Helping Good Family Dogs Be Their Best

on 29 May, 2019

Dogs and people have many similarities. Yet, we are also very different. From greeting rituals to play styles and communication, there are just some things we do not have in common with our canine companions. Recently, I spoke with *Colleen Perry of Pawsitively Waggin’ on the topic of “good dogs”, and brought to light how some of these differences influence relationships with our family pets.

For instance, one thing that often goes misunderstood between families and their pets is intention. We’ve always been taught in our human interactions that it’s the thought that counts. We should consider the motivation behind an action or word before reacting. However, interpreting intention is complex and not a noted canine cognitive skill. Animal behavior expert Chirag Patel puts it simply by saying, “Dogs learn whether something is safe or dangerous.” This is especially important for parents to consider when encouraging interactions between dogs and children.

An example of this is to ask yourself how the family dog experiences something as innocent as a child’s goodnight kiss. Does Fido comprehend it’s an act of love from a trusted person, or does he perceive it as an encounter that ultimately is either safe or threatening? We mean well when including our beloved pup in the bedtime routine, but this ritual usually begins with an uncoordinated child moving into a tired or sleeping dog’s space. The intention may be sweet, but the execution and situation rarely communicate safety to our canine companions. It’s much more pleasant for the dog, as well as safer for the child, to encourage blowing a goodnight kiss or gently tossing a night time treat to a beloved furfriend rather than invading their space.

It’s not uncommon for a pet parent to roll their eyes and dismiss the above suggestions. Most of us truly believe we have a “good dog” that would never hurt, snap, snarl or bite people – especially if our intention is to just show them some lovin’. Nevertheless, there is a sobering reality in accepting that *“any living being pushed to a certain limit will react.” Those behaviors are what dogs know, and unfortunately, often times the only thing people tend to take notice of. Assuming your dog is a “good dog”, who won’t ever behave like a dog because they have a history of tolerating annoying circumstances, puts everyone at risk. Ultimately, if your dog is regularly put in uncomfortable situations, then they are being set up to act defensively.

If you’re a parent who has never yelled or spoken sternly to your child, then I applaud you! But if we’re totally honest, there are likely times the that no matter how hard we try to be peaceable, we sometimes lose our cool. This is especially likely when there have been several stressful events leading up to a situation, or even just a poor night’s sleep. Most evenings my 6 year old can stand in the kitchen next to me tugging on my shirt repeating, “Mom” a dozen times while I’m making dinner and I will calmly address her needs. However, if the timer is beeping, the water boiling over, the doorbell ringing, the text message buzzing and the dog barking, then I’m more likely to reactively bellow a cross instruction to, “Get out of the kitchen!”. Similarly, a dog who experiences multiple triggers in a certain time period is more likely to communicate in a way that we can’t miss.

When it comes to the safety and comfort of our dogs and families, ask yourself, “Is everyone -including the dog – enjoying this interaction?”. When answering that question, it’s important to exercise dog aware skills. Having a basic understanding of dog body language and stress signals is essential because the way dogs communicate discomfort (ie. kiss to dismiss, turning away, lip flick, yawning, panting, etc) are often misinterpreted or ignored.

Always consider how to minimize uncomfortable situations and help your dog have enjoyable interactions whenever possible. Obviously, there are times things occur that will be distressing to your pup. It’s impossible and unrealistic to think they will never encounter a negative experience. But, those situations should be the exception and not the norm when helping your dog be the best dog they can be.

To hear how to respond to those “oops!” moments and see the full Dog Aware “Good Dog” discussion, click here.

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