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Building a positive and lasting relationship with your dog

By understanding how dogs tick, what their needs are, and how to accommodate those needs into your own life,
you can build a better relationship with your pet based upon good communication, compromise and mutual respect. By
fulfilling the physiological, psychological and emotional needs of your pet you can reduce many potential behavioral
problems. By providing a positive and relaxed environment for your dog, you also benefit from a reduction in stress and
can increase your health and happiness. Everybody wins!

Step 1 – Motivation and needs

Both wild and domestic canines are driven by the same motivations: gaining and maintaining mates and
territory, foraging and hunting. But dogs have also evolved within and adapted to human company. The domestication
process has given dogs the unique skills of being able to live in proximity with a completely different species! But as pet
owners, that means we must recognize and accommodate our dog’s natural motivations and behavior. Oftentimes,
behaviors that we label as problematic are actually normal canine behaviors, but it’s the context or level that makes
them generally unacceptable in human-centric social circles. Therefore the first step to happiness is to understand which
behaviors are normal canine behaviors (e.g., digging, barking, hunting, marking etc.), and determine how we can
accommodate them (normally redirect them) into our lives so that they are socially acceptable. Some examples would
be redirecting inappropriate digging by providing an area that your dog is allowed to dig in, redirecting inappropriate
prey drive by throwing a tennis ball, or training your dog when it can bark (called putting the behavior on cue).

Step 2 – Body language

Being able to decipher canine body language is a great way to understand them. Oftentimes owners state that
their dog did x ‘out of the blue’ and without any warning. In reality, it is very rare that dogs do not provide a warning of
their intentions as that’s how they communicate with each other. It’s just that behavior can be so subtle or fleeting, that
we often miss it. Dogs readily show when they are fearful, anxious, relaxed, aggressive, dominant and playful. Rarely
however, do they show ‘guilt’ or other higher order emotional states (at least that’s what present scientific research
suggests, although that may change as we learn more and more about our dogs). So get to know your dog’s behavior
and you will be able to relax and read situations before they arise. You will be surprised at how many signals you have
been missing!

On the other hand our dogs are exceptionally good at reading our behavior, and the best human-dog
relationships are built on trust and consistency. You can help your dog greatly by being consistent in your approach
when you interact with your dog. As humans we are often inconsistent, and provide fuzzy boundaries with goalposts
that continually move; one day the dog is allowed on the couch, the next the dog is not. At best our dogs are confused;
at worst they become stressed around our indecisiveness and lack of clear leadership skills.

Step 3 – The art of communication

Imagine living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language or understand the customs, and yet you
are expected to ‘know’ the rules and how to behave. The result is that you don’t know what is acceptable and what is
not, and often you are in trouble but you don’t know why. That is what we expect of our dogs. Now imagine a foreign
dance instructor teaching you how to dance. If he stood and shouted at you loudly in a foreign language, would you
learn? Probably not. But you would learn if the instructor showed you the moves. The art of good leadership between
humans and dogs is non-verbal communication or body language. By showing your dog the behaviors that you want and
rewarding the correct behavior, and ignoring or redirecting behaviors that you don’t want, you are being an effective
and respected leader for your dog.

Many trainers sadly still cling to the ‘dominance or pack theory’ concept, but it is singularly responsible for more
animal abuse and more welfare issues with our dogs than any other training concept. It is time to put the pack theory
concept to bed! It is a gross misconception that canine packs in the wild have a pack leader that keeps members in check
through dominance, fear and oppression. It is also untrue that pack members lower in the social hierarchy are
continually challenging their leaders for the top slot. Animals with higher social status do generally have more rights or
privileges (such as access to resources such as food, bedding and mates) than animals lower in the pecking order, but
their position is one based on reverence and trust. In fact most wild canid packs are extended family groups consisting
of parents and their offspring. Therefore animals of higher status are skillful leaders with good social skills and/or patient
parents, rather than oppressive dictators.

