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Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us

A video called "Downward Dog" and an essay about stress show anxiety abounds.

A message we don't want to hear: Companion dogs are more highly stressed than we realize in a human-dominated world.

I recently learned about a video called "Downward Dog." I thought it was really well done, and the comments I received when I shared it with people echoed my views. My humble suggestion is to watch it, and while you're laughing, take into account what the dog is really saying, namely that, while things are sort of OK, they surely can be much, much better.

ChickenStock Images/Shutterstock
Source: ChickenStock Images/Shutterstock

I also just read "The Secret Life of Dogs When Left Alone Is Pretty Sad: How to Deal With Your Pup's Separation Anxiety," an essay by Naia Carlos that nicely summarizes "This Is What Happens To Your Dog When You Leave It Alone," a report from IFL Science. The bottom line is one that many of us don't want to hear: Numerous dogs suffer from separation anxiety and are more highly stressed than most people realize. According to the second essay, "The first 30 minutes after being left alone is usually the most stressful time for the majority of dogs ... However, for some individuals, this elevated level of stress can last for the whole time that they are left.” Their heart rate, respiratory functions, and levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, rise during these situations.

The essay continues:

"Dogs, it seems, can never get used to you leaving. After a while, they recognize certain cues of yours — walking toward the front door, looking for your keys, locking the bathroom, and so on — that notify them that you’re about to disappear, and the panic begins to set in earlier rather than later."

And if you think having a second dog will always make things better, think again: "[I]n some cases, one dog could learn from another about being anxious in that situation, so a pairing of dogs could sometimes make things worse. It’s really difficult to tell, unfortunately."

Fortunately, the situation isn't hopeless. We're advised, for example, to prepare "a home alone box, a container that contains soft toys, a rawhide chew or pig's ear, a few dog biscuits wrapped individually in sheets of newspaper, empty toilet rolls, things like that. When you’re about to leave the house, place it in front of them, and let them have a rummage around. Then, confidently, leave the house — don’t make a fuss of it."

And keep in mind this advice: "If you have a dog, the best time to train it to accept brief periods of isolation is when they’re a wee little puppy." Carlos tells us that "the dog's experience of being left alone during the critical socialization period as a young puppy — three to 14 weeks old — can influence how they deal with it as an adult."'

Dogs live in an environment that “makes it impossible for them to alleviate their own stress and anxiety.”

It might surprise people to learn that numerous companion dogs who are fortunate enough to share their life with a human are highly stressed, but when you think about it, they're always trying to adapt to a human-oriented/dominated world in which their wants and needs are secondary to those of their own and other humans.

Psychology Today writer Dr. Jessica Pierce provides an extensive discussion about this in her excellent book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. And in her book, Love Is All You Need, Jennifer Arnold notes that dogs live in an environment that “makes it impossible for them to alleviate their own stress and anxiety.” (p. 4) According to Arnold:

“In modern society, there is no way for our dogs to keep themselves safe, and thus we are unable to afford them the freedom to meet their own needs. Instead, they must depend on our benevolence for survival.”

Think about it: We teach dogs that they can’t pee or poop wherever they want. To eliminate, they must get our attention and ask for permission to go outside the house. When we go outside, we often restrain dogs with a leash or fence them within yards or parks. Dogs eat what and when we feed them, and they are scolded if they eat what or when we say they shouldn’t. Dogs play with the toys we give them, and they get in trouble for turning our shoes and furniture into toys. Most of the time, our schedule and relationships determine who dogs play with and who their friends will be.

It’s an asymmetric, one-sided relationship, one that many of us would not tolerate with another human. Simply put, dogs want and need more freedom. (See The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age). One way to relieve stress, your dog's and perhaps your own, would be to get down and dirty with them, and show your dog how much you love them and want them to enjoy themselves as much as possible.

Many dogs — let's hope most of them — make their peace with these compromises. Yet millions also live with stress-related disorders or are on drugs to relieve stress and anxiety. (See "Pets on the Couch: Do Animals Need Freud and Pfizer?") Arnold notes that we abuse our power over dogs when we impose our will on them without considering their thoughts and feelings. Ample research shows that dogs are deeply thinking and feeling social beings.

We impose a lot of demands imposed on dogs, day in and day out. We need to do all we can to reduce them to a minimum or to try to eliminate them totally.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is