Understanding Your Dog

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Do you know the secret to have a good relationship with anyone, whether it’s your boss or girlfriend or husband or mother-in-law? The secret is to understand that person as an individual. When you realize why they’re concerned about the things that worry them, or why certain things are important to them, or why they’re sensitive to certain topics or treatment, then you have a better idea of how to treat that person in order to get along with him or her.

This might sound strange to some people, but understanding how dogs are and “what makes them tick” is going to go a long way toward being able to take care of them properly and being able to train them in an effective way.

This doesn’t mean that you need to take classes or get a degree in animal psychology or go through that much trouble. A basic understanding of what makes dogs act the way that they do and what they need to be taken care of both physically and emotionally is enough to get you on the right track when it comes to tending them.

Of course every dog is different and all breeds are different in their general temperament and needs; we will try to make notes of as many of these differences as we can, but these principles will apply in a general sense to all dogs and breeds.

Understanding Your Dog

SOCIALIZATION

While there are some parts of their temperament that are genetically inherited in your dog, there are other parts of socialization that can be trained and taught and that your dog will pick up because of the way she is treated.

As an example of this, think of how many people assume that pit bulls are somehow inherently dangerous and vicious. In reality, pit bulls are no more dangerous than any other breed of dog. In the old U.S. television show “The Little Rascals,” about a group of young children that played together, the group actually brought along with them one child’s pet pit bull for companionship. This TV series was filmed long before pit bull fighting became fashionable, but using a pit bull on the series was perfectly fine because the dog posed no extraordinary threat to the children. Those that started the “sport” of pit bull fighting chose these dogs because of their small and muscular frame, and taught them to be as violent and vicious as they wanted them to be.

This should just illustrate the point that a lot of how a dog responds to people and other animals around them is going to be something they learn. Some breeds are naturally more aggressive or defensive and others more submissive, but by and large they learn how to behave around others from what they are taught. The aggressiveness can be controlled and contained, and they can learn appropriate situations that need a defense and when this behavior is inappropriate as well.

Socialization is taught not just by humans but by other dogs as well. The most dominant dog will become the leader of the pack or the alpha dog and the other dogs around her will follow her lead. For the most part, domesticated dogs recognize their owner as being the truly dominant one or leader and most will be submissive to their owner’s commands, following the chain of command after that.

There are some factors that affect socialization beyond this. When food supplies are threatened dogs do have a self-serving mechanism that will kick in, or if they perceive a threat to their owner their defensive side will also take over.

LOYALTY

There are many families that can physically and emotionally take care of a dog, right? If you couldn’t take care of your own dog, the family down the street could do just as good of a job, right?

It’s easy for us humans to understand and appreciate this point, but this is something that dogs don’t really comprehend.

In the wild, dogs are pack animals because it’s necessary for survival and conquest. One dog alone cannot do much to fend off a larger predator but a pack of dogs can. They can also work together to bring down their own prey. When one gives birth the entire pack will protect the pups and bring back food to them and the temporarily incapacitated mother.

This pack mentality is one reason for a dog’s loyalty. To them, the family that has been feeding her and taking care of her for so long is the only one capable of doing so, and if she doesn’t return home and stay within the pack then she will face danger outside of it – as far as her mental state goes.

There is some controversy over how much emotion goes into a dog’s behavior as well. Some dog care experts believe that dogs feel an emotion that we would call love, whereas others feel that their actions are based solely on inborn instinct – they take care of their babies because their biology tells them to, and they return to the home where they belong because they are programmed to.

The problem with assuming that dogs behave only by instinct is that the more they are treated well, including being played with, groomed, spoken to, and so on, the more they respond in kind. They seem to crave this type of positive attention from their owners, and if they only reacted by instinct then these things would not be necessary! An owner could put out food and water and ignore the dog consistently if they only responded to instinct; studies have shown that dogs that are treated better are more calm and content and well-behaved, so certainly it seems that there is some emotion on their part that drives their actions!

TIP FROM THE EXPERTS: Don’t worry too much about whether or not your dog is actually feeling an emotion that we would call love. She will respond to your positive reinforcement, so give her adequate amounts of praise when she is obedient and don’t concern yourself with just how deeply she is interpreting this behavior! You don’t need to be a doggy psychologist or a mind reader to realize that dogs respond well to this positive behavior on your part.

INSTINCT

The question of emotion aside, there is a lot of instinct that drives a dog’s behavior and this instinct will often take over in any situation, even if it means a dog putting her own life in jeopardy. How so?

Protecting food supplies.

Not enough dog experts explain to owners how protective dogs get of their own food supplies, and this is just an instinctive response that is not meant to harm. When a dog is part of a family it’s very important that children be kept away from it when it’s eating and especially away from the food bowl as well. Being fed is a dog’s most basic need, and in the wild food supplies are often scarce and need to be fought over when other animals are around.

This is one of the secrets of successful dog ownership that far too many owners fail to appreciate. They often allow children and other animals to play around the dog while it’s eating and then become angry when the dog nips or growls.

It is vital for an owner to respect the dog’s instinct in this way and to be sure that other persons in the home respect it as well. A dog should be given a separate and secure area in which to eat; if this is the kitchen then it needs to be off to one side so there is no tripping over the dog while it’s eating. Be sure to keep children in the other room and do not take away a dog’s dish before it’s done with it!

