This blog series is about Good Happy Dogs, and how we can achieve those qualities for our companions. I've been limited in my life to seeing dogs almost exclusively from a British and Irish perspective. I've seen a variety of ways dogs live, how they're "kept", the various roles they fulfill for humans and the multi-species relationships they share, but surely the diversity I've witnessed is just the teeniest piece of the world view. This thought fuels my curiosity about what dogs need.
When there is so much diversity in how we live together, how can we identify what dogs need to be good and happy? Let's look at just two examples of dogs I've known; farm dogs and pet dogs. Growing up observing farm dogs in and around my family, it was enough (at least for the humans) that the dogs were fed, sheltered and taken to the vets when needs-must. The dogs were Good, whatever that might mean in each circumstance, as there was little tolerance for keeping a useless or difficult dog. These dogs had been selected, thoughtfully or not, to be fit for purpose. Being fed might mean table scraps, kitchen peelings and left over porridge, sometimes the cheapest wholesale dog food. The dogs were keen for their meals and seemed to enjoy them heartily. Being sheltered might mean tethered access in and out of a barn, closed in a stable or a kennel. Warmth and comfort came from straw and perhaps a cardboard box. When I picture these dogs in my memories, they often appeared content. I remember them eagerly coming in or out of their living space, relaxing in the bare surroundings and smiling/wagging at people they knew in the yard. Often they were valued individuals, shared special relationships with their caregivers, and were quietly loved.
The farm conditions I describe are a far cry from how my usual clients live with their dogs, and from how I live with mine. (I am writing this in bed, my two sleeping dogs gently breathing on either side, occasional paws-twitching as they dream.) Commonly companion dogs in the UK enjoy a regular dog walker and day care service, an orthopaedic mattress, moisture wicking technology in their fabrics, regular trips to a variety of therapists and professionals, hypoallergenic food and specially ph balanced shampoo. With all of this, are they more happy or more good?
I have to say, no. I don't think so. It's not the mod-cons and stuff that make dogs Happy or Good, although they often help. It's everything I've written about previously- Puppy planning, genetics, early development, socialization, health care, physical and mental stimulation....but even those are not enough. Emotional support is key to happiness! Awareness of a dog's emotionality alters the human's view of Good behaviour so that they're probably more likely to perceive it. This is a win-win situation.
Often I think it is a blindness to the emotional capacity of dogs, so similar to our own, that has enabled dogs to be kept inhospitably so they tend towards depression rather than happiness. Some might say a dog living in a barn or kennel with straw as bedding is inadequately kept, but I don't find that to be true. I've played and slept in those conditions very cheerfully as a child and as an adult. In contrast it is the house dogs I've met, living in ordinary British homes, who were for example, chastised constantly if out of their bed, that I picture when I think of inhospitable canine environments. You can substitute living space in this example for another variable...food, mental stimulation, exercise, health-care, training ...and imagine the in-home wealthy version of inhospitable or dissatisfying from the dog's perspective. We all have our biases and perhaps it is good for us to question what we think we know. How could a dog like the one unable to leave his bed without chastisement, feel loved and secure? Would we even recognise the dog's discomfort in plush and polite surroundings with welcoming human company? Perhaps my description sounds cruel to you but the examples I have in my mind were not carried out by cruel or unkind people. A little more self awareness and dog awareness would open their eyes and probably break their hearts. Often very lovely people have cried with me in consultations when they realised the emotional consequences of their mistaken treatment of their dogs. This post is about inspiring you to think differently, to be brave enough to look at the way you live with your dog and ask yourself if you're truly an emotional support to your canine companion.
My conclusion is that dogs need us to be aware of their emotional states, that they even have them! And to be proactive and responsive in supporting dogs towards positive feelings whilst managing and reducing negative states. A huge part of this comes down to choosing and nurturing a dog that will be able to be satisfied in your home environment or you will be working exceptionally hard with limited results to provide adequate emotional support for the resulting frustrations. I am talking about choosing an appropriate breed from an appropriate background, and being realistic about what it will take to satisfy your dog's soul. If you're not sure read Puppy Planning. I believe that a lot of dog's joy comes in the giving and receiving of interactions with their special humans; if that is not a description of two way emotional support I don't know what is. So whether you have a little or you have a lot please remember that the quality of the relationship you share with your canine matters more to his happiness than stuff you can buy for him. And if you're worried, as many of my clients are, that your dog is less Good because he is spoiled with luxuries, put your concern aside. As long as your dog is emotionally satisfied, healthy and the luxuries support your training, it's all good!
If you're interested in reading other posts in the Good Happy Dog series it's easy to find them using the desktop view of the site. Otherwise follow the links contained in the text above or start at the beginning. Please let me know what you thought of this article and if there are any particular topics you would like me to cover in future. The last in this series will be about recognizing Happy Dogs because Good and Happy don't have to be mutually exclusive. A well trained companion can also be joyful and satisfied although not every trainer prioritizes these qualities. In fact some trainers use forceful methods that create fear and pain in the belief that these are somehow superior to modern, science based and ethical techniques. Which is of course untrue! Go to "Do No Harm" e-book if you'd like to learn more about force free training, and keep following my blog.
Until next week, happy training to you all. Love from Lucy x