This is Part 2 of the Your Dog is Your Life Coach series.
Part 2: How a closer relationship with you benefits your dog
You will extend a great kindness to your dog by trying to understand her better. Look at life through her eyes: Imagine that you are super intelligent, incredibly observant, full of love, and full of curiosity. If you’ve been abused before, you also may be full of fear. You live with a different species and although you’re trying to communicate your thoughts and feelings, they don’t speak your language. As a result, there are a lot of misunderstandings. You have so many thoughts and feelings and are unable to fully share them, which can make you frustrated, sad, or angry. You’re a wise soul trapped in a place where you have thoughts and feelings about what’s happening, ideas about things you want, but you can’t make yourself clearly understood most of the time.
In addition, you don’t have control over most of what happens in your life. Someone else decides what you eat, when you eat, when you exercise, what toys you have, who your friends are, and where you sleep. You have to interpret words that have no real meaning to you, read human body language, and take into account their tone of voice to successfully live in your house. Oh, and the people don’t really tolerate mistakes very well. You’re supposed to understand perfectly and do as you’re told without regard to whether you want to do it or it even makes sense. Sounds pretty difficult, right? Your dog does it all 24/7 with grace and love.
Try to at least meet her halfway. For example, have you been in a situation where your dog walked away from his food? What did you do? I know some people who say “stop being so picky; when you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat it!” The better response is to ask yourself questions:
- Is there something physically wrong, like nausea?
- Is the food bad?
- Does she not like the taste?
- Is she stressed about something and has lost her appetite?
- Did she get into something and ate so much that now she’s not hungry?
- Is she just not hungry and it’s no big deal?
If your response is anything other than trying to figure out why your dog didn’t eat, and offer your dog something else to eat, you’re disregarding a clear communication from your dog. Dogs are honest. They don’t lie. Your dog isn’t trying to defy you or give you a hard time by not eating what you offered. She’s communicating by not eating. Offer your dog something else to eat, try the food a couple more times, and if she never wants to eat it, try something else. If she won’t eat anything, consider taking her to the vet if it persists. Forcing your dog to go hungry or be physically ill without getting treatment isn’t nice and it is de facto ignoring what you’re being told quite clearly. It harms your relationship because you’re affirmatively saying “I don’t care what you’re trying to tell me.”
The simple act of noticing your dog more is going to improve your understanding of who your dog is and how he communicates. In fact, you may find, as I have, that your dog actually has a great sense of humor. Some mornings Beau gets out of bed and scratches at the patio door to go out the balcony. I get out of bed to open the door and as soon as I open it, he often jumps back in my bed and lays down in my spot, rather than go outside and lay in the sun. I laugh and say, “you’re in my spot!” I boop his nose, give him a kiss, and then quietly ask him to move, and he does. I have no idea why he enjoys this so much, but I understand it’s a game and it brings him joy, so I play along. He feels heard and understood: I scratch the door, Mom notices me, she does what I ask and opens the door. I get a laugh. Win win.
As you focus more on your dog, you’ll also notice more facial expressions. “Whatcha doing?” and “Is it time for dinner?” are pretty standard looks that you already recognize. When you really pay close attention, without trying, you’ll memorize how your dog’s face looks when he’s relaxed or how it looks when he’s super alert. That means you’ll understand what your dog is saying without much effort, and can react appropriately. I spotted that Gunny was dying in a hospital right in front of 2 vets and 3 vet techs, while they told me how great he was doing. My ability to spot the look of distress on his face that they couldn’t save his life – his oxygen levels were plummeting and they didn’t notice any change in him. They didn’t know him. I did.
Remember, communication is a two-way street, so you also have to be sure that you are communicating clearly to your dog. Not louder. Clearly. Food is a good way to that. Pay you dog with treats for staying when asked. Be clear in the request and the release. We so often think that our dogs are being willful or intentionally not doing what we ask them to do. While it happens now and then, by far the more likely explanation is that your pup didn’t clearly understand what you wanted. For example, when Beau knows that we’re going to practice basic obedience, if he’s confused about what behavior I requested, he’ll offer up any behavior to get the treat. Maybe I wanted a shake but he didn’t understand, so he lays down. He still gets the treat! He’s trying his best to understand and do what I’m asking. I don’t expect perfection. I reward the attention and the effort.
You deepen understanding with your dog by improving communication. It’s up to you to take the lead on that by making a bigger effort to understand what he’s telling you, and communicating clearly yourself. When communication takes less effort, it increases. When it increases, there’s better mutual understanding and less frustration. And that, my friends, makes for a nicer life for both you and your dog.