Basic Instinct

November 22, 2023

Words: Pennie Clayton

"Every time you think of calling a kid "attention-seeking" this year, consider changing it to "connection seeking" and see how your perspective changes” -Dr Jody Carrington.

This modern world has a lot to answer for. There is a massive amount of information available about anything you need to know, but there is no guarantee that it is good information; neither is expertise as highly valued as it once was. In addition, we are also living in a time of being able to buy whatever we want. This is fine if you need a washing machine or some other appliance, but not so favourable if the goods being sought include a sentient being such as a dog.

There is one crucial question that needs to be considered. When will humans properly examine the relationships with the animals they “can’t live without”?

For decades now, it has been widely known that the so-called dominance theory was never a code that dogs lived by, and yet it prevails and lives on. If it did not impact dogs' lives, it would be laughable, but the whole concept is damaging for dogs, and the effect has ruined the lives of numerous dogs and has even condemned many to an early death.

That is a pretty blunt statement, but it is easy to observe the impression that has been left behind. We only have to look at questions asked on dog groups and forums to see that some people still believe and are constantly being told that their dog's lives need to be micromanaged and certain behaviours need to be fixed. The penalty apparently for not overseeing every aspect of your dog's life will result in a dog these so-called “bad behaviours” and apparently can only be prevented with “firm boundaries” and strict routines.

It is true that some dogs, for instance, greyhounds that have lived in training kennels, have relatively strict routines. But this does not mean that a routine has to be strictly adhered to once they are introduced into home life. The process of being integrated into a new but alien life creates enough stress, anxiety and confusion in itself, without a strict routine being enforced and misinterpreted. While it may benefit the new owners, it will not necessarily assist the greyhound himself, and many are returned to kennels after failing to live up to these expectations. Replacing one institution for a facsimile in an unknown and unpredictable environment will not automatically create the harmony many new owners are looking for. There are way too many uncomfortable situations for these dogs to be at ease within a few weeks.

It can be similar for puppies too. Young puppies have minimal life experience when they go to their second and hopefully permanent homes. Hopefully, all they will have known is safety and care within their very own family group. Setting boundaries and expectations for a puppy that has just been dropped into a new and often scary situation and feeling isolated, distressed and worried is unlikely to result in the perfect puppy. Instead, it may have far-reaching effects, including GI upsets, frustration and anxieties. These conditions precisely cause problems that many people accuse their puppies of, including biting down hard onto human limbs (often of specific family members) or what somebody I recently overheard called “demand barking”, which they used to label the random barking during the evenings.

Harmony and accord with another species has to be earned; it is most certainly not a given. If we are not prepared to compromise on specific dog traits and lower our expectations, there will likely be disappointment and discord. Much of that negative emotion hinges on the misunderstanding of what is normal and natural for a dog.

Let's face it, we have completely free choice, whereas many dogs have little choice. Dogs deserve far more than outdated and rehashed theories that were incorrect from the outset.

Dogs that prefer to sleep on our beds and sofas are primarily seeking comfort and safety, dogs that step through the door before us are often only curious or worried about being left alone, dogs that take food from worktops are doing what they are so good at, being opportunistic and looking for tasty food. None of the behaviours listed above have any motives apart from comfort and basic needs and are most certainly not dominant behaviours, but this is what many people call them.

Suppose humans are unable to accept these behaviours. In that case, dogs are better off with their own kind and not being taken into homes where they will be punished and trained not to display their emotions or try to make decisions about what makes them feel comfortable and safe.

It is about time that people accepted that the “perfect dog” only exists in their imaginations, belongs in Hollywood blockbusters, and bears no relation to the dogs we live with. These behaviours are the product of evolution and natural selection, even if some of those basic instincts have been tampered with by us.

One of the things that happened during the awful last year was many studies and mountains of research about dogs. There are a few tasters at the end of this article. Some have investigated the bond between mother and puppies and looked into the kind of puppy play that puppies participate in with their siblings (and, of course, this involves rolling and tumbling around on the floor). It most definitely is not a human waving a rope toy in their faces.

Some research looked into how inefficient people were at identifying problem behaviour and who they went to for help; others looked into relationships between people and dogs. Studies don't always reach solid conclusions mainly because the number of people and dogs studied is relatively small. Still, they start to question how demanding a home environment can be and why problems are prevalent, especially in puppies and adolescent dogs.

They also outline why punishment will not solve problems and why frequent repetitions of some unnatural behaviours that we insist on, including numerous requests for our dogs to sit during any one day, can backfire and cause physical problems such as arthritis and impact on mental wellbeing. The act of sitting may seem innocuous enough, but frequent requests to perform a sit, especially if employed to stop unwanted behaviours, like biting, will suppress unwanted behaviours and will never address the cause. Instead, we could easily teach exercises such as waiting in a standing position that is far more comfortable for most dogs and relieves some of the frustration that results from repetitive exercises.

More education is needed about the inelastic needs of dogs (before rehoming or buying a puppy). If dogs are required to sleep downstairs because we are allergic to hair or the carpet is new, then it can be concluded that basic canine requirements will never be met. Dogs should not be forced to sleep in isolation because social contact when sleeping is essential in preventing sleep deprivation. They, like us, have brains that need specific amounts of sleep; if this is not fulfilled, then the inevitable will happen. Whose fault then is the resulting disruptive behaviours?  The dogs or ours?

Social contact with other dogs is also a basic need unless there is an excellent reason why this is inappropriate. Good food, fresh water and lots and lots of species-appropriate chews, which are not plastic or rawhide, are also essential and most definitely not a luxury.

The last thing (and not least) on the list is positive praise, kindness and empathy. If we can't show these basic human emotions to the dogs we live with, we should be ashamed.

This applies especially to families with children and dogs. Dogs are not there to teach children. Children should not be teaching dogs or puppies unsupervised, but fostering a good relationship with a dog will greatly benefit children in any family if the correct supervision is in place.

If, as in the initial quote, we respond to requests for attention from our dogs with kindness rather than irritation, we can begin to form a good relationship with our dogs. Kindness and empathy help build confidence, and dogs can then make good decisions without interference from us.

If we want to share our lives with dogs, we should not ignore or try to change their nature, but we need to change how we think. They are far too unique and precious to be forced into living unnatural lives.

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