The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

Decoding Your Pet

Is Your Dog Perfect? No?

Neither is mine. So why do we have that expectation?

Posted Jun 04, 2018

I have to start this discussion by making a statement: I think we’ve raised the bar of expectations on dogs. Not just a little bit, but a lot. Dogs are now expected to be a social extension of their owners, not “just a dog." In my part of the country, dogs are expected to happily accompany their owners to wineries, wander through the farmer’s market on a loose lead, play with random dogs in the dog park, and accept hugs and kisses from complete strangers like a rock star. All of this while people take on progressively longer work hours and commutes, leaving their dogs alone and bored for 10-12 hours at a stretch. What could possibly go wrong with this picture? Honestly, a lot! I am not quite sure how we got to this mismatch between expectations and reality, but it is a mismatch that causes many problems for my clients and their dogs.  

Let’s start with something simple, like exercise. How much is reasonable for your average dog? I have clients fill out an extensive questionnaire before we meet. In reviewing all these forms, I can tell you that the average owner takes their dog on a 20-minute walk twice a day. That’s it. No additional playtime, no other focused attention, nothing. Although we don’t know what is “ideal” for dogs, a reasonable assumption would be that we meet current human medical recommendations, which is a minimum of one hour of exercise per day. There are some breeds of dogs, particularly those developed for working alongside us, which require much, much more than this. 

As an example, in order to maintain everyone’s sanity, I determined that my young Border Collie required four hours of interaction per day from 2-9 months of age. Many people do not take this into account, and it causes problems. They complain of their dog being destructive or hyper or mouthy or . . . you get the picture. When I bring up the mismatch between what the dog needs and what they can provide, the owners say that they have taken care of that problem with a dog walker or doggie daycare or weekend outings, and again, that is where more mismatches pop up. There are assumptions built into those statements: that the dog actually enjoys doggie day care; that he will allow someone other than his people to handle him; that the walk he receives is actually more than a pee break; and so on and so forth. You can see where I am going with this.

Our suburban/urban lifestyle is a very intense and demanding environment for a dog. Just walking down the street is a challenge: trash on the sidewalk (“No! Don’t eat that!”), emergency vehicles screaming past (“Don’t be a scaredy-cat!”), strange people giving pets and hugs (“Come say hello, they love you!”), all kinds of items and structures to negotiate (“Stop being silly, it’s just a man-hole!”), and inappropriately behaving dogs on retractable leashes (“So what if he goosed your butt? He was just being friendly!”). Any of this sound familiar?  

Did you know that it takes almost a year and a half to develop and train a service dog to negotiate all of the above? Notice I said train, through a formal program with expert supervision, specific, identified goals, and savvy handlers using dogs genetically selected to be proficient at dealing with all of the above stressors. Yet we expect our own companion dogs to somehow thrive without any real concerted effort on our part. I don’t think that is very fair to the lovely animals that share our homes and our lives. So many problems could be avoided if we just acknowledged our due diligence and were a little more conscientious about giving our furry friends a good beginning with ongoing support.

When possible, that process should be started early in the dog’s life. The sensitive period for socialization in puppies is between 4-14 weeks of age. That is the period of time when they become familiar and at ease with their environment: people, places, and things that they will have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Learn more about this important time in your dog’s life here.

Once that window has passed, you are no longer “socializing” your dog, but rather are habituating them to different situations and stimuli or, if fearful, desensitizing them and using counter-conditioning to help them change how they feel about scary things. This can be time-consuming and requires patience and empathy. The more complex the environment (urban surroundings come to mind), the more drawn out and complicated the process. In some cases of severe fearfulness, the problems and special needs require management for the rest of the dog’s life. 

Ready to do more? Educate yourself about dog body language: What is your dog feeling, and what is he trying to tell you? I recommend this resource.

  • Honor your dog’s feelings and needs. Stop forcing interactions. Be his/her advocate, and avoid situations where your dog shows signs of worry or distress.  
  • Work on providing the essentials: a balanced diet, appropriate and adequate exercise, a quiet place in which to rest and feel safe, adequate health care, and daily one-on-one time.  
  • Inform yourself. Reject “Dr. Google,” and search out science-based information on dog behavior and training. Begin by reading the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s (AVSAB) position statements on dominance (no, dogs aren’t trying to take over the world!) and punishment (don’t use it, there is always unwanted fallout). Read the American College of Veterinary Behaviorist’s book, Decoding Your Dog, and look over their information on choosing a trainer. 
  • Speaking of training, yes, your dog needs life skills to flourish: sit, come, down, walking on a leash, riding in the car, as well as being at ease with handling and in a veterinary setting are essential. If it seems a bit too much to manage, seek help. Look for a trainer who uses positive-reinforcement training techniques and avoids shaping behavior through punishment or aversive tools. Positive reinforcement-based methods are scientifically proven to provide the best results while creating a strong bond between you and your dog.

A bit overwhelming? Yes, it can be. You have taken on the responsibility of caring for and guiding the life of a member of your family, but it can also be fun and a source of great joy when you help to create and support a mutual relationship built on trust and respect. 

Hope to see you around the neighborhood...

 Dr. Leslie Sinn, DVM, DACVB
Source: Dr. Leslie Sinn, DVM, DACVB

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