The purpose of this article is help anyone who has heard that they are meant to ignore their dog at certain times, to understand why this is so important to your dog, and what the consequences are of not ignoring them at those all important times. Before I do that, I want to address the issue of why we don’t want to ignore them.
Why we don’t want to ignore our dogs
A lot of people get caught up in humanisations of dogs, so when they think about ignoring their dog, all sorts of connotations come to their minds. For instance – that it is mean to ignore a dog. That the dog will feel hurt, unloved, left out, jealous etc. Correct?
We also have thoughts that one of the best things about having a dog is the affection that we get from them, especially when we get home. We’ve been brought up on films and more recently Youtube videos that seemingly depict a dog’s affection for its owner when they have returned from an absence. The dog appears happy/excited to see their owner – but this doesn’t tell the full story.
We are suckers for the puppy dog/sad eyes. Hey, guess what? That’s an evolution that they have and we have selectively chosen in them as well. The look in their eyes does not mean they need fuss, just that they have learnt that this ‘look’ is more likely to get a reaction!
If we put our hands on our hearts and get really honest about it, many people can probably identify with the idea that they believe some of their self worth comes from that enthusiastic greeting we receive from dogs. The idea being that this greeting makes us feel good. I’ll come to this point last!
How does your dog see things?
So, we’ve addressed why we don’t want to ignore our dogs, especially at that greeting after a separation. Now let’s look at things from your dog’s perspective instead. Your dog is a pack animal. The understanding of the pack animal is that the pack should stay on the territory. Going off the territory isn’t a great idea because you are putting yourself in harm’s way. The enemy is out there! Thus when you return after any kind of absence (even if only for a few moments) they will want to check you over to see if you are still in one piece.
Imagine being in the military and your patrol splits into two groups for a while then regroups. At the point of regrouping, it’s important to know if anything has happened to anyone that could affect the patrol going forward. The dog’s instinct to check and ascertain the wellbeing for future eventualities is very similar. Now imagine that your child is in the military, how you feel when they return from a tour of duty.
SO – when you return from a separation, your dog’s priority numero uno is to check “Are you in one piece, is there anything I need to know about?” That is why more often than not a dog will approach their owner after an absence of any kind. In more extreme cases, the dog’s thought process is more along the lines of “Where have you been? I have been worried sick!”
Secondly, your dog sees this moment as a prime time to reestablish what the roles are within the pack – because things could have changed since the last separation. So what you do next dictates whether they see you as in charge of them, or themselves as in charge of you. Their instincts tell them that a leader would give attention when it suits them, on their terms, not when it’s asked of from them. If you watch footage of pups with their parents in the wild you will this repeated over and over. It’s like the leaders are busy, keeping an eye on stuff so interacting can wait. See this video by Quetin Lenel.
This is why us Dog Listeners like to call it “Timing your greeting” rather than ignoring. You are still going to greet your dog, but you are going to do it on your terms. This will clarify for them that you intend to take care of the pack, and there is no responsibility on their shoulders. They can just relax. So priority number 2 is “Who’s going to take care of the pack?”
What happens when you ignore them?
If you ignore your dog after the separation, you are giving them time to work out that you are absolutely fine, in one piece and that you are taking care of them. These two bits of information allow them to understand that there is no need for them to feel stressed or anxious. Once they get this message, they will lie down and relax.
Once they are relaxed, you can invite them over to you to interact with them on your terms. This is where priority number 3 comes in – affectionate interactions with the pack. You have clearly shown them that there is nothing to worry about in their top 2 areas of concern, so they are free to enjoy affection for affection’s sake. They are happy. I am pretty sure that all the dog owners that I help want their dogs to be happy!
What happens if you don’t ignore them?
Well at that moment you are interacting with a dog who is in a heightened state. They are feeling stressed and your acknowledgement of them shows them that they are right to feel stressed. It also shows them that you aren’t looking after them. Therefore, they are in charge and have to worry about all the responsibilities of a pack leader on an ongoing basis. This is where all behaviour problems come from.
Don’t get me wrong, ignoring a dog after a separation isn’t the cure-all for improving behaviour. It is a very important part though.
But what about my needs?!
As promised I want to say a little bit about this as well. Not content with learning about dog psychology and teaching that for a living, I am also fascinated by what makes human’s tick and I have a business providing coaching in this area. We live in a society where we believe that our wellbeing comes from circumstances and events that happen around us, so we pin our happiness of being able to have certain things. The truth is that happiness is available to us at any moment, regardless of circumstances. If you are interested in finding more about this I have written a blog on my business page about it. There is also another within this website. The two links are below:
Understanding true nature – understanding the nature of humans (within this website)