Misunderstanding and misplaced compassion for dogs

An odd title, perhaps.  But bear with me while I explain.

We humanise dogs so easily.  Readily believing that they:

  • Get excited about things (e.g the walk, or our return home)
  • Are very affectionate (when they seek our attention or climb onto our laps)
  • Get bored (when we see restless behaviour)
  • Are being naughty, when they aren’t acting in the way we want them to.
  • Are happy because their tails are wagging.

And because we believe them to feel this way, feeling compassion for what we assume they feel we:

  • Add to the ‘excitement’, whipping them up more.
  • Take them for a walk even when they aren’t calm or are likely to pull on the lead.
  • Interact with them when they are restless.
  • Tell them off, for behaviour that they don’t see as wrong.
  • Don’t consider the reasons that they might feel unhappy in a situation

misunderstanding dog behaviour

Here’s a beautiful picture of a German Shepherd dog.  What assumptions have you made about how it feels?  It’s so easy to, isn’t it?!  I almost fall for it myself sometimes.  Suckered in by big brown eyes and human assumptions.  Truth is, I have no idea how this dog feels.  There is no context to this photograph.  The context would give me a much better idea.

What’s really going on?

The thing is, their behaviour is not as it appears.  This can then lull us into the idea that they need something they don’t – and through our response, we inadvertently make them feel stressed. They then behave in a way we don’t like and our compassion for them goes out of the window.  Simply because we were seeing things a different way to them to begin with. Here’s a very brief rundown of what’s really going on and what they need in each situation:

  • At our return home they are relieved we’re back in one piece.  They need to see that our absence was no big deal, so us walking into the house calmly and not acknowledging them is important.
  • The excitement about the walk is actually an adrenaline rush.  They need us to be calm and wait until they are relaxed and prepared to do things on our terms before we take them out.
  • Attention seeking is an attempt to be acknowledged on their terms.  If we do acknowledge them, we put them higher than us in the pack.  This can lead to stressed and dominant behaviour.  It’s best to ignore them, and offer affection on your terms later.  This is hugely reassuring for them – NOT something that will make them feel sad or rejected.
  • Restless behaviour is stressed behaviour.   Agitation/restlessness is a sign that they don’t think everything is okay, but are not being sure what to do about it.  If we ignore a dog in this state, they are shown that no one else thinks there is anything to worry about.  If we interact, we add more fuel to the fire and it takes them longer to feel relaxed again.
  • Naughty behaviour always has a reason behind it.  Whether they are testing the boundaries or doing something to keep us safe (in their minds), it is coming from a place of wanting to know who is in charge.  Calmly guiding them away from what they are doing, into a few minutes of time out is a sufficient consequence.  Telling them off just doesn’t hit the spot.  They got the attention they were after or had something else to worry about added into the mix.

So hopefully this sheds some light on the comment about our compassion for dogs as being misplaced.  We need to take off our human glasses and put on our dog glasses.  Get a deeper understanding of what’s actually going on for them, rather than what we’ve come to believe is going on for them.  From there, we care about the right things and lead by example.  We can reserve our compassion for the times when they are really testing us, that’s when they need it the most.  Not when they pull a beautiful ‘sad-eyes’ face.

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