When it comes to meeting our dogs needs, we just might be missing the mark, even though we think we’re doing great. I’m specifically referring to their emotional needs.
I’m afraid to say that as dog lovers and caretakers, we may be exploiting dogs for our own desires. Follow me on this, because I’m not generalizing or judging. I am in the inquiry of how much or how little are we considering our dogs emotional state while working towards whatever it is we want from our dogs? I’m asking us to take a much deeper look into what we ask of them. Are they enjoying it as much as we are? What is their motivation? What is our motivation? Are we even aware and do we care?
I firmly believe that if we don’t meet dogs emotional needs we are hard pressed to reach any goals we are setting for dogs, be it, sporting, companion, working, service or therapy work. Building trust is the key to a solid foundation that will allow a relationship to grow and flourish.
Apparently, and thankfully, I’m not alone in this belief.
The late Jack Panksepp was an Estonian-American neuroscientist and psychobiologist, who studied the neural mechanisms of emotion. He was the Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science for the Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology and Physiology at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. In a Ted talk he explains the science of emotions, stating that all animals have emotions and the primary emotions are: seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, panic and play. It’s worth watching.
Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has won many awards for his research in Animal Behavior and published more than 1000 essays and authored 30 books. He’s also an expert in Animal Welfare and animal emotions, and one of my biggest heroes. Bekoff’s recent book Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. says this “
“Dogs are constantly being challenged, and many are highly stressed, as they try to adapt to a human-dominated world. They need all the help they can get to learn how to coexist with other dogs and their humans. As Linda Michaels emphasizes, nothing is lost, and everything is gained, by being nice to your dog and by paying very close attention to what each and every individual needs.”
I love the simplicity of the concept of ‘being nice to your dog’. This would mean then, that no matter what a dog does that seems wrong or inconveniences us, we still need to be nice to dogs.
This brings me to the Hierarchy of Dog Needs, inspired by Linda Michaels: M.A. Psychology and dog trainer who created this brilliant graphic and theory about dogs, based on Abraham Maslow’s, an American psychologist who created Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs for people. The theory was that in order for humans to reach their highest potential or self-actualization, one has to have their basic physiological needs met. Reaching our highest potential is a lofty goal, yet it’s a goal that can’t be achieved if our basic needs for survival aren’t met.
It’s important because when we bring dogs into our lives, we must do more than feed and provide shelter, the bottom tier of the Hierarchy. We must meet their emotional needs, if we are to strive to the top tier of this pyramid. Notice the top tier is ‘Cognitive Needs’, which includes choice, novelty and problem solving. That is, if we are to meet the goals of a healthy well adjusted and confident whole dog, addressing their emotional needs is critical. Without it, we have a limited relationship with dogs.
The only way that we can meet dogs emotional needs is to become very savvy in how to speak dog. If we don’t understand dog body language, (their first language), we have no way of knowing how they’re feeling. Therefore, if we can’t communicate, we can’t truly bond.
Yet, I’ve witnessed some very distressed dogs at sporting events, working events and even seen some pretty stressed out Therapy and Service Dogs. At sporting events, while they are doing their sport, they are on the mark and seem to the general public to be very enthusiastic about their task but to a more trained eye, one can see that some of these dogs are really stressed and anxious. When not working, they are barking, lunging or whining in their crate. Some dogs can’t be left quietly in the car because they can’t settle. They are not good with other dogs on or off leash. They are working or sporting dogs. They don’t live a normal life. By normal, I mean that they are for the most part, kept in crates or kennels and come out to do their job, back in exile till they are needed again. There is little to no human interaction other than the training necessary to do their job, which means they have not bonded with a human. Therefore, they are stressed most of their lives, manifesting in unwanted behaviors. Yet in the ring… boy do they look happy. Look again. You’ll notice many of these hyper-arousal behaviors, such as these in the poster below.
When we consider what dogs need to not only survive in a human controlled world but to survive and thrive, we must think about the emotions of dogs. Dogs are individuals with distinct personalities and emotions, that humans may be taking advantage of. We may be asking of our dogs, things that may not be in their interest, yet we continue to do so without giving them choices or being aware of their emotional state.
I don’t think it’s intentional that we may be exploiting dogs for human ego or gain, yet I do think that it’s happening and happening more than we know or want to admit. We have domesticated dogs but does this give us the right to ask dogs to do things that they don’t enjoy, are afraid of or that makes them anxious because we’re human and we can?
Some ways we might be misunderstanding and perhaps even exploiting dogs:
- Therapy Dog work, works only if the dog enjoys it, not because we think they do or should.
