by Naomi Heck
With the Christmas holiday fast approaching, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about the best gift for your furry canine child. According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent over 50 billion dollars on their pets in 2011. Although much of that was spent on necessities such as veterinary care, medicines, food, and grooming, I think it would be correct to say we Americans love to pamper our pooches. Just go to any pet store, grocery store, department store or dollar store and you will see a tempting array of products devoted to our best friend. As I was browsing through TJMaxx yesterday I came across an aisle with an assortment of winter doggie coats displayed on hangers along with a plethora of dog toys and gourmet treats in fancy packaging. I didn’t recall seeing such items the last time I was there a year or two ago.
I get immense pleasure watching my German Shorthaired Pointer play with a toy or munch contentedly on a bone. When Chase is happy with the things I provide him, I am happy and I feel like a good owner. Like dogs, we humans repeat behaviors that we find reinforcing. So of course, when Chase joyfully played with his first squeaky toy as a puppy, I bought more… and more and more. “It’s his birthday. It’s Christmas. It was cheap. He’s been so good.” Until I had to go buy a big plastic storage bin to hold all the toys he (okay, I) collected over the past 5 years. It sits overflowing in my garage, but to give myself credit I do occasionally rotate the toys that come into the house. And his all-time favorite toy? A piece of firewood from the wood pile out back!
As a behavior consultant, I am a big fan of toys that provide mental stimulation or that can be used in a fun interactive way that enhances the human-dog bond. My favorite ones are the treat dispensing “puzzle” toys that encourage a dog’s natural instinct to work for food. The stuffable Kong toy was one of the first, but now there are numerous styles to choose from, some quite elaborate with sliding covers over little compartments that hold hidden treats. I think feeding a dog exclusively out of a bowl is a wasted opportunity, especially for young active dogs that are itching to have fun. Even a simple game of hide and seek using food has tremendous value and does not require purchasing anything special. Teach your dog to sit and wait in one spot while you go hide kibble around the house, then tell him “Find it!” and watch him race around, sniffing and searching for the hidden treasures that make up his meal. You are engaging his mind, nose, and hunting instinct, as well as teaching an important lesson in self control (wait) while excited. And it is just a fun way to interact with your dog.
This leads me to what I think is the greatest gift you can give your dog – yourself. In today’s busy world, most of us can’t be with our dogs 24/7 although they would love if that were true. How can we make the best of our moments that we spend with our beloved dog? By improving the way we communicate with them. Accurately understanding and respecting what they are trying to say to us is what I find most lacking when I do consultations with clients whose dogs have behavior problems. Dogs are not furry humans. They do not think the way we do even though their endearing facial expressions might lead us to believe that they share our thoughts. They do not speak our language although they read our body language with amazing expertise. They do not share our cultural values (they sniff butts and eat poop). And they do not understand why we get upset when we find a mess on the floor. They may look and act guilty, but that behavior is actually an appeasement gesture in response to our threatening posture, gaze or tone. They quickly learn that it is safer to pee or chew the carpet or get into the trash when we are not around. Learning to correctly interpret canine body language is a skill worth honing so we can avoid misunderstanding our dogs. Misunderstandings can easily lead to confusion, frustration and even anger, as any married couple can attest. A web search will come up with plenty of resources on canine body language to choose from.
Clear communication also involves telling your dog WHAT to do, not just what they did wrong. Instead of catching your dog being bad, catch him being good or calm and praise or reward that. Parents have probably heard this advice about child rearing as well. It is easier said than done. We humans tend to notice what is wrong much more than what is right. But if you make a conscious effort to pay attention and reward your dog for being good at least 10 times more than reprimanding him for his mistakes, you will see a marked improvement in behavior. When you must correct, be clear what you want him to do. Instead of saying, “No” (which I have to admit, occasionally flies out of my mouth), tell him “Sit” (for jumping), “Go to your mat” (for begging), or “Get your toy” (for barking), and give him a good positive reason for doing so. Of course, you must first take the time to teach him how to do these things in a highly rewarding way before expecting him to understand what you mean.
Are you repeating the same command over and over in an attempt to get your dog to do something (i.e., nagging)? You’ve probably said things like “Rover, come … Come! … I said, come here! … Get over here!” Or “Sit, sit, sit, SIT”. If you do this often it is a sure sign that you have inadvertently taught your dog (or spouse or child) to ignore you. Start over and train the behavior you want more thoroughly with the help of a good training book, class or coach. And use a new word that doesn’t have a history of being ignored. Sorry, no tips for spouses or children.
Clearly communicating with a species that doesn’t share our language, values or views is challenging. But dogs have come a long way in the past 15,000 years since their ancestral wolf days. They have been selected to put up with our confusing ways and mixed messages. The least we can do as the partner with the bigger brain is to try to understand them better and find more effective ways to deliver our messages that are instructive, gentle and humane.
Imagine your significant other or parent saying “Honey, I’ve been thinking. I know we sometimes misunderstand each other, and I want to improve our relationship so it doesn’t happen so often. I’ve decided to make a real effort to understand what you are trying to say so I can meet your needs, and to explain myself more clearly so you can understand me better.” Wouldn’t that be an awesome gift?