Whether you call yourself pack leader, caregiver, dog mum/dad, or owner, today dogs need us to advocate for them more than ever before.
Long gone are the days when we let the dog out in the morning and they roamed the streets until dinner time! And thank goodness! But, as time has gone by we have gradually reduced the freedom and choices our dogs have available to them. The less we allow them to make their own choices, the more responsible we have to make the right ones for them.
Once upon a time you would have been called an idiot for waking a sleeping dog! You would be laughed at if you got bitten pulling his tail, leaning over the dogs fence, or sticking your hand in his food dish. We even used to teach our kids not to touch strange dogs! They used to have a voice and were allowed to say no.
Not anymore. These days the dog is more likely to be labelled as aggressive and “needs training” if he tries to avoid something he doesn’t like. Today’s dog has to be able to put up with almost anything and everything.
Our dogs trust us, we must get it right
Our best friends have so little autonomy. Most don’t get to choose their own toys, or the food they get, or their feeding times. And, what they do have, they must be prepared to share nicely.
They have no control over who touches them, or how they are handled, and when, or who comes to visit. They sleep when they can, and they don’t even choose what to sniff, which tree they pee on, where they walk or play, or even the friends they meet. All they can do is tell us how they feel about the choices we make and the positions they are put in.
Given the hopeless picture I just painted (sorry about that), most actually cope pretty well. But not all. So it should be no surprise that they get frustrated sometimes and act up! Dogs have boundaries too, and we must learn what they are so we can protect those boundaries on their behalf.
It’s ok to say NO!
More and more, people feel entitled to interact with your dog. If your dog doesn’t like to be picked up, don’t let people pick them up. No matter how weird they get about it. If random strange kids want to pet your dog, but your dog would prefer they didn’t, you don’t have to let them, and you don’t have to explain either. You don’t ever have to justify your choice to others. Your dog get’s a say, and if he prefers to keep his distance, that’s good enough.
Some dogs don’t like interacting with other dogs. It doesn’t mean they dislike them. Just like some people, they simply aren’t the sociable type. There is nothing wrong with that. But they often get scolded if they growl or snap at an approaching dog. The other dog was “just saying hello” but how many times did your dog give off “leave me alone vibes?” I’ll bet they gave plenty of chances for the other dog to go away, so the growl or snap was the natural next step. And when both dogs are trapped on their leads, neither has a choice in the matter.
Back in the day, the approaching dog would have shrugged and walked on by long before it got to a snap. But these days, we force our dogs to meet other dogs as part of their socialisation. By doing this we have taught our dogs that it’s ok to approach any dog, no matter what.
We are unable to ask out dogs what they would prefer, so we have to watch them and listen to what they are telling us. A dog shouldn’t have to growl or bite to be heard.
Common signs your dog may not be comfortable include avoidance behaviours, head turns, dropped tail, side eye, stiff shoulders, lip licking, starring, pricked ears, pulled back lips, panting, and quiet whine. He may also give off a “vibe”! Pay attention to them all, and if in doubt take your dog away from the situation until you have figured out what has gone wrong.
No self-determination means we have to be insanely good at making the choices that are right for our dog. If he can’t cope, we must not expect him to do so without proper support. If he doesn’t enjoy dogs running up to him in the park, could you go somewhere else? It is the dogs walk, after all, would he choose that spot, really?
The sniffs are good, but the atmosphere sucks!
Imagine hating going to a place. Maybe it is too busy, or the people are too quiet, or the music is too loud. Now imagine being constantly forced to go there just because the brownies are good! The place is never going to change, but there are brownies in other places.
Not liking a place, doesn’t mean there is something wrong with your dog, or the place. There are as many personality types in dogs as there are in people. If a child doesn’t like playing sports, the parents don’t try to fix the child, they just choose activities the child does enjoy. The same goes for dogs. If the dog doesn’t like playing chasies or wrestling games, then maybe take them on quiet river walks, instead of the dog park. The other dogs will never change, but you can change where you go.
Risk assessing – doggie style
As your dogs advocate, you will become an expert in risk assessing everything. Keeping him safe and anxiety free is your top job! You’ll imagine every possible scenario as you make your way through the day, considering all outcomes, and how your dog might feel about them.
Think about everything, will there be kids, people, or dogs there? Will he know them? Will it crowded or quiet? Is the trip essential, will he enjoy it, and if so, what comforts will he need? Is it better to be at home by themselves, or at a busy cafe? What about going to fairs and days out? I lost count of the number of anxious dogs I saw being dragged round a Christmas fair last weekend! I’m sure most of those would have preferred their own bed at home rather than being trapped in a crowd of legs, flappy coats, and bags!
You know your dog best, so only you know the answer. What would he change, avoid, or cope well with?
Could he advocate for himself?
There are times that your dog could maybe make some choices of his own. If your routine would allow, perhaps he could choose from: a short walk (turn left out of the drive), a big walk (turn right), or trip to the beach (wait by the car)? Repeat the choices for him over a couple of weeks and he’ll get the idea.
A good recall will give him freedom (in safe spaces) to approach dogs he feels safe with, and avoid those he doesn’t. He’ll be able to explore freely without being held back by his lead. And, he’ll not have to compromise over which tree to pee on, or which weed to investigate. He can take it easy, or do zoomies, depending on his mood, too.
It doesn’t all have to be about the walk! Maybe you could occasionally offer a choice of two different foods at tea time (try this if you think you have a fussy dog), or take him to the pet shop to pick out a new toy or bed.
Learning to cope!
Of course, sometimes, we have to help our dogs learn to cope with something. You can’t avoid everything. For example, a dog should be able to cope with being left alone at home for a short while, or walk past a quiet dog in the park without having a melt down. We can help them with all that, but we must do it without pushing them out of their comfort zone. To do that, rehabilitation must be controlled and gradual. When our dogs trust us to advocate for them, they will be braver to try new things when they are with us and rehabilitation will be much faster. If they fear we’ll put them in a position they can’t cope with, they will resist anything new.
Our dogs trust us to make the best choices for them. We need to stop forcing our dogs to experience things they can’t cope well with, or wouldn’t choose for themselves. They don’t get many choices, but when they try to tell us they can’t cope with a choice we make for them, we have to listen.
Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, or via zoom. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!