Keeping a dog alive seems pretty simple, right? Feed them, make sure they have clean water, have a comfy bed in the corner and you’re set.
But, what’s involved in keeping your dog healthy and happy?
To some, the answer to this may seem obvious. Throw the ball across the yard a few times, lots of treats, and an abundance of snuggles….. That’s all our dog’s want…. Right?
Unfortunately, there are many things that we humans tend to overlook.
Our dogs bring so much joy and purpose to our lives, and it used to be that we brought that to them as well. However, over the years our relationship with dogs has changed drastically. Somewhere along the way many of us have lost touch with a few things that our dogs need us to remember. Their happiness and emotional and physical well-being depend on it.
The truth is, there’s many things we need to pay a little more attention to. But, in an effort to not overwhelm you while you drink your morning coffee, we’ve narrowed it down to the three that we think deserve the most attention.
We’re going to start this post out strong with probably the hardest thing to hear and accept.
Your dog’s weight is 100% your responsibility.
In 2018, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 55.8% of dogs in the United States were overweight or obese. That’s more than half!
Working in the pet industry I’ve noticed something quite disturbing. Not only is it becoming considered “normal” and acceptable for our pets to be overweight…. People think it’s cute.
Sometimes the truth is hard to hear, but here it is. Your “chonky” dog is not cute.
Being overweight is not just a cosmetic issue for our dogs. Being even a few pounds overweight can lead to various serious medical issues down the road including but not limited to:
Before getting into dog training I worked in the veterinary field and the list of conditions above were by far some of the most common conditions we saw. Coincidence? Probably not.
Our dog’s have no control over their exercise levels and diet. They eat the food we choose to feed them. Most dogs will eat as much as we give them, this is instinctual. They don’t have the ability that we do to recognize when they’ve had enough and their body has gotten all the nutrients it needs…(I don’t always have this ability either.) And they certainly don’t have the ability to take themselves on a long walk, or throw themselves the frisbee.
We humans tend to make an emotional connection with food. For example, mac and cheese will always and forever be the food I eat when I’ve had a rough day. It makes me happy. Technically, there’s a scientific reason for this that involves brain chemicals but we’ll leave that for another day.
Because of this though, we love to give our dog’s treats. It’s a way that we think we’re able to bond with them. We also have a bad habit of looking at the amount of food we give and assuming it’s not enough and they must still be hungry either because of how that amount of food wouldn’t be enough for us or because of how excited they get for their food.
Our dogs are a different species with extremely different dietary needs from ours. And we tend to confuse hunger with excitement… two very different things.
Here’s the thing, it’s okay if your pet is overweight right now. I understand that sometimes hearing the hard things that we need to hear sucks. It just sucks. And it can feel like a personal attack.
Maya Angelou said something that I carry with me in every aspect of my life, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
No one is perfect. And it’s become so normalized to have overweight pets that we often just think our dog’s look just like all the other’s, so it must be right. And the veterinary industry is great at helping our pets when they’re sick, but from my experience they aren’t always the best at teaching us how to prevent them from getting sick in the first place.
It’s up to us to pay attention to our dogs. Do regular exams and educate yourself on your specific breed’s needs and ideal weight. Your local veterinarian or canine nutritionist can help you determine your pet’s ideal weight and come up with a plan of action if needed.
Have you ever wondered why your cattle dog chases and gets a little nippy? Why your terrier likes to dig? Why your lab loves to jump in muddy puddles?
Your cattle dog was bred to herd animals that weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds and aren’t always happy to be moved.
Your terrier was originally bred to fight, hunt, and kill vermin.
And your Labrador, while used widely in hunting nowadays, was bred to retrieve ducks and waterfowl.
Now, I’m not saying our dog's genetics are an excuse to let them wreck havoc, dig holes in the yard, chase children or get mud on the furniture.
What I am saying is that understanding and accepting your dog’s instinctual drives will make your life easier. Fighting them will only frustrate both you and your dog.
“You cannot change what is genetically present. You can only guide it.” - Ivan Balabanov
While most dogs these days are house pets, somewhere in the past their ancestors were bred for a job. Maybe it was just one generation ago, or maybe it was 20. But somewhere in their genetics is a purpose.
