In the modern Western world we believe ourselves to be educated and enlightened. We understand how fortunate we are and that we have a responsibility towards our pets to treat them well and to try to understand their needs. We pride ourselves on being aware of those needs and the psychology of our dogs. So why is it that the instances of behavioural problems in domestic dogs are so clearly on the increase?
I think that the root of the problem lies in the past. Up until about 50 years ago the vast majority of dogs were kept to perform a useful function for their owners. They had a job to do and the way that they were bred exaggerated the characteristics which helped them to perform these jobs. For example sheep dogs have been bred to subdue their predatory instincts in favour of rounding up prey animals. Huskies have been bred with thick coats and great endurance to withstand long strenuous miles of sledge pulling in extremely cold climates. Bull dogs have developed strong jaws and solid bodies to help them to hold onto their adversary in a fight. These days however, the vast majority of dogs are kept as family pets in homes. They are deprived of their natural working environment and are expected to stay at home alone whilst their owners are away and to be content to spend whatever time their busy owners can spare for them. This may or may not include plenty of appropriate exercise and stimulation. As well as having their natural instincts frustrated dogs are pack animals and few are happy if left alone for extended periods of time.
Many people acquire dogs because of how they believe they will look as adults or because the owners fall in love with a sweet, babylike puppy on first sight. They fail to research and recognise the needs of the breed of the dog they are taking into their lives or indeed the needs of dogs in general.
The media does not help the general public to realise what they are taking on when they acquire a dog. Many films, television and radio programs, and articles portray dogs as having human intentions and emotions. They represent dogs as creatures with a conscience; an ability to be altruistic and to understand the points of view of those around them. In the hearts and minds of many owners their dog becomes a child substitute. They would feel guilty if they felt their baby were deprived of the opportunities and love that they would lavish on a dependant human being.
Very frequently, dogs are placed in environments artificial to them, but with the best intentions. The results of being treated in a way that they do not understand in an unnatural environment can include a significant lack of communication and insecurity in dogs. Not only do many owners not understand the way that their dogs think and what they need, we have arrested their development over thousands of years to ensure that they never completely grow up, either physically or mentally. Dogs are not equipped to lead a pack of humans (or even dogs) and have a deep psychological need to be led, and so many become anxious and insecure if they sense that appropriate rules and boundaries are not present for them to live by. They then start to make their own decisions about how to behave. If a dog senses that there is no obvious order and meaningful rules he will make his own decisions about what to do however ill equipped he is to do so.
Human owners often inadvertently offer their dogs status in their homes that they can’t handle. They allow them complete freedom of access to their homes, offer them the most comfortable and elevated places to sit and sleep, and many other seemingly meaningless things that mean a lot to a dog. More than any of these, many owners will allow their dogs to decide when and if they will do what is asked of them and will respond to a growl or snarl by immediately backing down on the basis that the dog is upset. This is the start of antisocial behaviour in dogs. Most aggression in dogs whether it is addressed to people or to other dogs, is actually based on fear. If a dog feels insecure and doesn’t feel he can trust his owner to protect him, or has had some form of bad experience in the past in an encounter, he will try to protect himself. When faced with a situation in which it is uncomfortable a dog has three options. He can freeze, he can run away or he can defend himself. If the dog is on a lead he cannot run away, and if he is in front of his owner straining at the end of that lead he is not only captive, he is exposed without any support. If he freezes he is vulnerable to a perceived attack so the only remaining option is aggression. In a situation like this when a dog snarls or growls the other dog often goes away and the tension is relieved. This is of course heavily self motivating and the dog will do it again the next time he feels vulnerable. In this way, aggressive behaviour develops. Many people say that their dog is not fearful because it will rush to tackle another dog from a distance, but that is of course human logic. As far as the dog is concerned the removal of the other dog from the vicinity is all that matters.
Dog owners need to understand that what their dog needs more than anything else is to be treated like a dog. Dogs learn by example. They have an uncanny ability to read the state of mind of their owners and will reflect that in any given situation. Owners need to bear this in mind whenever they expose their dog to something new. If you’re OK with it, so will your dog be. If you comfort him when he shows fear you will make him more fearful still. He’s watching to see how you behave and will act on that.
Dogs need to be exposed from an early age to all the things they will need to deal with as they grow up so they do not become fearful. This includes other dogs, strange people, the vacuum cleaner, cars and all manner of things that humans take for granted and dogs know nothing of until they are introduced to them. This is called socialisation and should continue for a dog’s entire life.
A dog is not a child and should never be treated like one. They need to know in a language they can understand, what their owner expects of them. They need to know what they are allowed to do, where and when, in other words they have a deep psychological need to be led. Any rewards, praise or reprimands have to be immediate otherwise they are meaningless to a dog.
Dogs need leadership, exercise, training and affection in that order. If they know their place, have plenty of quality exercise to behave like a dog should, learn enough to feel that they are pleasing their owners and so they can feel secure and enjoy the affection that their relationship brings them, then dogs are happy. It’s not a great deal to ask of us in return for undying love and complete fidelity is it?