Are we failing dogs? Do we owe them anything other than a roof over their heads and dinner every day? Is there an unspoken covenant between dog and man, and, if there is, are we seeing such misery in both species because we have broken that covenant?*
Here is a reminder of some of the things that these intelligent and willing animals do for humans:
• Work as service dogs, including for vision-impaired, diabetic, and epileptic people
• Serve as emotional-support animals
• Serve as therapy dogs
• Work in our military and on our police forces
• Sniff out cancer, explosives, narcotics, allergens, and more
• Guard our property, homes, and families
• Serve on search-and-rescue teams
• Work as the best of the best ranch hands and livestock movers
• Amaze us in dog sports
• Serve as role models on how to forgive bad human behavior
• Serve as our confidants
• Teach us about love and loss
• Show us how to live in the moment
• Remind us to play and enjoy what we can of each day
• Remind us not to pity our injuries and infirmities
• Provide friendly companionship
• Never judge us
• Show us how to live more connected to nature
• Show us the joy found in responsibility and commitment
Radar enjoyed a trip to San Francisco and his good manners were on full display, even in a big city that he was not used to.
One species out of all the others decided to live alongside us. Are we doing them justice? We fail dogs in many of the same ways we fail ourselves: we are in too big of a hurry. We want it all, and we want it now. We are so focused on acquisitions (knowledge, house, car, status) that we have no time left for feeling gratitude for what we do have. We are a nation full of suffering souls. Some suffer for lack of social standing and feel thwarted, while others go hungry every day. Many of us are in pain from a lack of true connection with our fellow man. If we can’t find that meaningful connection, we tend to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, overexercising, or working too much. And who do we turn to at the end of the day to ease our suffering? For millions of us, we turn to our dogs.
We are a highly anxious population: anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States. We spend more than $42 billion a year on anxiety disorders. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men. However, women also read more books, and women are much more likely to seek dog trainers and attend classes. Our children are feeling anxious, too, and anxiety disorders now affect one in eight children. We now must put a fair percentage of man’s best friend in the same category, and many of them take medication for anxiety.
As we go, so go our dogs.
Both of us are stressed to the max, and we both have lost polite greeting skills. We’ve become dysfunctional, and our dogs’ troubled behavior is reflecting that dysfunction back to us. Worse, we are ruining the sacred connection between two species.
If we can’t reach out a hand and help ourselves very well, guess who we can help? He’s likely curled up somewhere near you as you are reading this. We have to change this—the dogs cannot.
A client’s dog named Sampson loves his tennis ball, and this pose means that he’s ready to play!
Most people in the United States suffer from a nature deficit. So do our dogs. Too many dogs spend their entire lives inside the walls of their humans’ homes, only going out to relieve themselves. We are wasting our dogs’ incredible minds. Many dogs live pathetically boring lives. Do people as well?
A reliable recall is a beautiful—and necessary—skill for all dogs.
Dogs are frustrated. We want dogs to be quiet. Don’t chew on things, don’t jump up to say hi, don’t run in the house, don’t play too roughly with our undersupervised children. We ask a dog to join our family, and we expect him to love everyone human, except when there is a bad person trying to hurt us—then it’s OK for the dog to bite, and we expect the dog to know the difference.
We also demand that our dogs love all other dogs, even though we don’t bother training them how to nicely greet one another, and we don’t adequately expose them to safe dogs during the critical puppy socialization period.
We permit puppy mills and backyard breeders to keep stressed-out mother dogs alive just to breed again so they can make some cash off of their offspring. We purchase breeds that become popular or dogs that fit into the “designer” category. Breeds such as German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers become popular for good reasons, and then we make them physically or mentally unsound with rampant breeding and no requirements for good health and solid temperament. We are breeding heartbreak, and it affects both species.
We spend a great deal of our time telling our dogs “no” and “don’t.” We put huge expectations on another species, and many times these marvelous creatures step right up and deliver, often at great costs to themselves, such as in the case of exhausted female dogs used for overbreeding or breeds like Golden Retrievers, which are known as “cancer dogs” because of their high rate of cancer. Don’t even get me started on the dogs whose breathing abilities we have demolished, such as Pugs and Bulldogs. We have made it so difficult for some dogs to breathe in life-sustaining air just because we like the look of a smushed muzzle.
What Does Your Dog Want?