Step 4 – A stress free environment

If the pack leader (in wild canids) is not continually throwing their weight around to keep law and order, how is a
pack able to function as a relatively peaceful unit? They maintain pack cohesion because each pack member knows their
place and respects the position of every other pack member, including the leader. They have social boundaries and each
individual in the pack knows exactly what they are and are not allowed to do. Dogs also readily accept social boundaries
and social positions. Behavioral problems, stress and anxiety often arise as a result of a lack of boundaries, and
inconsistency in enforcing them. Additionally, animals that perceive they have responsibilities above their social position
can become stressed, and have increased risk of behavioral issues and reduced welfare. It doesn’t really matter what the
boundaries are that you set for your dog within your own home (e.g., allowed on the furniture or not allowed on the
furniture); as long as they are in place and are consistently enforced by all members of the family. It is not a consistent
boundary if you let the dogs on the furniture, but your partner doesn’t. The result can be confusion and stress for your
pet.

In addition to setting social boundaries, most animals carry out their day much like we do, by adhering to
routines. Routines give structure and safety, and most pets benefit from having a daily routine to their care,allows them to relax. Animals, including dogs, have their own natural temporal rhythms in behavior; tied to the 24 hour
clock and its natural light and dark cycles. Many people state that their dog knows when they’re coming home, or that
their dog always expects to go out or eat at a certain time. In addition to their internal clock, dogs learn the times based
around your daily routine such as feeding and exercise times. They naturally cope with small deviations from that
routine, however large discrepancies between their expectations (e.g. expected time of feeding) and outcome (e.g.
actual feeding time) can be a source of increased stress, frustration and anxiety. Over time, this can negatively impact
their welfare. So by being consistent in your approach to caring for your dog, you can improve their ability to relax and
take life as expected.

Step 5 – Novelty

Dogs are naturally curious and all animals are naturally motivated to explore novel situations, experiences or
objects. Of course every dog is different, and dogs that are bold are more likely to investigate and explore than shy or
fearful dogs. In fact, exposure to new things during the first 10 weeks in life is critical for canine development. Puppies
that do not explore their world during this time can grow up to be shy and fearful adult dogs, and are prime candidates
for behavioral problems in later life. You should make an effort to increase novelty in your pet’s life, regardless of their
age. New toys provide stimulation for your dog while rotating older toys and play things every week keeps them
interesting, which can be particularly useful when dogs are left alone for long periods of time. Animals are continually
learning about their world. Exposure to new objects provides new opportunities to learn, increases stimulation and
reduces boredom. The result is that your dog is less likely to engage in destructive or inappropriate behavior.
Theirs is also a sensory world. Most dogs gather information about the world primarily through their nose first,
and then use sight or sound. By providing plenty of opportunities for your dog to explore his world through new smells
and allowing them to respond to those smells, you can fulfill a basic canine motivation.

Step 6 – Social interaction

Both humans and pets thrive in one another’s company.  Through domestication, dogs have evolved to be hyper social toward humans and they are adept at reading human behavior and responding to human emotions. Sadly, our
dogs are being increasingly isolated from each other and from us: behind gates and fences, in crates, shut indoors, or
left alone for long periods of time. The result of such social isolation can include separation anxiety, destructive
behavior, stress, panic, frustration, anger, loneliness and boredom. Social isolation is particularly problematic for
adolescent dogs and puppies, and can have huge negative effects on their development, behavior and their futureSpending time in company with humans is vital for most dogs and promotes positive health and psychological wellbeing. It also has great benefits for us! Studies show that interacting with our pets increases our sense of companionship and reduces feelings of isolation. It can also promote physical health and happiness, improve social interaction and relaxation, and reduce the risks of cardiac problems and high blood pressure (Brodie and Biley 1999).

At minimum, you should aim to spend at least 1 hour a day of quality time with your dog; walking, playing or just beingsociable. The more time you can spend together however, the better the benefits for you both. Interestingly, a strong -animal bond is the number one factor that guards against pet abandonment and relinquishment to shelters, and potentially euthanasia. Surely, we owe it to our pets and ourselves to spend more quality time in each other’s company.

