Giving Back

What dogs need from us

Posted Jun 22, 2016

This guest post is by Deborah Dobson. Deborah has worked with dogs for over twenty years and has written a number of articles about dogs. She lives in western North Carolina, where she teaches “Dog Behavior 101” classes and is currently working on a book about what her dog taught her about canine behavior. 

For over 25 years, I have been a pet sitter and for the past 10 plus years I have also worked as a dog behaviorist. During that time, I have met, worked with and cared for literally hundreds of dogs and have noticed that there are some fundamental things dogs need that directly impact both their behavior and their overall quality of life in a positive way.

In my "Dog Behavior 101" classes, I usually begin by asking a question: "True or false? If a dog is wagging her tail, she's happy, relaxed and approachable." Almost everyone says true. I then pause and say, "Not necessarily."

I challenge you to give back to your dog and really get to know him or her. Here are some of the things I have learned over the years about dogs and what they need, beyond high-quality food and fresh water daily. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that it is our ethical and moral responsibility as caretakers of another living being, that we owe this to our dog. 

Photo by Deborah Dobson

The author's dog, Nora, after a hike. 

Source: Photo by Deborah Dobson

Get to (Really) Know Your Dog 

Learn to "read" your dog by looking at images either in books or online of canine body language and then pay close attention to your dog's ears, the position of his or her head and what that tail is doing. A dog's body language is the key to her emotions.

Also, periodically run your hands along the sides of your dog's body, whether you're out walking or inside. Do you feel any muscular tension? If so, then your dog is not relaxed. What's causing them to be tense? Become familiar with the specific situations (other dogs, people, resource issues) that may trigger your dog to become tense. Then learn to help your dog relax by going for a walk, giving her a tummy rub, playing fetch, etc.

Assess your dog's overall basic temperament. Is your dog in the majority by being balanced between sometimes confident and sometimes afraid? Or is your dog on one end of the spectrum or another – either mostly fearful or supremely confident? Knowing your dog's personality will then allow you to gauge how best to train him or her and how to work with them on either curbing their rough and tumble ways or encouraging them to be less fearful.

Exercise: A positive daily habit for you and your dog

Even if your dog's legs are only six inches long, s/he still needs daily exercise, preferably aerobic if possible. If you can train your dog to a reliable recall ("come!"), take them hiking or walking off-leash. If you cannot or will not at least walk your dog every day for 45 to 60 minutes, either hire someone who can, or please find a better home for your dog. So many behavioral problems are alleviated by simply allowing dogs a much-needed outlet for their accumulated energy! A healthy dog is naturally excited and energetic; a tired dog is happy and calm.

Walking also provides your dog with variety (yes, dogs do get cabin fever!) and, because they learn volumes about the world through their acute sense of smell, it is pure heaven for a dog to be outside, inhaling all those fascinating scents.

Please don't bring your cell phone with you on walks; this is a shared time for you and your dog. Let him or her take the lead sometimes with you taking the lead at other times. Remember, this relationship is a partnership.

Meet and Greets: Socializing Your Dog

Socialize your dog – to both humans of all kinds and to other dogs. Many people isolate their dogs, having mistaken their excitement around new people or animals for aggression. Most dogs are not aggessive, they are excited. And just as you probably don't like every person you meet, your dog may not like every dog s/he meets! Again, learn to read your dog and if a situation turns tense, simply walk away.

When someone wants to pet your dog, hopefully they have asked you first rather than simply rushing over with a hand extended. Teach people to greet your dog appropriately by quietly standing in front of your dog and extending their hand down past the top of your dog's head so your dog can see the hand first. Then, allow your dog to sniff their fingers. Pause and wait a moment, watching your dog's body language for signs of relaxation. Next, tell the person it's all right to pet your dog and share with them your dog's favorite spots – behind the ears, above the tail, etc. Repeat often for positive socialization!

Teach your dog to be polite when meeting a new person. This means not jumping up on them in excitement! Place your dog in a sit-stay and wait till s/he's calmed down. The reward for sitting politely is being petted, again in all his or her favorite spots.

Finally, if you teach your dog nothing else, teach them to come and stay reliably – 90-95% of the time. This allows dogs the off-leash freedom they love and keeps them safe.

Home Alone 

Like us, dogs are social creatures and prefer not to be left alone for extended periods of time. They will often find creative ways to deal with boredom or anxiety, and I hear about this regularly from my dog behavior clients who complain about shredded pillows and chewed table legs. Thus, if you work full time and have a dog or dogs, please do not leave them inside for eight or nine hours a day. In my opinion, 1) not providing dogs the ability to relieve themselves and 2) isolating them for long periods of time amounts to neglect, and I sincerely hope that our laws will someday reflect this. Three to four hours is the longest period of time any dog should be left alone inside.

Enhancing the Bond With Your Dog

Praise your dog sincerely and often when s/he even approximates doing what you've asked. Remember, dogs know canine and we're asking them to learn a new language – ours. Be patient, be consistent and be proud of your dog when they understand.

Work with your dog toward a mutual goal. This could take the form of training for Search and Rescue, becoming a certified Therapy Dog or learning one of the many popular handler sports available today such as agility, dock jumping or herding to name but a few.

In Summary 

Having a dog is not unlike having a child; there is a direct correlation between the amount of quality time you spend with your dog and your dog's resultant behavior and happiness. It is an investment, just as it is with a child whom you want to grow into a positive, responsible, contributing member of society. That investment in your dog includes financial, emotional and time committments to his health, his happiness and his well-being.

So, if you truly love your dog, give her the best life possible. Take her for rides in the car and outings, walk her several times a day (and if you cannot, then hire someone to), play with her, feed her high-quality food, give her tummy rubs, praise her sincerely and enthusiastically when she does what you ask, make sure she gets regular check-ups at the vet and socialize her with other dogs and all kinds of people.

And then watch your dog bloom!