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What do dogs need from humans?

April 1, 2010

I ran across an interesting post via Retrieverman, Patricia McConnell’s How Much is Enough? at The Other End of the Leash.

Some of the recent posts have brought up the question that many of us live with on a daily basis: how much training and attention do our dogs need every day? I get asked this a lot, and as I wrote in my essay in Tales of Two Species, I suspect that there’s another fundamental question driving it (she says, speaking from experience.) How much exercise, training and attention do our dogs need for us not to feel guilty? Fess up, don’t you sometimes wonder if you are doing enough for your dog, and don’t you sometimes feel guilty about not doing as much as you should?

She hits the nail right on the head, in my case. I’ve recognized that a lot of my discomfort has been coming from a tendency toward guilt, and demand sensitivity which extends to dealing with a spoiled dog.

We adopted Max, a 10-year-old Staffie, about a year ago, from someone who’d had him since he was a puppy (and she was 14 or 15). They’d recently had a baby, and while I seriously doubt they were concerned that he might hurt the baby in any way–he’s about the least aggressive dog I’ve ever seen–Max was used to getting about the same level of attention as a human baby. They’d also gotten a younger dog, who needed attention too. She didn’t want to give him up, but I suspect something had to give there, after seeing how spoiled he was. 😦 I’m very glad to have gotten to know him, though the circumstances weren’t so great.

He’s a sweetie, but (I’ll say it again!) extremely spoiled. The first week or so, he cried and whined and shuddered disturbingly every time I left the part of the house he’s still mostly confined to. He kept it up for hours after going into his crate every night. We’re still working on the separation anxiety. (Not this way!) Staffies can make some really disturbing noises. At first, I was afraid there was something physically wrong with him!

Not Max, just sounds like it! Only, he was more frantic with it at first.Source.

Even better, he’s very excitable, and some not-so-great ‘citey and nervous behavior got reinforced while he was growing up. We have even had to work with him to get him to stop humping our legs when he gets sufficiently worked up. :/ (He was never neutered, and we’re not sure it’s a great idea, or would even help, at his age.) He is still very energetic, and isn’t showing many signs of slowing down at 11.

Judging by his reactions, he just didn’t get walked much before. He pulled like crazy, and panicked around traffic and crowds, in the worst case sometimes trying to pull us into traffic when he didn’t have doggy anxiety attacks and flop down on the pavement, refusing to move. We’ve been working on getting him used to crowds and even moderately busy roads, with slow but steady results. He still doesn’t like them, but rarely panics like he used to. The main exercise he apparently got with his previous humans was being allowed to “escape” from their back garden, to run around like an idiot in the field behind their house. He mostly hung around the house and acted about as nervous and excitable as you might expect.

Staffies are known for their high energy and spirits, in general. Most of them need a good bit of physical exercise. Seeing some of Max’s behavior after we got him home, one of my first priorities was to make sure the poor thing got enough exercise to work off some of that nervous energy. The first little while, I was taking him out for a minimum of two longish walks a day, usually three: as soon as I finished my coffee in the morning, in the afternoon, and after supper. He was in worse shape than I was starting out (reduced activity from the chronic pain), and we built up more stamina together. 🙂

He also got a doggy backpack I’d put a couple of water bottles or vegetable cans in, to help tire him out more! I started taking him along shopping pretty soon, and he helped carry stuff. (OK, not that much, but it does help me too.)

Cute, aren’t they? 😉 A worn-out Max and Nigel, after a couple of weeks.

It was a couple of weeks before I let him run off leash in parks, and a nearby playing field and mini-nature reserve beside it. Neither aggression toward other dogs nor trying to run off was a problem. He stays very human-focused, and keeps checking in with us. I started trying to take him to one of those places at least every other day.

This plan worked out well; he responded well to the exercise, and started enjoying the little bit of change in routine and novelty as long as one of his humans was right there.

Then the chronic pain and muscle spasms got worse. It had been challenging all along for me to try to keep up with Max’s exercise needs*, then I just could not do it. I pushed myself way too hard trying, going out on walks with my back and thighs in spasm and a pully Max, and all the rest.

Sometimes I can take Max out a couple of times a week, but there have been periods when I couldn’t reasonably do it at all.

Nigel has tried to take up the slack. But, he’s tired when he gets in from work, and walking still-slightly-pully Max makes one of his calves act up. Maxie Boy is large and really strong even for a Staffie, at 25 kg/55 lb. of muscle! (“Buff little dude” is an apt description. *g*) I have gotten frustrated sometimes, dealing with chronic fatigue and pain in more places on a good day. But, I really don’t want to start playing a game I’ve been on the wrong end of a lot; Nigel is the only one who knows how he feels. It still gets frustrating, especially since Max is noticeably more excitable and harder to deal with when he doesn’t get the regular exercise.