Protecting babies.

Protecting their pups is probably the one big area where instinct will take over even if it means a dog putting her own life in jeopardy. Anything or anyone perceived as a threat will be attacked, and this includes humans around which the dog has been for years.

It’s unfortunate how many owners show such little respect and regard for this instinct of a dog, handling a puppy before the mother is ready to allow this or even pushing the mother aside to get to them.

Sometimes human intervention is necessary as domesticated dogs need food and water brought to them and this includes when they have puppies, but trying to take the puppies or handle them when they’re newborn, when they’re eating, or when the mother is just showing protective instinct is a mistake that many humans make.

Warding off predators and other dangers.

Dogs really don’t know that the mail carrier is not there to harm you, or that a playful tussle between children is not a real fight meant to hurt someone. They perceive danger in a different way than humans do; humans can reason and judge another’s motives much easier than a dog and know when something is meant as a playful gesture versus an actual attack.

A dog doesn’t reason on things this way. Any combative physical gesture is seen as an attack, so that playful wrestling between children can naturally trigger their instinct to bark or to stand between one child and another protectively.

This ability they have to sense what they perceive as danger and their natural reaction to strangers is part of what makes them such good guardians of the home, but owners who misinterpret or fail to respect this are in for problems. A dog does need to know that someone is not a threat, but chastising them for growling or barking is only going to send confusing messages to her. She is acting on instinct and when she is punished for that, this is very detrimental to her emotional state.

A better approach is to understand and recognize why a dog is responding the way she is and to help her to understand that there is no real threat. Speaking in a calm and soothing way is best, and allowing the dog to get to know a stranger will also help her to recognize him for next time.

Protecting itself from harm.

Have you ever seen the U.S. television show, “America’s Funniest Home Videos”? It’s made up of snippets of home movies sent in by viewers where they have caught funny or embarrassing moments. Since these are everyday people filming everyday occurrences, obviously many snippets involve the family pet and something humorous that has happened with it – one such video featured two family dogs attacking a man’s new “bunny slippers” as they thought they were really a threat to their owner, another showed a dog marking it’s territory by urinating on the family Christmas tree, and so on.

While videos like this may be amusing, there are far too many that show families being very rough with their dogs and especially allowing their children to do so as well. For some reason there are people that think it’s cute to see children grabbing a dog’s fur or tail or ears, and often you’ll hear someone chastising the dog when it nips or yelps at the child.

Ask yourself, how would you feel if someone came up and grabbed a hunk of your skin or your ears? If they grabbed your neck and tried to carry you that way or drag you from one room to the other? Wouldn’t you yelp and perhaps slap their hand away, if not even worse? As a matter of fact, someone that did this to you could no doubt be reported to the police as having assaulted you!

Some people unfortunately assume that dogs should just put up with whatever treatment is dished out to them, but dogs have an instinctive reaction to protect themselves from physical harm or danger just like any other creature. Especially when vulnerable areas of the body are threatened such as the eyes, mouth, nose, ears, tail, genitals or anus, will the dog respond with a sharp bark, nip, or growl.

This can be true also when children are present as the dog does not recognize them as being harmless and children often have little understanding of how they’re hurting a dog by behaving this way. Parents may view the dog as a threat to the child but in reality the dog is reacting to what it perceives as a threat to itself!

THE NEED FOR ACTIVITY

Rarely do you see a pack of dogs in the wild just sitting around doing nothing; if they are, it’s only because they’ve just eaten and are digesting or have been active all day and need their rest.

Dogs are active creatures and need freedom of movement and they also need entertainment. In the wild, dogs have an endless variety of circumstances to occupy them. They have other creatures to chase, odors to investigate, and so on. Unfortunately when they’re domesticated these things are taken away from them.

Many owners fail to recognize this need in their dogs and chastise them for chasing after squirrels or other small animals, or after cars. While humans see this as misbehaving, in reality dogs do these things for the same reasons that humans go for a walk – they need to be active and they need to be occupied. Wanting to protect them from running into traffic and not wanting them to tear up a small animal is certainly appropriate, but this simply means that there needs to be substitute activities for a dog to pursue in order for her to be healthy mentally and emotionally.

UNDERSTANDING YOUR DOG

How can you properly care for and train an animal if you have no understanding of how it thinks and why it reacts the way it does?

It’s easy for humans and dog owners to forego really understanding their dogs in favor of an easy “do this and then do that” type of instructional manual, and unfortunately there are many dog trainers and so-called experts that will provide anyone with that type of information, but dogs are like people – they have distinct personalities and need to be taken care of in an individual way.

For you to make the best decisions about how to train your dog and care for it physically, mentally, and emotionally, you need to take into consideration all these major forces that are driving its actions.

TIP FROM THE EXPERTS: One common mistake that many owners make is to assume that a dog is misbehaving when in reality it is simply acting how a dog should act or is being guided by its instinct. Before you simply punish a dog or get angry at it, consider if there is another underlying reason for its behavior and then work to correct it gently or reinforce positive behavior rather than simply punish “wrong” behavior. And remember to be aware of how dogs react when they perceive a threat to themselves, to their food supplies and even to their owners. Be sure that nothing is causing your dog to think that their reaction or behavior is warranted.

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