In addition to spending time with us, most dogs are highly motivated to seek out the company of other dogs.
From an early age, pups interact with their mother and learn from their parents. In the wild, canids grow up in an
extended family, with older individuals teaching younger animal’s important social skills. Puppies also need to learn
these skills by interacting with older dogs. Removing pups too early from their mother or limiting their social interaction
drastically reduces their opportunity to learn and can negatively affect their behavior around other dogs. Additionally,
many dogs today are discouraged from interacting for fear of aggression. The result is that many dogs fail to read other
dogs social behavior correctly or adequately. These dogs may grow to dislike canine company, and show either fearful or
aggressive responses toward other dogs. So it is important to encourage interactions with other dogs from a very early
age and let them enjoy the company of their own kind. Having two dogs can often be beneficial as they can keep each
other entertained when you are not there, and engage in hours of social interaction.

The equipment you use to walk your dog does more than attach you to the dog. It can also have an impact
(positive or negative) on their behavior. A flat collar, harness, or head halter is more humane and therefore preferable
than a prong, pinch or shock collar. Prong, pinch or shock collars can cause physical injury to your dog (such as damage
the trachea, increase intraocular pressure, temporarily obstruct the upper airway, and cause nerve damage), and can
increase fearful and aggressive responses towards people or other dogs. These are a legacy of the ‘control by force
school’ and are based upon punishment. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) strongly
advocates against their use (AVSAB 2007). Oftentimes dogs habituate to prong, pinch or shock collars, so more force is
required in order for the dog to respond. The bottom line is that punishment fails to teach your dog the appropriate
behavior on the leash, which is walking without pulling.

Step 7 – Exercise

A well exercised dog is a tired, happy and relaxed dog! Physical exercise is vital for the health and welfare of both you and your dog. More than at any other time in our joint history, our dogs are suffering from obesity, which can lead to health complications and potentially shorten their lives. Exercise helps keep weight down, reduces excess energy, and increases mental stimulation for our pets. Thus exercise goes a long way to ensure against behavioral problems.

The amount of exercise a dog needs will vary depending upon the individual, breed, age, health and even the
weather (Nelson 2009). Larger breeds and working breeds are likely to need more exercise than smaller breeds, as they
have been bred with considerable physical stamina. Regardless of size, most dogs benefit from continuous aerobic
exercise twice per day; anywhere between 20 minutes to 60 minutes per session depending on the dog. Letting your
dog out to wander in the yard is no substitute for a long walk because it lacks an aerobic workout. Giving your dog one
off-leash walk per day can provide your dog with endless opportunities to run, set their own pace and engage in natural
behaviors such as digging, scent marking, and exploration that are less acceptable elsewhere. Walking your dog on-leash
can also provides lots of mental stimulation from sights, sounds and smells; particularly if you vary the walking routes.
Remember that in hot weather, dogs can be at risk from overheating and can succumb to heat exhaustion. Conversely,
in cold weather dogs can suffer from frostbite to the feet, nose and ears, and irritation of the feet from ice melts.
The equipment you use to walk your dog does more than attach you to the dog. It can also have an impact
(positive or negative) on their behavior. A flat collar, harness, or head halter is more humane and therefore preferable
than a prong, pinch or shock collar. Prong, pinch or shock collars can cause physical injury to your dog (such as damage
the trachea, increase intraocular pressure, temporarily obstruct the upper airway, and cause nerve damage), and can
increase fearful and aggressive responses towards people or other dogs. These are a legacy of the ‘control by force
school’ and are based upon punishment. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) strongly
advocates against their use (AVSAB 2007). Oftentimes dogs habituate to prong, pinch or shock collars, so more force is
required in order for the dog to respond. The bottom line is that punishment fails to teach your dog the appropriate
behavior on the leash, which is walking without pulling.

Step 8 – Training and Play

Hands down, dogs benefit from play! Play behaviors are incompatible with many problem behaviors such as fear or aggression. Therefore many behavioral problems can be eliminated by redirecting our dogs to play. Additionally playing with your dog strengthens the human-animal bond, and increases quality time and social interaction.