The end result is that Max still only gets walked every other day or so usually, and maybe gets to go where he can run around off leash once a week or so. It’s not ideal, but it just about works. We may be doing the best we can, but I still feel guilty sometimes.

The How Much is Enough? post (and comments) includes some interesting discussion of what dogs need from us humans, to stay happy and healthy. Some of the authors’s headings: physical exercise, mental exercise, novelty, and freedom of choice.

There is also some interesting discussion of neuroplasticity in this context. An excerpt:

One the books I’ve been reading on brain plasticity mentioned increased dendritic branching (connections between neurons) when caged rats were allowed to voluntarily exercise. That’s a good thing for the brain, and can lead to all kinds of positive benefits, not only enhanced mental function but also to a better ability to handle stress, for example. But here’s the kicker: there was no effect when the rats were forced against their wheel to exercise, even if it was for the same amount of time. Forced exercise may be good for physiological health, but not necessarily for a healthy brain…

Since our dogs, most of them, are no longer able to spend considerable periods of time outside on their own, we need to be creative to find ways to let them manage their own lives for part of the day.

I have also been enjoying some posts from Retrieverman, including Can dogs be equals? and a review of Merle’s Door by Ted Kerasote (which I would like to read).

Max shows an awful lot of the “I’m the baby. Gotta love me.” appeasement behavior mentioned here, including the jumping (which we’ve mostly managed to discourage him from doing by now). Overall, he was encouraged to continue acting like an attention-hungry puppy, and got some compulsive behavior growing out of that.

I’d already been suspicious of a lot of the popular emphasis on dominance hierarchies among dogs (there’s a lot more on this over there), and how this might apply to human relationships with them. A lot of that stuff just didn’t agree with my own observations of dog behavior, either–besides my ethical sensibilities. I have tended to assume that some freedom of choice and autonomy would be important for other animals, beside making me feel better about how I’m dealing with them!

Stan Rawlinson made some excellent points in The Alpha Myth: Do Dogs Really Think We Are Dogs:

Even if I dressed up as Scooby-Doo and ran around barking and peeing up the walls, I would not convince even the most naive of pooches. They would easily seeing through my cunning disguise and know that I am not a dog and my family and clients would probably not be overly impressed.

Why? Even in our most fevered imaginations can we believe that gesture eating, ignoring them when coming back in, or going through doorways first will be the magical formula to convince them that we are an Alpha dog and therefore leader of the pack. It is absolute rubbish.

It is my humble opinion that rank reduction programs, where we are told to act like an Alpha does not work in changing behaviour over the long term. In the short term you will see some changes in behavioural patterns, but long term there will be very little beneficial change. In reality quite the opposite can happen. By ignoring and isolating your dog for long periods you can cause confusion, distress, anxiety, and distrust, which can affect the bond and trust you have with each other…

Though I clearly cannot be an Alpha (after all I am not a dog), I can be a controller of resources and a leader of sorts. I can change the behaviour of my dogs from unacceptable to acceptable. I can also initiate programs of change using psychology and sometimes just simple basic obedience training…

To be a controller you need to convince your dog that mutual respect is required, that includes your body space. I may not want to be leapt on every time I come in. Greeting is fine as long as it does not include jumping all over me or my friends, which is considered rude and inappropriate in wild dogs and wolves.

I believe we should strive more for democracy than outright autocracy

While I am very aware indeed that dogs (and cats, and…) are not small humans in fur suits–any more than I can be a dog–that doesn’t mean that I’m somehow inherently better than they are. They deserve understanding and respect, the same as small humans do; I see the relationships as similar in a lot of ways. It’s just as reasonable to expect perfect obedience out of a dog as out of a human child. Both expectations come out of the same kind of authoritarianism and hierarchical thinking. Teaching them how to get along with other people and not to do dangerous stuff is a very different matter. Similarly, recognizing that you’re the one who controls a lot of the physical resources in this relationship does not necessitate (nor excuse) power tripping based on that.

Also, as mentioned in another post in the context of dealing with humans, I’d expect much better results from treating the other person with respect and recognition of their needs. “People” includes dogs, and cats, and bears, and…

This also makes me think of Amanda’s Dealing with Cats, Part 1: What is respect?. (I’m looking forward to further installations, when she gets around to it.) My ideas about respect are similar. And I’ve always seen our relationships as partnerships, with us humans having at least as much to learn from other animals if we bother to pay attention.

Back to Max, I think we’re actually striking a pretty good balance in paying attention to his needs and making sure they get met. Ideally, he’d get more chances to run around off lead, but hey.