Patricia Tirrell. CPDT-KA, is National Program Educator Emeritus and licensed Evaluator for Pet Partners Therapy Dog program. This is her dog Charlie, who is blind. In this picture, most people would think that it’s a very endearing and tender interaction between Charlie and this woman; but it’s not. The signs Charlie is expressing are stress. His ears are pinned down and back and he’s licking his lip, both signs of anxiety. He most likely doesn’t like being hugged this way and if one isn’t versed in body language they wouldn’t see these subtle signs of stress. If Charlie was continuously stressed while doing Therapy work, he may go beyond threshold and could bite.
- Dog sports is another area where some dogs are stressed. While all of these sports can be tremendous fun for many dogs, some suffer in silence because their guardian isn’t aware of the signs of emotional stress that their dog is expressing. They may even do great in the ring but are they happy and thriving? Unfortunately, many aren’t and this kind of lack of understanding of dog emotions wreaks havoc on more dogs than we realize. We are their guardians and it’s up to us to be mindful of their emotional needs at every turn.
- Dog parks/walks in the neighborhood are other examples where we often don’t take dog emotions into consideration because it’s something all dogs need right? Wrong. Dog parks can be very scary for some dogs. Too many dogs at a time for some, causes anxiety while others love it. Would you know the difference? Would you know what a bully dog looks like? If the signs aren’t obvious, we often miss that our dogs aren’t thrilled at all at the park and some are so stressed on leash that they become reactive or aggressive. Dogs are telling us all the time and in various ways that they are an emotional mess and we are missing it.
- Show/working dogs, whether it’s for conformation, obedience or work trials, some dogs don’t like it at all but are forced because of human desire. Winning the ribbon trumps the dogs emotional state and this is more common that we realize.
- The movie industry is another example of exploitation. Many dogs live alone in kennels, with little human interaction, until the time that they are needed for a movie. Many of these dogs live an emotionally deprived existence. I find this particularly upsetting.
Recognizing the signs of stress, the not so obvious ones, will help us help dogs feel less anxious and this alone can make the difference for your relationship and the health and well being of your dog, which can be a life saver; literally. Stress causes the body to produce hormones to cope. This prolonged and consistent hormone production may cause biological damage, addicting and can shorten their life span.
So as dog lovers and caregivers; I pose this question.
Have you delved deeply to understand the emotions of dogs? Do you know when a dog is truly happy and thriving? How can we help dogs be as whole and complete as they can be without thinking about what we want…so that they can be a whole dog, inside and out, the best that they can be?
What is a whole dog?
It is now recognized by experts and scientists that dogs are sentient beings. They are thinking, feeling animals ; capable of a full range of emotions; fear, anger, love, joy, sadness, anxiety as well as suffering physical and emotional pain. They learn to trust or distrust based on their experience of their environment with their human and other animal friends. You and I as dog lovers know this and today, more studies are being done with dogs and it’s agreed upon that knowing an animals mind is to consider their emotional awareness and state of being. By doing so, we can begin to look at what makes a whole dog, whole.
Therefore, a whole dog is one who’s needs are being considered, first biologically, then, equally as important; emotionally, whereby creating a safe environment where love, trust and benevolent leadership are your most valuable and essential moral responsibilities and obligations.
The Hierarchy of dog needs is quite helpful in being our dogs best advocate. It begs the question of choice for dogs. Since we are making choices for our dogs that they have no say in, it behooves us as responsible dog guardians to pay close attention to meeting their needs. If we want to pursue a so-called career in dog sports, shows, Therapy, Service Dog work, or even for our pet companion dog, to reach their highest potential; we must keep our ego in check. We must ask ourselves:
“Is this in the best interest for the dog right in front of me, today, or is it satisfying my desire for them, leaving them no choice in the matter?”
Understanding this distinction is critical if we are to help dogs realize their own highest potential.
The hierarchy of dog needs, helps us, help dogs feel safe, grounded and able to enjoy life at their capacity.
Dogs have been a huge part of our world for thousands of years, providing not only companionship but performing tasks for people with disabilities, bringing joy into convalescent homes, are our running partners, sport partners, best friends and in all of this, are we remembering to look into their eyes and ask “Are you ok with this?” or how can I best meet your needs so that your life is filled with meaning and joy?
Since we bring dogs into our lives and homes, don’t we then have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that they are happy and thriving? I am hoping that this model can challenge us begin to delve deeply into the emotional world of dogs and do our very best to create not a mediocre world but one that is rich and filled with joy, empathy and love in every aspect of welfare for dogs.
About the author: Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer and dog body language expert loving and living her life on the west coast of the USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. You can also find articles written by Jill in Dogster, The Whole Dog Journal and Animal Wellness. Jill has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients and their dogs for 40 years, to be your pets advocate for a happier and more stress free life. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page