In my last post, I mentioned that most dogs have the moral reckoning of a 2 or 3 year old child. We'll look more at what that comparison means for you and your dog in this post...
For the first 20 years of my dog training career, I tried desperately to get dog owners to stop seeing their dogs as "little people in fur and fangs..."
..and for the last few years I've been desperately trying to do the exact opposite!
Why the change in my training message?
Well, the more I see of dogs and humans, the more I am convinced that the reason dogs have been domesticated for so long is because of the similarities in social structure that they share with humans and our families.
By example, within a human family, there are general social rules and roles that each member plays - from who's in charge of paying the bills, to who gets to pick what's for dinner and so on.
The same is true for dogs living in a group together. These social rules may be slightly different from family to family, and who plays what role can change some with varying ages, etc., but generally the rules and roles themselves don't change.
So, whether we want to see our dog as living in our 'pack' or just as living as part of our human family, there are some things we need to consider:
- Most dogs have the moral decision-making skills and self control of a 2 year old human child.
- Most dogs also have the problem solving skills of a 4 or 5 year old child (they can figure things out almost as well as a kindergarten student!)
You read that right - here is some science behind the statements made above: http://www.livescience.com/5613-dogs-smart-2-year-kids.html
So...when we live with dogs, we are pretty much living with furry toddlers...strange little creatures with their own wills, strong emotions, lots of affection to give, lots of tantrums to throw, good days and bad days, not much self control, and lots of interest in getting their very own way. All my clients with children can relate to this!
But unlike our human children, these furry 'canine toddlers' can also deliver a bite with about 320 pounds of pressure per square inch in those powerful jaws.
Fortunately, most dogs really do want to be part of the family, and are very careful about not using those fangs. But after 25 years of dog training, I am seeing a sharp increase in the number of aggression cases I evaluate each year.
Is this because we really have that many more aggressive dogs running around, or is it that we are doing something different in the way we live with dogs than we used to?
Maybe it's a bit of both.
This all points back to my first post in this series, about the differences in how most dog trainers live with their dogs vs. how most pet owners live with theirs.
Trainers (including myself) throw around terms like "dogs need discipline," "dogs need structure," and "dogs need boundaries," etc., but we don't always clearly define what that looks like for our clients.
Likewise, if I had a nickel for every dog whose owners are convinced their dog is "dominant," I'd be a very rich woman indeed. And again, "dominance" is a word that gets bandied about, with no clear definitions - even among professionals!
To make matters even worse for the dogs, often our society sees the concepts of structure, discipline, dominance and boundaries in a negative way. Because of this, owners shy away from clear communication with their pets - leading to confusion on the dog's part and frustration for the owners.
What can we do?
To start, go back to the analogy of your dog as a toddler - when we begin to see our dogs in this way, it becomes clear just how much help from us they need to get by in the world.
We don't expect our children to raise themselves. We set guidelines and boundaries about everything from bedtime, to eating their veggies, to how to play nicely with other kids . We give guidance about homework, social skills, and how to behave in public. (Or we should!)
All of this takes self discipline on the parents' part. If you doubt this, try disappointing a 2 year old child who really wants something like another piece of cake or a new toy...it's hard!
In fact, it might actually feel easier in the moment to give in to the child. But as any good parent knows, giving in to the tantrum in the moment can lead to all sorts of trouble in the future.
The same is true with our dogs, They need us to guide them and parent them through the pitfalls of our hectic, confusing human world.
And we must remember - while the human toddler will grow up and gain more and better communication skills, acquire stronger morals and self discipline...
...the dog remains a toddler.
I hope that message is not a negative or disappointing one to dog owners. I hope that through this series of posts on living with dogs, we all gain a better understanding of how to truly meet our dogs' needs, which in turn will lead to happier dogs and happier humans.
Jennifer Hime is the a canine behavior consultant and lead trainer and owner of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO. She can be contacted through her website at www.k9counselor.com.