I try to make sure he gets a decent bit of mental stimulation, because life is boring otherwise! I’ve also been trying to make sure he has choices available, even just the opportunity to wander in and out the back door and lie in the sun on the patio, weather permitting. That kind of thing is particularly important, since he’s still mostly confined to one end of the house away from the cats,** so doesn’t even have free run of the house most of the time. The continuing varied walks, getting him used to going new places around traffic and new people and other dogs (and cats, the occasional fox), provide more stimulation.

He also gets a decent variety of food, for novelty and nutritional balance. When he came, he would only eat one particular brand of dog chub, and kept turning up his nose at even that. (No wonder.) I quickly studied up on canine nutritional needs, and started making him food out of good ingredients–and he loved it! He also gets a lot of what we’re eating, adjusted as necessary to suit his needs. Now he’s not nearly so snouchy, besides getting a lot better quality food. Nasty as it is, we still keep a chub or two on hand, for the occasional day when I am not up to fixing him (or us) something to eat, and we’re short of suitable leftovers. I’d rather not feed him that stuff at all, but needs must.

On the neuroplasticity side of things, he is actually learning to calm himself down, more all the time! The poor dog had basically no encouragement to learn to regulate his own emotions before, and I know too well how unpleasant that can be.

Max still has an extreme level of need for human attention and affection, and we try to keep that met. We try not to reinforce the crying, whining, and general separation anxiety behavior, and wait until he calms down some to pay attention to him. It has helped a lot, though he is still pretty spoiled. I don’t expect that to change overnight, after 10 years of unhealthy levels of coddling. Someone is here with him during the day, and Dogster Snuggles now spends the night in the bed with us. (With the pleasant side effect of letting the cats have full run of the house overnight.)

I still feel a bit guilty when I, say, sit here at the keyboard and leave him to his own devices for any length of time, but that comes more from demand sensitivity and that nagging feeling that I’m just not living up to expectations (and history dealing with human narcissists!) than any real neglect. I keep worrying that I’m neglecting the cats now, too. 😉 With the trouble I have sitting still for any length of time, I pop in and say hello to him pretty frequently, anyway.

He seems a lot happier these days than he did a year ago.

So, yeah, I suspect that my unease has more to do with me than with Max’s actual needs.

Edit: Fixed last image address. I also accidentally called Stan Rawlinson “Steve”, which is also fixed now.


* I also underestimated his need for exercise going in. Most of the dogs I’d known well growing up had lived far enough out in the country that they could mostly run around at will with other dogs–with careful watching and some restriction so they wouldn’t join up in packs and chase deer/livestock/etc.!–and just didn’t get walked on a leash. They were also discouraged from, say, staying gone up on the mountain for days, and–if they were lucky–eventually dragging in, having been mauled by a bear they’d been hassling. (Yeah, one of my aunt’s dogs did this. She needed a lot of surgery, but was OK.) Even in town, our dogs didn’t get walked properly. More exercise would have helped my last (very energetic!) Lab/pit mix, B.B., an awful lot, and I still feel kind of bad that I didn’t know better.

In our living situation now–just inside the M25–it was obvious that Max could not run around on his own, at all. (Where I was living before, it was safe for B.B. to do so, to some extent–and leash laws only really got applied if the dog was causing a problem.) Before we got him, I also learned more about dog behavior and taking good care of them. Max needs a lot of human-accompanied exercise.

** I described the situation in comments at Existence is Wonderful. We’re continuing with the controlled meetings, and things have improved quite a lot! But Max is still half-scared of the cats, and will try to chase them sometimes. So he mostly stays in the TV room and kitchen, unless the cats are all outside.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2010 4:41 pm

    Very good post.

    You’d be amazed at the trolls this sort of analysis attracts.

    These people like being nasty toward dogs, so they have no scruples about being nice to people.

    • urocyon permalink
      April 1, 2010 8:49 pm

      I can believe it, having seen some comments on dog-related blogs (including yours). It’s amazing how threatened some people seem to get if you just say “hey, this isn’t a great way to deal with anyone”. 😐

      Seeing your comments after mentioning B.B. earlier reminded me of how similar she and the photo of your golden boxer looked–down to the “small black horse” effect. 🙂

      B.B.’s mother was a brindled Pit Bull who lived down the street, and I strongly suspect her daddy was the same ancient Black Lab who wandered the neighborhood and kept gamely trying to breed with the Rat Terrier/Chihuahua mix next door. (That could have been interesting, had it ever worked!)

      She and several of her littermates were abandoned at about 8 weeks old–I suspect the ones the people knew they couldn’t pass off as Pits, even after (badly) docking their tails. Her stump took months to heal up, with exposed bone starting out, and it made me want to dock something off those people. I would not be surprised if they were trying to breed fighting dogs.

      It’s interesting what a similar appearance these mixes gave, but not that surprising given a retriever and a bully-derived dog as parents in both cases!


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