Does any dog ever want to be a service dog or a guard dog or an agility dog? I believe that some dogs do. Many terriers love hunting varmints, but then many of us complain that our dogs—that were bred to hunt varmints—will not listen to us and spend all day hunting damn varmints. Many Border Collies love to stalk and move sheep, but then we humans get very upset when bored pet herding dogs, with no sheep in their lives, herd the children, even giving a nip here or there to get them moving along. Even the rare Border Collie that wants nothing to do with sheep is still a very intelligent dog, and there are many, many Border Collies locked up in suburban homes whose brainpower is underutilized, causing them to engage in destructive behaviors. Many Labrador Retrievers love bringing back birds, and they have incredible noses (and stomachs!), but we get frustrated when they can’t focus on us outdoors because they are distracted by all of the birds or because they have pent-up energy from being cooped up inside. We bred these purebred dogs for specific purposes, but then we get mad at them when we give them no outlets for doing their jobs and they find other ways to use their energy.
Some of the features that people prize in purebreds are actually to the detriment of the dogs.
A dog cannot win for losing.
Do you know what your dog wants?
Do we even care what any dog wants?
We tell ourselves that dogs are here to serve us, and that negates any needs or desires that they have—and they have them, just as all animals do. Dogs reflect our high level of stress, and they are suffering, just as we are suffering. We once pointed to dogs as beings that we wished we could be more like: a species that lives in the present, and one that seems to love unconditionally. I’m not sure that those two things are absolute truths, but if we repeat something through the ages long enough, it can be accepted by a great majority as the truth. We must ask better questions.
Turn and look at your dog right now and ask him, “What do you want out of your short life?”
With thirty years of serious study of this amazingly talented and kind animal, I can tell you many of the things that dogs do want from their lives.
A dog wants a connection (same as you do). We breed dogs to want to be around us. They love to look at our faces and eyes and are extraordinary readers of humans. It’s cruel to take a social animal and shut him away in a crate for most of the day or let him languish in an empty backyard or imprison him at the end of a chain. If you are honest with yourself, you also want a connection because you, too, are a social animal. You may be a hardcore introvert (as I am) but, at the end of the day, we need other humans. The fastest way to make a person insane is to put him in a cell in isolation with no contact with other people. Real connection with others makes life worth living. Dogs serve as a bridge. I like people who like dogs in the same way I do, even if I disagree with their politics or religion, and even if they disagree with mine.
Is your dog in a human-created form of isolation hell? We know that dogs that are mere “residents” and do not have the opportunity to live with and bond with their human families are much more likely to bite than is a family dog. We bred the dog to be social—specifically to be social with us—and then we become enraged at a neglected dog that communicates with his teeth because he has no connection. You can heap punishment on a dog merely by leaving the room and giving yourself a “time out” away from him. There is never a need to kick, punch, alpha roll, tsssst, strangle, or scare a dog. Yes, that is true even of the “bully” breeds. If you are using force to communicate with a dog, you are doing it incorrectly, and you are unnecessarily damaging your relationship with that dog. Please find a force-free trainer to show you a more modern and fairer approach.
A well-trained, resilient, people- and dog-loving dog can go so many places with you! This is Monster in downtown Durango.
A dog wants to seek. As I’ve mentioned, the neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp discovered that all mammals share seven basic emotional systems, and seeking is one of those systems. Dogs seek first through their noses and then with their mouths and tongues. To live is to seek. When we pull and tug on a dog during his short outside time on a walk, we are depriving him of seeking. No, the dog does not need to yank your arm off. This is where quality training comes in. You can allow a dog to sniff and seek while keeping your arm in its joint.
A healthy dog enjoys play, just as a healthy person does. Do you allow yourself to play? No? And you wonder why you feel frustrated? Dogs ask us questions with their bodies because they can’t talk to us in human language. They ask us what we ask of ourselves: how can I obtain pleasure and how can I avoid pain or fear? When we get a dog, we expect him to give us joy, but it is a one-sided relationship, one that puts enormous pressure on an animal with the mind of a two- to three-year-old child.
Let’s even the score. We’re very late in doing this for dogs—almost too late. Find out how your dog loves to play. Is it a game of chase with you? Is it jumping into a pond? Is it digging? Maybe it is all of these things. If your dog refuses to play, please find a qualified behaviorist to assist you, because that is abnormal. If the thing that floats your human boat is a dog sport, I have no problem with that—as long as your dog also enjoys that sport. It is unjust to drag a dog through anything that terrifies or frustrates him, no matter how deeply you had your heart set on obtaining pretty blue ribbons. Put your ego aside and find a dog that loves the same things you love, and both of your lives will be enhanced and freer of conflict. I’m not advocating getting rid of your current dog that isn’t enjoying what you love; either figure out a way to help the dog enjoy it or find something that he does love that you can do together. Dogs are unique in that they are so connected to us emotionally that there are a multitude of activities that we can participate in together.
