For the few years that I’ve been caring for other people’s dogs, I’ve come across all sorts (and that’s just the owners!). I can say with some authority that almost all problem behaviours with dogs are down to the owner’s relationship with them. I’ve seen it time and time again, and so I thought I’d pass on some of the useful things I’ve learned through this work.
A dog is happiest and most relaxed when it is in the right place within the family hierarchy – at the bottom. Generally, all a dog wants is to be allowed to be just a dog, nothing else, and then in return it will be well behaved, placid, and shower its owners with oodles of love. A dog that is not confused about its role is one happy dog.
But problems occur when we treat them too much like furry substitute children, and communicate with them on a human level rather than in a way that a dog can clearly understand. That is when they get anxious and confused and issues creep in.
You are likely to get the desired response with a short, loud ‘No!’ and accompanying hand gesture, rather than from a: ‘Rover, my handsome little poochy wooch, please be good for mummy wummy and don’t jump onto the sofa because we’ve just been out for a muddy wuddy walk and you are all stinky winky.’
Rover hasn’t a clue what you’re saying and is confused by all the words, but he does hear your soft tone of voice, which to him is a happy tone, and so he will think it is OK to jump on the sofa. And then when you get cross with him, he ends up anxious because he doesn’t understand why in the next breath you’re angry with him. Poor old Rover!
Another common complaint from owners is that their dogs are aggressive towards other dogs or people. In almost all the cases that I’ve dealt with, they are not naturally aggressive, but are simply anxious and confused. A dog which grabs the mail as it comes through the letter box, or who snarls and snaps at other passing dogs, does so because it has come to believe that its role is to protect its home or owner.
The most common reason is that the owner has not been assertive enough with their dog and has unwittingly allowed the problem to develop. It can be reversed, but you have to be patient and persistent. One simple tip is to make sure you ALWAYS go through a door or gate before your dog. I use the word ‘Back!’ very firmly, and put myself physically in front of a dog waiting eagerly by the door. If you persist, you will be amazed at how quickly they pick it up. Doing this shows them that you are in charge and don’t need them to go out first, which they do because they are checking there’s nothing out there that might harm you.
Also, never allow a dog to sit higher than you (on the back of the sofa, for example). This often is protective behaviour, and might seem cute at first, but later you might find the dog starts to snap if other people try to sit down because it views the sofa as its territory.
It is debated as to whether animals can feel emotions like we humans do, and there are many documented cases of dogs and other animals pining for lost owners or mates. In my dad’s column from 15th August 1978, he recounts the story of coming across two yellowhammers in the road. One was dead, and the other stood next to it. Dad moved the dead bird to the side of the road, and as he drove off, he saw the other bird go back to what he presumed was its mate and continue its sad vigil.
Although I don’t believe animals can feel emotions in the same way as us humans, I do believe they are sensitive. I’m certain my friend’s dog, a labrador-springer cross, actually smiles with joy when I turn up at his house, while other dogs do appear genuinely sad when they know I’m going to leave them at home while I go shopping. So what do you think? Does your dog show emotion?
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