When we have children, we expect them to be dependent upon us for many years…but then, at some point and in most cases, they will seek their own independence and form their own lives. This is just as it should be.
Left to nature, dogs would do the same thing, only much, much faster. Puppies mature quickly, becoming mobile in a matter of days, as they start to explore their environment. They are playing with each other and with objects by five weeks, weaned by six weeks, able to leave Mom by eight weeks. They are social beings with a strong sense of community, so need a family. But as adults, they would make their own decisions about what to do when and with whom.
We change all that. We keep dogs in our homes, expect them to follow our rules and essentially abort many of their natural inclinations…all while trying to make sure they’re happy and healthy! More than anything else, we try to make them depend on us throughout their entire lives.
Luckily, dogs are behaviorally adaptable – more so than perhaps any other species except our own. In order to reach our goals, we have (inadvertently) kept most of them in a state of perpetual puppyhood, where they are dependent on us for their food, shelter and community, and where in most cases we either don’t allow mating (through neutering) or strictly control it. In fact, we actually tell our canine pals where and when to eliminate!
Of course, they still have their instincts, including territoriality and predatory behavior. We use territoriality for our own purposes when we ask them to be watch dogs. Mostly we use prey drive as play drive – retrieving and other games, although a minority of people use it for herding or hunting.
Much has been said over the years about pack structure, dominance and the way we structure life for our dogs. People have pontificated on the ways of the wolf pack, with its alpha wolf and his iron control over his pack (not true, by the way). But as we’ve discussed, even if the myths were true, they don't apply to our pets. If dogs are wolves at all, they are puppy wolves! They’re not master hunters, and there isn’t one pair in a pack who has mating rights (well, I suppose you could say it’s the humans, but from what we know, dogs really don’t think people are upright dogs).
We can control most dogs because they allow us to. They give up their freedom for comfort and affection. We ask them to trust us to take care of them – we structure their lives, we present food, we give them attention and affection, and we provide enough stimulation to make them content. We ask them to be polite with us and our friends, to not tear up our homes, and to not bother the neighbors too much.
But What If They Don’t
It’s relatively easy to civilize most dogs – particularly if they are introduced thoughtfully into our world. But many dogs are not – they are born in rural areas to semi feral moms, or brought in from third world countries where they have had lives as street dogs. Some dogs are owned by irresponsible or even criminal people who use them poorly, and some are just neglected – thrown in a back yard when they were too difficult to house train or they chewed up the furniture or jumped on the kids.
When you acquire one of these dogs, both you and she go through culture shock. You’re expecting a domesticated animal, she’s expecting to have to fight for what she needs. Both of you will need to learn to trust each other. Sometimes that can happen quickly; sometimes not. And sometimes the dog needs more from you than you ever thought of giving.
Empathy and Understanding
I had a recent client whose nine year old pure-bred dog had a history of biting strangers. He had air snapped or bruised people trying to greet him by the culturally inane practice of shoving their hand into the dog’s face. One of these people was a vet tech. He had also lunged at the wife in the family when he was sitting under the husband’s chair. In response, these very devoted and thoughtful owners walk the dog on a muzzle and separate him from guests. Theories abounded, as they always do. Most people, after all, are convinced they know how to raise other people’s dogs. A couple of trainers indicated that all this dog needed was more exercise and leadership. When I met him I was struck by the way he carried his head – tilted to one side, and his somewhat stilted gait. He didn’t look at me, although he growled when he sensed me. We still don’t know what is wrong with this dog – there’s a possibility of neurological damage – but whatever it is, it isn’t a lack of exercise or leadership. I felt for him – he obviously cannot see well, and is uncomfortable at best. And I felt for the owners – dedicated people who have been told they are not good enough.
We need to get past our preconceived ideas of who they are and what they need...and use our (ostensibly) big brains!