A Sense of Control
Dogs want a sense of control over their bodies. As Suzanne Clothier has said, a dog’s body is a sovereign entity. How do we give dogs a sense of control over their environment? One way is to be predictable. Don’t giggle at your dog and pet him happily when he jumps up on you to say hello today and then get furious when he does it again tomorrow. Show your dog what to do instead of what not to do. Have a solid routine in place so the dog knows what to expect.
Annie’s dog Radar learned nosework at age nine and began competing and earning titles at age ten.
If there is a huge change to your home environment, it is also a huge change to your dog’s environment. We humans move to new houses fairly often. If you move, think about your dog’s needs and how you can help him make the transition. If a family member (human or dog) passes away and the dog was emotionally bonded to the now-missing person or animal, comfort the dog, just as you accept the dog’s comforting you in your time of need.
We can give dogs a sense of control over their own bodies when we allow them to make choices. No, this does not mean that we allow them to choose to go through the kitchen trash or choose to relieve themselves on the kitchen floor; it means that we help them love the choices we make on their behalf because some of those choices are necessary for another species to live in our homes. Positive reinforcement training is not permissive. What works best for both species is when the one who pays the mortgage coaches the four-legged freeloader (although he pays in spades emotionally, with his very life dedicated to his owners) in the rules of the house. There is a world of difference between taking on the role of a guide for your dog and scowling down at him in a misguided belief that he pooped on the floor to “dominate you.”
A leash can be either a trap that causes a spike in tension and stress for your dog or a liberating tool that allows you to take your dog with you. Help your dog stop viewing the leash as a restraint, as something limiting and painful to him. Make friends with the leash because it provides safety for your dog and mine when we meet in public.
Out with the Old
Throw out old ideas of how to train a dog. As Gloria Steinem noted, a hierarchy devalues everyone, even those at the top. Dominance theory is dead and gone, even if there are those hard-headed humans to whom it still appeals. Your dog is not trying to dominate you. He just isn’t. That is a fact.
How do you make friends with the leash? Change what it means to your dog. Put the leash on in the house and play with your dog indoors with his leash on. When you go outside with the leash on the dog, reinforce him with truly motivating rewards anytime he “checks in” and looks back at you. When he turns his head to look at you, it takes pressure off the leash, so you’re also teaching him that he can lessen the leash’s pressure by checking in with you. Go a step further and praise him for coming all the way back to you and then permit him to go in the direction he wanted to go in the first place. Make the leash come to mean freedom to play, seek, and explore together instead of something that annoys you both.
Dr. Karen Overall is correct when she says that what we need to strive for with troubled dogs is a negotiated settlement. I would take it even further to point out that life itself is a negotiated settlement. We make negotiated settlements with everyone, every day, so why would we expect anything different with our dogs? You want to drive 100 miles per hour in your car? Go ahead—and if you are caught (or crash into someone), there will be a price to pay.
On a lighter note, we negotiate at work, in school, and at home. Here is but one example: my husband snores loudly from time to time. We had to negotiate a workable settlement that allowed us both to get a full night’s sleep (the solution involves Benadryl). If it were a dog snoring loudly (or barking) and bothering my sleep, I could waltz into a pet store and choose from a number of devices designed to stop the bothersome thing that bugs me by inflicting pain. This is an unfortunate, cruel, ignorant, and completely unnecessary way to resolve problems. It’s barbaric, actually. We need more heart and patience and less insistence on an instantaneous solution. We need to remember that we are the teachers in the relationship between man and dog, although God knows that dogs have a lot to teach us as well. We struggle to teach them basic manners while they hold within them the ability to teach us about love and joy. Who got the better end of our joint relationship?
To start any negotiation, you must have the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine what is important to that person. How many of us ever bother to put ourselves in our dog’s paws? Oh, if only dogs could talk. A lot fewer of us would have dogs because we’d be forced to empathize with them as they go about telling us what it’s like to be left in a dog crate for ten hours a day.
In any case, we have chosen dogs, and dogs have chosen us. It’s remarkable, really. Can you imagine sharing your life with a raccoon? How about a kangaroo? Dogs have crossed over a threshold to be by our side, something that no other animal ever has done. We owe them our gratitude and servitude because they have, by and large, been remarkable companions.
Happily exhausted after nosework!
