I am sure we have all seen the social media posts showing pictures of dogs who have done something “bad” and look guilty or ashamed. People assume that their dog chewed on their shoes or pooped on the floor because they were mad at them for going out for the day. It is very common for people to communicate with a dog as if it is human and oftentimes project human emotions onto the dog.
Dogs are NOT human. Yes, they bond with us, love us, and can be amazing companions. It almost feels like they communicate with us in a way that they understand us without us having to say one word--that is because dogs rely on body language, non-verbal cues, and energy to communicate. One of the things that make dogs so amazing is that they are less complicated than humans. Dogs live in the present moment. Dog’s don’t really sit there and think about the past or worry about the future. It has to do with evolution. Dogs in the wild concern themselves mainly with survival. They need to focus on the task at hand in order to eat, find shelter, and stay safely in a pack. It’s all about health and safety. Health and safety includes food, shelter, and socialization. That is why the pack is so important. It’s very important for a dog to be a part of a pack and have a role in which they function. Dogs are not balanced when they don’t have calm assertive energy leading the pack. This leads to fear, anxiety, and maladaptive behaviors such as barking, whining, and aggression.
A balanced dog equals a healthy dog. A healthy dog can bond in an incredibly deep and meaningful way with their human. How do you do this? Our desire should not be to try and get a dog to understand us or to have them learn our language. We are too complicated. It is much easier and more fun to communicate in their language and learn what we can do to help them to be balanced and happy in our “human” world. Dogs have a natural instinct to want love, structure, rules, and boundaries. These four things create balance. We refer to balance a lot because we all desire it but don’t always know how to create it for ourselves. It is our job and privilege to provide this balance for the dog in such a way that also helps them know where they stand in their pack and this is something they are searching for and wanting from us. It actually makes them more happy and mentally healthy because they understand their role in the pack and that creates more balance. The word “pack” refers to the unit of people the dog lives with or who they are around a lot. They don't only want to know who is in charge, they are looking to us to provide those four key things--love, structure, rules, and consistency.
Dogs are social creatures, they crave and need connection and attention. Dogs thrive on routine and schedule, so a daily walk with training mixed in will help your dog understand how much you love and care for them. We all know dogs love to be pet but petting them in a way that not only shows love but also helps them feel balanced and calm is key. Training and positive reinforcement are excellent ways to communicate your love through positive reinforcement. It gives them the attention they want and need. Using a balance between treats and pets during training is a great way to show love but also create that important bond and pack relationship. Establishing the pack is an important part of fulfilling this need. The way a dog feels connected is interwoven with the aforementioned keys to balance. The pack offers structure, rules, consistency, and this in turn translates to love and security for your dog. How do we establish a pack with our dog? The pack happens organically when living in a family unit. This is the base of what your dog needs; it needs to feel secure, and safe. It needs to know how things work and this leads to structure and rules. Much like humans, dogs thrive with structure. It’s important for them to understand what is expected of them so that they can have balance and harmony. Without this structure, dogs get confused and exhibit unbalanced behaviors.
How would you like to start every day not knowing what is going to happen? What if every day is drastically different and you have no idea what is going on half the time? For instance, when or if you will get fed? If you will be able to rest, use the bathroom, or get in trouble for not knowing what is going on? It sounds distressing and confusing doesn’t it? This is how your dog feels when there is no structure. A dog is great at living in the moment, but if they don’t know if their basic needs will be met, and don’t know what is expected of them, they become unbalanced. While love and belonging create the base of balance for dogs, structure is the glue that holds it all together.
How are rules and structure different? Structure is what the day to day experience is, whereas rules are the guide to conduct. This is very important for a number of reasons. What if a dog does not have rules around when to exit through a door? There might be times when it’s safe, but times when it is not safe. Teaching a dog to wait before going outside is very much like teaching a child to ask before touching something--it’s important for them to get the okay from a trusted adult first for safety reasons. Rules also help the dog to know what is expected of them. It is not fair to expect a dog not to chew on a stuffed animal, and then scold them. The key to rules is discipline. Most people think of punishment when they hear the word discipline. In this context the word discipline actually means “to teach, or train by instruction or exercise”. When using discipline in this way, you are actually using positive reinforcement to teach the dog the rules. Once they understand the rules, and demonstrate mastery, then there will be times that you need to offer a correction. Let’s say you have taught your dog to fetch a ball and bring it back to you and “drop it”. They have been doing this for over a year. They understand the rules, you understand the rules, it’s relaxing, fun, and satisfying for both of you. What if next time you are playing the dog decides not to “drop it”? The best way to teach the dog what you want is to repeat the command to be sure the dog knows what is expected. It’s important to give the dog enough time to mentally process this as they could simply be excited and have gotten carried away. Once you know that the dog is aware of what you want them to do, it’s OK to correct them. I correct them by firmly saying their name with “uh uh” after it. At this point, the dog will usually drop the ball and they have the positive feedback of continuing to play ball. This reinforces the rules.
What is the key to making your dog happy, healthy, and able to bond deeply with you? Consistency! Most of us that are parents know that it is imperative to be consistent with our kids. Why? What if in the ball playing scenario above you correct their behavior only 60% of the time? What information does that convey to the dog? It tells them that they don’t know what you will do and what you want from them. It’s confusing! Are they supposed to listen to you? What are the rules of the game? Consistency along with the rules is what can create a fun, relaxing, enjoyable time. When your dog is in a relaxed, happy state, then they feel very in tune with their human.
YOU GET TO BE LEADER OF THE PACK
Although dogs are less complicated than children and communicate differently, I still find it helpful to think about kids when I refer to discipline or rule-making. Some people believe it is cruel to use verbal correction or consistency with a dog, but it's actually more cruel to assume your dog is human, overlooking their natural wants and needs. Much like kids, dogs look to us for love, structure, rules, and consistency and don’t feel balanced without them. You will not become respected or become a “pack leader” by demanding behaviors; pack leaders need to earn respect and trust. Demanding a dog to sit before being allowed to go outside and pee does not earn this respect in neither the human world nor the dog world. What you want is for your dog to respect you and others, and to be safe. You want commands to be followed because you have developed understanding and a level of respect with your dog. You don’t want your commands to be “nothing commands” or for them to sit just because you said to sit in a frustrated voice. Getting a dog to do whatever you say to establish dominance does not make you a pack leader or a good trainer. Gaining respect from the dog in all situations will forge that bond that that you and your dog desire. The commands are there to provide support but the relationship and respect is what provides you both with a deep, everlasting bond.
It’s so easy for us to forget that dogs are not human. Learning to relate to your dog using their language is not only fun, but it’s a way to forge a meaningful relationship built on trust and respect. Having a balanced, happy dog by your side will in turn help you live a more balanced, happy life.