these differences must be factored into how we interact with them as individuals and the choices the dogs and the humans make. 

I'm also impressed that the accolades from the few dog experts who did not contribute essays to this book are very strong and compelling. Many different reviews can be found here

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I found this review in USA Today by nationally syndicated journalist and radio host Steve Dale to be very useful. A few snippets from his essay should whet your appetite to read and share this book.

Q: Do dogs bite their owners or other familiar people because they are competing for "alpha status?"

A: This is untrue. Most often dogs bite for defensive reasons that are not related to a social hierarchy.

Q: Do dogs get on sofas, rush ahead on walks or jump on people to be dominant?

A: Again, no. Dogs favor couches for napping like we do, because they are soft, and because they smell like their favorite people. Dogs rush ahead on walks because they're eager to explore the world, those smells are exciting, and people are too darn slow. Dogs are happy to greet people and like to jump because it's the only way to greet them face to face, and because they are beyond exuberant.

Q: Do dogs purposely urinate in the house or otherwise behave badly because of separation anxiety?

A: Like all behavioral problems, dogs with separation anxiety aren't being spiteful. They're not intentionally punishing you for your departure; they are just attempting to cope with your separation. Like many behavior problems, an appropriate diagnosis is most important. Without veterinary input, people may assume the problem is separation anxiety, when the dog might be under-exercised and/or bored. Perhaps the dog is piddling in the house when you are away primarily due to an undiagnosed medical condition. Some dogs were never reliably taught to be home alone (despite what their owners believe). If this is a senior dog, has the dog "forgotten" house-training? Or does the dog actually suffer from separation anxiety? And suffer is the right word—these dogs are suffering. Often pharmacological intervention, combined with behavioral therapy, is most helpful and most humane.

 Q: If dogs are anxious or fearful, do they need better training?

A: Fears and anxieties have nothing whatsoever to do with how well a dog is trained or intelligence. In fact, if you have a dog who is pacing (perhaps a dog is fearful of an oncoming thunderstorm), and you tell her "lie down," and she does, while she may no longer be pacing she may still be very anxious. Anxiety doesn't go away just because you're not seeing it. One of the most potentially damaging myths is the idea that a dog should be punished for anxious or fearful behavior. The idea stems from the beliefs that the dog is "being bad" or "trying to be dominant" by not listening when you try to tell the dog to stop a certain behavior (pacing, whining, etc.). Using punishment will only make the animal more anxious and fearful in the long run.

This excellent book also stresses positive training methods rather than those that depend on abusive techniques. I like to think of dog "training" as dog "teaching" and that it involves a close, reciprocal, and deeply respectful relationship between dog and human. 

Who's in charge anyway?

Despite some people saying we really don't know what dogs (or other animals) want or need this isn't so. There's plenty of scientific research on this topic and it's clear that dogs want and need just what we want and need, namely, to live in peace and safety and have their desires respected. We need to listen carefully to what they are asking and telling us and learn what they're saying in their own doggie ways. Everyone who chooses to live with a dog—it's essential to realize that it is a choice and a long-term commitment—must become an expert in dog communication and pay close attention to the unique needs of their dog companion(s). And, what fun it can be to learn the language of dogs and enriching for all concerned.

My simple suggestion is to read through this book carefully and to share it widely. I'm sure the dog(s) with whom you choose to share your home and life and others will thank you for doing this. 

So, who's in charge anyway? Well, in the best of all possible worlds no one being should be in total charge but because we can do anything we want to other animals we really can be totally in charge. Sadly, some humans make this choice and the dogs greatly suffer. And, in some ways, so too do the people. 

Giving dogs the very best lives we can isn't asking too much of us

The best-case scenario would be to foster and maintain a very close and enduring reciprocal relationship in which there is mutual respect and love and the desire for all parties—dogs and humans—to have the very best shared life possible. We must also remember that a dog isn't a dog isn't a dog and that there is a lot of variation among them as there is among us. Talking about "the dog" is very misleading.

Giving dogs the very best lives we can isn't asking too much of us and they trust we will do this. As I've noted before, "The hearts of our companion animals, like our own hearts, are fragile, so we must be gentle with them. You can never be too nice or too generous with your love for our dear and trusting companions, who are so deeply pure of heart. Indeed, by honoring our companion's trust in us we tap into our own spirituality. These wonderful beings make us more human. Let's openly and graciously thank them for who they are for their unfiltered love and embrace their lessons in passion, compassion, devotion, respect, spirituality, and love. Surely, we will never have any regrets by doing so, and much pure joy will come our way as we clear the path for deep and rich two-way interdependent relationships based on immutable trust with our companions and all other beings."

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation (see also)and Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (see also).

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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