We have to stop living in fear. The always-intriguing NPR podcast, Invisibilia, has a great show about fear. A scientist on the show says, “Modern life is constantly triggering fear in all kinds of ways that our natural war didn’t.” Another scientist notes that things such as mass shootings are no longer novel—they are daily events, constant occurrences. He adds, “Because of our wiring, we are not set up to ignore it, so it distorts our experience of the world, activating our fear when we don’t need [it]. [In] a lot of our modern-day world, our fear is not required.” Fear begets fear. Fear blocks love. Fear thwarts trust. Fear will wear you and those around you out, including your dog.
A solid relationship built on trust and mutual understanding allows dogs to keep their focus on their handlers in all kinds of environments.
Have you ever watched minnows scatter in a pond in unison? Have you watched sheep in a flock or horses in a herd move away from a threat, real or perceived? Even insects detect fear from one another and take action as a group. One ant releases an alarm pheromone, and stress ripples through the ant colony like a threatening unseen windstorm.
Neuroscientists now tell us that fear can spread across species. If you walk outside your front door with Rover at your side and you are a ball of nerves, either because you are generally tense (as most Americans seem to be) or because your are worried about running into your dog’s triggers, stop and take a breath. Take many breaths. Look at your dog. Smile—even if it takes time to get your tight face and neck muscles to comply with your request. Make sure that your dog is calm and happy before your walk even begins. Let your dog sniff while you watch in amazement at all he detects with that powerful nose. Your dog has a skill that we do not—many skills, in fact. Your dog can act like a silly fool and not give a fig who is watching. You should do more of that yourself.
A well-behaved older dog can be a true gift in a puppy’s life.
Create More Love
Create more oxytocin for yourself and for your dog. Remember the study that told us that when we look into a dog’s eyes, the dog’s level of oxytocin—the “love hormone”—increases? It also increases on our side of the equation. What I am saying here is create more love. We have a serious lack of it. If you can’t love the people in your office, or the politicians, or everyone who gets in your way as you fight to get to work on time, try creating love at home with a furry, friendly housemate that can’t annoy you the way other people can and that won’t ask you to do all of the pesky things that other people ask of you. If you can express only eye love (followed by heart and soul love) for a dog, I think that’s an excellent start. For some of us, that is the only love we will know in a lifetime. Love your dog, and, as you love him dearly, be a life guide and teach him how to live successfully among a rather aggressive species that his ancestors, for some unfathomable reason, nestled up to, proving that dogs are a very brave species.
Trainer Suzanne Clothier, author of the best-selling book Bones Would Rain from the Sky and a popular seminar presenter around the globe, says many profound things not just about dogs but about all animals, and here’s one to ponder: “Animals are not here to serve us as a mirror. If you want a mirror, get a mirror or get a trained therapist who can mirror you back. That is a trained skill. What animals will reflect for us is the relationship they are in.” And she asks: “What do you have with an animal when you have nothing to offer him but yourself?”
Some of the cute, lucky puppies that Annie rescued from a high-kill shelter in Texas.
Something that haunts me still is the look in the eyes of the thousands of dogs trapped in shelters that I had to walk past when I was active in rescue work. When I saw one of these dogs, I saw a sentient being trapped in a place and situation not of his own making. I knew that mankind had put him there and that mankind was going to kill him soon, often by the end of that day. I saved as many as I personally could, and there are other good-hearted people who do that and more every day, but many of us are still deeply troubled by the manner and scope in which this country throws away dogs.
The eyes of a dog remind me of this travesty. I once felt hate toward humankind as I witnessed how so many people dumped dogs without a thought or concern for their welfare or outcome. I’ll never forget a courageous German Shepherd named Kaiser; his is just one of the many stories that remain inside of me and, with it, a hefty sadness. The woman who left him at the shelter wrote on his intake form that he had saved her and her small children from an intruder who had broken into their home. Kaiser had held the man down without so much as a puncture wound until the police arrived. Nonetheless, the owner still dumped him at the pound (with a heart full of worms) even though the shelter workers had told her that owner surrenders can be killed on the day they are brought in. She left him there anyway.
What more can a dog do to deserve the right of life? Kaiser got lucky when I walked through the doors and pulled him, nursed him back to health, and found him a good home. It wasn’t hard to find such a noble creature a permanent home with responsible, loving owners. Aren’t dogs worth the effort?
The only thing that brought me back from a life of rage and heartbreak was people like you—those who do treat their dogs with the respect and love that they deserve. A funny thing I noticed along the way, even as I did my best to keep people at a great distance from my heart, was that those who treat animals kindly tend to treat all animals—even hard-hearted humans—the same way. These kind humans led me back to a place of loving kindness, and they did it by showing me how deeply they loved the first animal that saved me: the dog.
The noble, long-suffering, soulfully wise dog saved me. He has probably saved you, too, or wants the opportunity to try. It’s our turn to return the favor.