Okay, so you’ve got this dog in your family. Instead of fighting its drives, find an outlet. We can always train for more desirable behaviors, even tame the ones we don’t want, but those drives and instincts aren’t going anywhere. Sure, you could repress them… but that will just end in frustration on both sides.
Instead, find a way to give your dog an outlet for their drives.
Your dog likes to dig but you don’t want holes in your garden? Build them a sandbox and bury toys or treats for them to find.
Your dog likes to chase but you don’t want them chasing your toddler? Teach them to fetch a frisbee. Invest in a flirt pole or try out flyball or lure coursing and learn a new game with them.
Have a sniffy hound? Teach them how to search for a specific toy and play hide and seek. Take them to barn hunt lessons or scent work classes. Throw their kibble into the grass and let them go to town sniffing out each piece.
The key is to teach them an “off switch” so that they don’t use their skills to cause you stress or put themselves in danger. Our human rules don’t come naturally to our dogs, and most of the time their “bad behavior” isn’t actually bad behavior… it’s just dog behavior. Your dog has certain drives and instincts because we bred them to have those specific traits. They are their strengths, not their weaknesses. And the sooner we accept this and figure out appropriate ways for our dogs to use these skills, the sooner our dogs will be able to thrive.
Social pressure is hard. For whatever reason, many of us feel intense pressure to have a dog that is excited to interact with every person and dog we come across.
For those of you with a reactive dog, you know how incredibly isolating it can feel. The feeling of failure and embarrassment and the panic of needing to cross the street when you spot another dog up ahead can be enough to make you not want to go out in the first place.
But, what if I told you that most dogs actually fall somewhere in between “social” and “reactive”? The reason we assume “normal” dogs are excessively friendly is because those are the dogs that can go everywhere, so those are the dogs we see out in public the most. However, if your dog falls somewhere in the middle this is actually very normal and nothing to be ashamed of.
Here’s the thing. We should all aim to train our dogs to have manners and tolerate other people and dogs. But, we shouldn’t be forcing them to interact with strangers (human or canine) if they don’t enjoy it.
Remember genetics? They matter.
Some breeds are bred to be social butterflies. For example, look at two of the most popular family dogs: Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. While both were originally bred to work alongside hunters, now they’re commonly bred to also be family pets, therapy dogs, and service dogs. Because of what we use them for we need them to be friendly, so breeders purposefully breed for this.
However, some breeds are bred to be wary of strangers. And, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Part of the job they are bred for may require them to be aloof or suspicious. As an example for this let’s take my personal favorite, the German Shepherd. While German Shepherds can be amazing, loyal, courageous working dogs or family pets their breed standard specifically says there’s “a certain aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships”. My personal dog, Grimm, can attest to this.
Another example is the Akita. Akitas were originally bred to guard royalty, and being happy and excited to say hello to strangers would make them awfully bad at their job.
Even among breeds, every individual dog has their own personality. While breed standards are applicable for most dogs of that breed, you may still have a dog who decides to go their own way. Maybe you’ll have the Akita who loves people, or the lab who hates attention. It’s important to pay attention to your dog. What does your dog like and dislike?
The same goes with other dogs. It’s not natural behavior for every breed to happily greet dogs outside of their family, and not every dog is comfortable with a 60lb doodle all up in their business.
Do you enjoy the company of every single person you meet? Probably not.
Are you polite and do you have manners in public? Most of the time.
Have you ever wanted to punch a certain someone in the face? Absolutely.
Have you ever actually lost your cool on someone and had an outburst? I’d say most of us have done it at least once in our lives.
Our dogs are not robots. It’s time we stop thinking of their behavior as such.
Here’s the rule: We need to teach our dogs how to behave around other people and dogs. They need to be polite and follow the rules. We need to teach them the skills to tolerate everyone around them within reason. But, we don’t need to force them to enjoy the company of others and we don’t need to force them to interact.
For those of you with dogs who don’t enjoy being pet by strangers or having strange dogs run into their personal space…. This is perfectly okay. You owe it to your dog to be their advocate and prevent their personal space from being invaded. Your dog is not part of a petting zoo and they don’t exist for the entertainment of others. When someone asks to pet them, you should say “no, thank you.” If that person insists, then they clearly don’t understand boundaries in which case you are within your right to be assertive and stand up for your dog. The same goes for when your neighbor's loose dog is headed your way, or the nice man with the retractable leash lets his dog creep a little too close. Speak up!