A BALANCED DOG
When all four of your dog's L.E.G.S. are in balance, they will be the best Them that they can be, living their best life!
- Kelly Whittington
What is a dog?
What comes to mind when you think of dogs? Obedient. Loyal. Wants to please. Man's best friend. Lassie. The expectations we have of dogs are often unrealistic, based on an Idealized version of what a dog is. When our dog fails to live up to those expectations, we may feel disappointment, hurt, anger, or even shame that maybe it's our fault.
But, Lassie wasn't even Lassie. Lassie is a fictional character played by multiple male dogs. The original dog, Pal, was given away by his owners because he chased motorcycles, chewed up their things, and wasn't housetrained. He jumped on people and chased wild animals. Pal was a wonderful dog and well-trained for his acting role, but he was not perfectly polished off-camera.
Thanks to pop culture, "reality" t.v., and marketing gimmicks, dogs face more pressures to fit into a certain box than any other pet animal. We think of cats as independent and indifferent to their humans (not entirely accurate). We don't take it personally if our pet iguana or hamster bites us because they are just dumb animals (also not the whole story). We don't assume a pet rabbit is pooping on the floor out of spite because they "know better". But, we don't give the same benefit of the doubt to dogs. We even have higher expectations of dogs than we do of ourselves!
What is true for every other animal is also true for dogs. They are not mythical creatures. They are subject to the same laws of nature as any other animal. They don't all fit neatly into a box.
Dogs are SELECTIVELY Social
Expectation: Dogs are super social and love all other dogs and people.
Reality: Like humans and every other social animal, dogs are selectively social.
Humans and other social animals, including our closest relatives Chimpanzees and Bonobos, live in family groups and have a select group of friends. We don't automatically love everyone because we are social. Humans and Chimpanzees will even go to war and kill people outside of our social group. We have been conditioned to believe that dogs are the exception and that if they don't love every person or dog they meet, something must be wrong with them! But, dogs are not an exception. What is true for every other social animal is also true for them.
Sociability falls on a range. I have a friend who thinks of every stranger as a potential new friend. She will strike up a conversation with anyone and is genuinely interested in getting to know them. I am more reserved and take a long time to warm up to new people. If my friend were a dog, she would love the dog park. If I were a dog, the dog park would make me feel anxious, and I'd just want to go home. Some dogs are like my friend, others are more like me.
Most of the dogs in the world are unowned street dogs. If they don't like a situation or another dog they meet, they have the choice to simply leave. Owned dogs don't have a choice unless we give it to them. Fights become more likely when two dogs don't want to be friends but neither of them can leave.
Takeaway: you and your dog will both be happier if you don't try to force them to be more social than they want to be. Always give them a choice to say no, I don't want that person to pet me, and I don't want that dog to "say hi".
Consent and Choice
In the book Beyond Obedience, dog trainer April Frost writes about a client who hired her to stop her Toy Poodle from biting her when she held the dog in her lap. Frost explained that this wasn't a training issue. The dog tried to get away first and only bit when her owner wouldn't let her. The client wanted a lap dog, but the dog she had didn't want to be one. "Lap Dog" was not part of her L.E.G.S. Instead of respecting the dog's choice, the woman had all her teeth pulled so that she could hold her anyway and not be bitten.
Maybe you're thinking, "how awful! who would pull out all of a dog's healthy teeth, just so they can hold them against their will?!" But, there are many other ways to take away a dog's choice that are commonplace. For example, forcing them to accept petting from a stranger and punishing them if they try to communicate that they don't like it (growl). Recently on a Facebook group, a person asked how to handle it when her dog growled at another dog at the dog park. Instead of suggesting that she stop taking her dog who clearly doesn't enjoy it to the dog park, several people told her to correct the dog by jerking on the leash or using a shock collar. Can't let the dog have an opinion or a preference or, next thing you know, they will take over!
Behavior always has a purpose. It might not be immediately obvious what it is, but there always is one. Sometimes, we don't even know why we behave a certain way. Have you ever asked yourself, "why did I DO that?!" If we only focus on the behavior itself (my dog growled at someone) and not the purpose of the behavior (my dog is scared of the person or dog and doesn't want them to come any closer), then we risk doing an injustice to our dog. Imagine what it was like for the Toy Poodle, held against her will every single day, and there is nothing she can do about it. Or, the dog in the dog park who doesn't want to be there, and there is nothing she can do about it.
Learned helplessness is the sense of powerlessness and depression that comes from being unable to escape a scary or aversive situation. Rats in lab experiments will stop trying to escape from an electric shock when they realize there is no way out. Even when the experiment is over, they won't even try to get away from a painful experience in the future. They have simply given up. Have you ever felt that way, that there is no use in even trying because nothing you do makes a difference anyway? It's an awful feeling.
Leash jerks and shock collars use learned helplessness to suppress behavior rather than address the root cause. Make the dog afraid to do anything at all, and we don't have to deal with behavior we don't like anymore. The cost is the dog's welfare and well-being, and there is a high risk of aggressive behavior coming from what seems like out of nowhere later on. Suppressed behavior often comes out in aggression.
Contrast that to what happens when we listen to our dogs when they say no thanks and allow them some room to make choices. Farrah was 8 years old when she came to me. She spent most of the first year hiding in my bedroom. She never slept under the covers, unusual for a Chihuahua. When she did come out, she sat several feet away from me on the couch. She growled at anyone who tried to touch her and would bite if you picked her up.
Fast forward 2 years and Farrah earned her Canine Good Citizen title which requires not only letting a stranger pet her but also to pick up her front feet. She sits so close to me on the couch that a credit card won't fit between us, and she nestles into my neck in bed at night. We got there because she trusts me, and she trusts me because I never push her beyond what she can handle, and I've never punished her for voicing her opinion. When given a choice, most animals' curiosity will overcome their fear, and they will start choosing to interact. If it's a positive experience, they will interact more and more. Forced interactions will make them defensive, and they will withdraw more and more. When someone asks if they can pet Farrah, I tell them I have to ask her first. I ask, "do you want to go say hi?" If she approaches them, it means yes. If she doesn't, the answer is no. She now even approaches children when before she was afraid of them. I've even had to stop her a few times from approaching someone who didn't ask. People don't always want a dog to say him to them, either!
Allowing your dog to have choices also helps for those times when you can't, like going to the vet, having their temperature taken, blood drawn, and getting shots. Think of it like a bank account. If you've made plenty of deposits, then the money is there when you need to make a withdrawal. You get into trouble when you try to make a withdrawal without depositing any money first. Make sure there are plenty more deposits in your dog's trust account than withdrawals.
Consent Test for Petting
The 5 Freedoms
of Animal Welfare
Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
Freedom from Discomfort
Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease
Freedom to express Normal Behavior
Freedom from Fear and Distress
Brambell's five freedoms have been adopted as the basic standard in zoos, farms, and animal shelters.