Visiting Vet: Dog behavior

The reality is that our household pets are captive animals.

A dog out for a walk may only want attention from the owner. —Andrik Langfield

“When you walk your dog, you are on a date with him,” the speaker said in his charming Italian accent. “You wouldn’t like it if you had a date and the person ignored you.” Words of wisdom from Dr. Carlo Siracusa, associate professor of clinical animal behavior and welfare at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. My staff and I recently attended a conference where we gained many fascinating insights from his lectures. It didn’t hurt that he had a wonderful sense of humor, and a presentation full of entertaining (though occasionally distressing) videos of animals doing, well, things that animals do. Cat people, be patient. You will get your own column another week, since Dr. Siracusa had many brilliant observations about kitties as well, but for now, here’s just a little bit of what we learned specifically about dog welfare and behavior.

Animal welfare is defined as the quality of life as perceived by the animal itself. It’s not about what we humans think. It’s about what the dog thinks. If we want to understand dog behavior, we must learn about the natural behavior of the entire species, how they perceive the world, what instincts drive them, what makes them happy, what makes them fearful. Then we must consider each individual dog’s temperament. Just like people are all the same species, but can have dramatically different personalities, preferences, and needs, the same holds true for dogs.

Let’s start with canines as a whole. You know those dog food commercials with a pack of wolves leaping through the forest? People love these. “That’s just like my pup Pookie at the dog park!” you think. Wrong. Domestic dogs and wolves have very different social structures. Wolves live in packs that are essentially family units, with a stable hierarchy. They hunt together and rear their young together. Dogs in feral situations tend to be more solitary. They may form “groups” or “bands,” usually of three to five unrelated dogs, but generally do not hunt or raise pups together. They are not “family,” just individuals congregating around resources such as food and shelter for convenience. When given a choice, nonferal dogs overwhelmingly prefer the company of humans to other dogs. That doesn’t mean Pookie the poodle never wants to romp around with his pal Wookie the Weimaraner, but ultimately he has more attachment to his person than his playmate. Maybe it’s love, maybe it’s dependence. Maybe both.

Okay, so Pookie isn’t a pack member. Dr. Siracusa put it succinctly: “The wolf is long gone in the pug.” “But he’s still kind of wild and free,” you say. Right? Wrong. Dr. Siracusa spoke about the “fluffification” of veterinary medicine, meaning our recent insistence on making everything seem all sweetness and light. The reality is that “our domestic animals are captive animals.” You give Pookie a great life, but the reality is we decide everything for him. When he eats. What he eats. When he goes out. Where he goes. Yet we are often oblivious to what he is experiencing.

Pookie lives in a different sensory world than we do — a world of sights and smells and sounds we can’t even perceive. Dogs are processing stimuli all the time, deciding what they think is safe and unsafe. Their reality is different from ours. In order for a dog to be as happy and well-behaved as possible, acknowledging and addressing individuality is key.

Think about it. Not all people are the same. Some love hugs. Some don’t like being touched. Some love to party. Some prefer a night home alone with a book. (You know who you are.) If Pookie naturally has a less social temperament, or doesn’t like to be approached or touched by too many people, that’s OK. Not every dog needs to be cuddly. Dr. Siracusa points out that you too might get upset on that walk with your human date if they insisted you let everyone you meet pat your head. You can say no. Dogs need that respect as well. When people squeal about how cute Pookie is, and ask to pet him, don’t make him tolerate it if he doesn’t enjoy the attention.

For dogs that are fearful or anxious, there may be positive ways to slowly get them desensitized to things that frighten them, but it is essential to do it gradually and thoughtfully. Dr. Siracusa compared it to people with arachnophobia. Are you going to lock them in a room full of spiders until they “just get over it”? No. At least we hope not. Every time you force Pookie to do something that scares him, you are making it worse. You have to decide what is really in his best interest, then make a behavior modification plan to suit his individual needs. Work with your veterinarian. Consult a veterinary behavior specialist. Consider antianxiety medications, though these must always be paired with a training program. If you use a trainer, make sure they are in sync with your philosophy, your vet, your behaviorist, and your dog.

Sometimes it is not in a dog’s best interest to force an issue. For example, he does not need to go to the dog park. In fact (don’t shoot the messenger), dog parks are a really, really bad idea for many, many pups. The dog park can be a place of overstimulation, anxiety, and over-arousal that can lead to increased fear and/or aggression. It is often better to have a playdate with one or two dogs he knows well in a controlled environment. Please don’t think you are depriving him of his “pack.” Remember, Pookie is not a wolf, and a gang of unrelated, unfamiliar dogs is not a family. You are his family. You are his date. When you go for walks, pay attention to him, just like you would want your date to pay attention to you. Reward him with love, attention, and treats, and he will reward you with the joys of having a happy dog.