Do we expect too much from our dogs?


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20 October 2014

Great expectations

Times have changed, and so has how we live with our dogs. But do we expect too much? Carolyn Menteith explains how adopting a different mindset may be the answer.

A companion dog needs to learn certain life skills to be safe, happy, and easy to live with. Over the next few issues, as part of our ‘life skills' series, we'll be looking in-depth at these and showing you how to teach them to your pet. But first we need to look a little more closely at why these skills are needed.

As we discovered last month, the number one cause of death in dogs under two years old is euthanasia because of behaviour problems. And, whether we want to admit it or not, dog bites are on the increase. The first is a problem for dogs - the second a problem for humans.

Lots of people have different theories on why this is, from the plausible to the ludicrous - but there are certainly a few unarguable reasons.

Firstly, we're seeing a rise in so-called status dogs in certain areas - dogs who look tough and macho, and who portray a certain image, no matter what the reality of their particular temperament. 

The most common way for many people to get a puppy is still the way it was when I was a child - someone in the area has an accidental litter of puppies, and so if you want a dog, you take one of them home. However, the success of welfare organisations in promoting neutering among responsible dog owners, means that the puppies available in this way nowadays tend to be more challenging breeds or types - high energy individuals who need a lot of input in terms of training and exercise if they are going to turn out to be the perfect companion dog.

Another theory is that part of the problem is the rise of reward-based, positive training instead of more old-fashioned and rather more punitive-based methods. In many cases this shows that the critics don't actually understand positive training. It isn't just ‘waving a bit of food at a dog' - at least, it isn't if you do it properly. Positive doesn't mean permissive. You can create the same ground rules for dogs using positive training methods as you can by punishing them when they get it wrong - often a lot faster and more effectively, as you give very clear guidelines as to the behaviour you actually want rather than just telling the dog what you don't want. The problem is far more that the majority of dog owners don't train their dogs - so most dogs aren't being set any boundaries, by any method. 

And lastly, a big reason is that life for the companion dog in this country has changed out of all recognition in the past couple of decades. So too has our attitude to our dogs - and somewhere down the line, we seem to have lost our common sense approach.

Then and now

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Great expectations

Roaming around alone, dogs used to make their own entertainment... whereas now they enjoy all the family's activities.  

Dogs are dogs

In the past, most dogs were… well, just dogs. They were part of family life, in that they were always there, but they weren't treated as such an important part of the family in the way that most companion dogs are now. And family life has changed beyond all recognition too.

For the majority of dogs in the past, there would be a member of the family home most of the time, and so the dog nearly always had company. Generally the dog would walk to school and back when Mum took the kids to and from school - so he got a couple of walks a day at least. Many other dogs were latch-key dogs who would wander around the local area getting socialised, having plenty of physical exercise, and being mentally stimulated. Dogs who were aggressive didn't last long, but there was also a more accepting attitude to dog bites. If a child came home and said he or she had been bitten by a dog, they were likely to get told off by their parents who would want to know "what did you do to it?".

In many ways, life has improved for the dog population as a whole. Responsible ownership and excellent neutering campaigns, driven by a desire to cut down on the number of dogs being put to sleep every year because far too many unwanted puppies were being born, means that dogs do not wander (facing injury and death), reproduce, and socialise freely any more. Instead they live far safer lives in the home as part of the family.

It does mean, however, that as owners, we are totally responsible for them. We are responsible for ensuring we give them exercise, socialisation, training, and stimulation. They rely on us to do that - and in many cases we are letting them down. Not only that, but our society has become more and more litigious, and now even the tiniest of nips - or even the threat of the tiniest of nips - is enough to bring the full weight of the law down on dogs and their owners.

In addition, because they live in our houses, and share our lives every minute of every day, there is a temptation for people to forget they are dogs, with all the needs and behaviour of a dog, and are not just a child in a fur coat.

What is bad behaviour?

The majority of behaviour problems in dogs are not actually behaviour problems at all - the dog is just behaving like a dog. The problem is that we, the humans, sometimes find that dog behaviour unacceptable. We so easily forget that we have taken a different species into our home, into our family, and then somehow expect that animal to behave in a totally non-dog like way. Most of the time, we expect our dogs to behave better than our partners, our children, and indeed ourselves. When was the last time you went a week without getting annoyed with someone, getting frustrated, raising your voice, or getting angry? But the moment our dog does that, we panic and are on the phone to a behaviourist, a rescue centre, or a vet.

It's time to take a reality check. Dogs have needs: they need food and water - we all know that; they need company - they are social creatures; they need exercise - many of the breeds we have today were bred to work and to be on the go all day; they need mental as well as physical stimulation; they need to be trained and socialised if we want them to accept as normal all the things that their life with humans will contain; they need to be able to succeed and fulfil the function they were bred for - or be given an outlet for that behaviour. If we as owners can't provide that, then we are going to have problems with our dogs.

We need to stop thinking about dog behaviour problems and start thinking about owner behaviour. We are the ones with the problem - and it is very often of our own making. Our dogs are just being dogs.

This is why we need to teach life skills to our dogs. We need to recognise that they need help understanding how they fit into our complex lives - especially when we expect so much from them. We want them to accept everyone and everything that comes into our house, we want them to come with us everywhere we go, and be safe and friendly to all they meet. We want to be able to leave them at home when we can't take them, we want them to be quiet and well mannered when we haven't got time for them, but we want them to be playful and active when we have. And that's just before lunch!

We need to change our mindset. We need to stop thinking about ‘what can I do to my dog to get him to behave better?' and start thinking about ‘how can I make changes to what I am doing so that my dog behaves better?'