Similarly, a trained dog is much more likely to be a calm and relaxed dog! Training should be fun for both dog
and owner, and undertaken humanely and positively it can promote a lifelong relationship based upon mutual respect.
A 10 minute daily training session at home or during a walk will provide ample mental stimulation for both dog and
owner. Animal professionals today have a much greater understanding of animal learning, behavior, and welfare. The
result has been a monumental shift in favor of more humane, force-free and dog-friendly methods of training. These
methods are replacing outdated and unscientific methods the center around dominance, pack theory, and coercion.
Using positive methods means that your dog wants to learn and spend time with you. In return you will have better
results and a stronger bond.

Step 9 – Diet

Providing a balanced diet is vital for the health of your pet. It is a common misconception that wild canids are
simply carnivores. Many eat a wide range of fruit, insects, birds, and even plants. Similarly, your dog requires a
balanced diet that includes proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water (VMRCVM 2012). The
percentage of each varies enormously in commercial diets. In addition, cheaper commercial diets are based on grain and
soy products or ‘fillers’, which can cause dietary issues. More expensive diets are now grain free. Generally the first 3
listed ingredients will make up the bulk of any commercial diet. Diets that list meats as ‘meal’ e.g., ‘turkey meal’ can
actually provide a richer source of protein for your dog than meat in its natural form, as all water is removed. So it pays
to do a little research about the contents of your dog’s food and give your dog the best food that you can afford. Try
different diets to find the one that’s right for your dog, but always introduce changes to diet very slowly over one to two
weeks to avoid diarrhea, vomiting or indigestion in your dog.

One new trend is providing a homemade diet. Care should be taken to ensure it is nutritionally complete and
balanced. Liver contains high biological value protein, fats, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins. However, raw meat is
a potential source of parasites and pathogenic bacteria. Overfeeding liver may cause Vitamin A toxicity. Eggs are an
excellent source of protein, but raw eggs contain an enzyme called avidin, which decreases the absorption of biotin (a B
vitamin) and can lead to skin and hair coat problems. Raw eggs may also contain Salmonella. Additionally, some dogs
cannot tolerate milk and in these cases, it should be avoided. Other foods to avoid and that are toxic to dogs include
onions, garlic, raisins and grapes among others.
Whatever you feed your dog, remember that dogs are motivated to forage and hunt, which is as important as
the food itself. So when thinking about nutrition you need to also consider your dogs behavior i.e., how they gain their ©2013 by Pets Decoded. All rights reserved
food. Be inventive with the delivery of daily meals, such as hiding or scattering food to activate seeking and foraging
behavior. It’s also great for slowing meals down!

Step 10 – Health and Preventative care

One advantage our pets have over their wild cousins is access to preventative health care! The lifespan of most
wild canids is less than two years. Most dogs, depending upon breed can look forward to 8-15 years. Preventative health
care is a very important aspect of pet health and welfare, and includes grooming (caring for coat, teeth, eyes, ears and
claws), regular parasite prevention (internal and external) and regular vaccinations to reduce disease risks. Of course a
big stressor for both you and your dog can be attending the vets. You can help your dog by making each visit as positive
an experience as possible, and by training your dog to become accustomed to being handled and examined. Finally,
remember that a sudden change in your pet’s behavior can indicate an underlying medical problem, and you should
always visit your vet to rule out any underlying medical issue if your dog suddenly starts to behave out of character.

Bibliography
AVSAB, 2007. Position statement: the use of punishment for behavior modification in animals. Retrieved December 22,
2012, from http://avsabonline.org/
Brodie, S.J. and Biley, F.C. 1999. Review. An exploration of the potential benefits of pet-facilitated therapy. Journal of
Clinical Nursing, 8: 329-337.
Nelson, S. 2009. Vet Says Owners Should Exercise With Their Dogs Based On Specific Needs To Prevent Obesity. Kansas
State University (2009, September 10). Retrieved October 22, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com
VMRCVM Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Nutrition for the adult dog. Retrieved December 22, 2012, from
http://www.vetmed.vt.edu

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