The Persistent Dog

If you look up the word “dogged”…you will see its very definition is “Unrelenting Persistence.” Some of you are undoubtedly saying with a sigh… “Yep, that is my dog”.  And here is the irony in that…we humans purposely bred for heightened levels of that very trait…persistence…for hundreds if not thousands of years. But first let’s go to where it came from, the wolf.

If you observe wolves hunting large prey, Bison, for instance, they will start by gathering around the herd, almost casually, which in and of itself is unsettling. Then they begin nipping at the heels to spook the herd to run. Once running you will see that the wolves are not trying to catch the prey…but rather just keep up with it enough until the weakest,  oldest, or unluckiest in the herd falls from exhaustion.  An exhausted Bison that is too tired to fight back is less dangerous than one which is well-rested.  A wolf’s survival is fundamentally rooted in being more persistent than its prey.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who most likely scavenged off wolf kills, over time developed hunting techniques of their own by injuring an animal with a rock or spear and then following it until it fell from exhaustion. We too had to out persist what we wanted to obtain. 

Persistence is a phenomenon found everywhere in nature.  The grass in your lawn is persistent, the dandelion growing in the sidewalk crack is persistent, water in a stream is persistently eroding rock…termites are persistently chewing wood, mosquitos are persistent, everything is persistent. In short, you must persist to exist.   

When humans realized the unrelenting persistence of the canid, it was quickly put to work helping us not only survive but thrive. As a hunter-gatherer we wanted a hound to hunt and bay all day, chasing its quarry to absolute exhaustion. As we became farmers we wanted a Shepherd Dog to stay vigilant and protect the flock while the Herding Dog was to tirelessly gather the animals and drive them to various locations.   As we grew into towns and cities, so grew the rat population and that gave birth to the Terrier, which was bred to be a tenacious rat killing machine. Even the fluffy toy breeds had jobs in the vermin department as well as being sentry dogs with a keen sense of hearing to alert the bigger dogs of possible intruders, hence the yappiness. However, as human ingenuity advanced at record speed, we entered a new epoch in the long history of humans and dogs.

Almost overnight, we have taken away many of the jobs respective breeds were designed for.  We as a species went from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers, to city-dwellers, and now we enter a world of Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality.  Hunting, by and large, has been relegated from “need” to “hobby”, which means less need for hunting hounds, spaniels, and setters. Technology has radically changed farming/ranching and while small family and hobby farms exist, the need for massive flock protectors has been greatly reduced compared to the population of various herding breeds we have today.  The rat-killing terriers have been replaced by mouse traps and poisons. Security systems and guns have replaced the need for heavily muscled protection dogs to guard homes and businesses.  So while yes there are fanciers and purest who still use specific breeds for the job intended, most are not…and this is creating a bit of a conundrum.  We, humans, have collectively pivoted as a species into a world of visually dominant technology where dogs can’t go and frankly…don’t want to go. We have taken hundreds of years worth of selective breeding, directing a dog’s persistent nature for various channels of work, only to do a complete halt and say… “Now be a good lap dog and watch funny dog videos on Facebook with me”.  Don’t get me wrong…I love a funny dog video as much as the next guy.  But my dog Belle couldn’t care less about that and will prod me with her nose to put down the phone, step away from the computer, and walk with her outside, persistently!  Her nature must be satisfied or else there will be distress. It is just that simple.

There are a number of causes for behavioral problems in dogs, whether it be past trauma, illness, or lack of socialization as a puppy… but a dog’s persistent nature, not being satisfied, is a big one.   While we all can’t go to the store and buy a herd of sheep for our Border Collie to chase,  a box of rats for our Yorkie to kill, or shoot some ducks from the apartment balcony for our Labradors to retrieve, we can still satisfy their nature. How you ask?

Say hello to the Cold Wet Nose! Yes, that thing we like to boop. A dog’s brain is heavily wired to the nose.  I would go so far as to say that a dog’s brain gathers more information through smelling than all of our human senses combined.  We must keep in mind that dogs do more than just run through the countryside, they methodically examine the world in great detail and with great persistence through the nose.  Allowing a dog to smell the environment is more important than walking great distances.  We must mentally tire our dogs! I want my dog to stop and sniff and take all the time she needs. This is why I am so passionate about exploring the world with our dogs, incorporating them into our lives outside the home. I want to help people and dogs have the confidence to explore the world around them together. 

It is truly wonderful we have reached a point where dogs are living inside our homes by the fire as members of our family. However, there has been a plot twist! The dogs we let inside our homes are pulling us back outside, persistently! Dogs have been by our side for over forty thousand years, helping us adapt and advance as a species. Now we are moving into Virtual Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Space Tourism and I feel our dogs are helping, once again, by doggedly reminding us, with pluck and enthusiasm…of our own human nature, which is Emotion. I feel the better part of grace is to honor this history we have with dogs and allow their well-developed persistence to wander in a fresh direction, a direction towards the mutual advancement of our mental, emotional, and physical health, as well as the preservation of the natural world from which we both came.

Rethinking the Dog Walk.

Walking with dogs started out many thousands of years ago… not as a chore, but for our mutual survival. Just as the coyote learned to listen and follow the raven’s alerts of potential live prey and carrion, the domesticated dog’s ancestors learned to follow us in the hunt and scavenge off the waste we left behind. It is also very easy to speculate that our ancient ancestors followed wild canids as they went on the hunt and scavenged off of them. Thus symbiosis occurred and a deal was struck to secure each other’s survival. However, there has been a drastic change to this arrangement.

We, by and large, lost touch with our wildness. We “evolved” (I use that term loosely) favoring a grid system of city block sidewalks over winding dirt trails with vasculated tree roots… the comfy chair, inside a large conditioned box, over exposure to the natural elements. All this change happened rather quickly and recently in the timeline of our relationship. While we are enjoying our “progress” (also using that term loosely) our dogs are saying, “Not so fast…this was not part of the deal we made!” Although our dogs appreciate the shelter, food, and free health care, they didn’t sign up for being in the house all the time with the only outdoors being just the backyard. Dogs live by the motto of Auntie Mame, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

Wild canids can have exceptionally large ranges. The wolf can cover a range of 50 square miles or more depending on prey populations and can travel up to 30 miles a day. A coyote can range between 5-15 square miles and travel 3-4 miles in a day. Foxes tend to stay within a 3-4 mile territory. Feral Dog ranges vary widely in size and can be influenced by the availability of food. Feral dog packs primarily dependent on garbage may remain in the immediate vicinity of a dump, while other packs depending on livestock or wild game may forage over an area of 50 square miles or more.

I give these examples of canine ranges to make a case for walking our dogs and exploring new territories. Our domesticated dogs, no matter the type have the same DNA hardwiring in their brain. The drive to explore, smell, and cover territory is critical to a dog’s mental health. Roaming is their nature and linked to feeling complete. A purpose full-filled. New and novel smells are what makes life interesting for a dog. It is literally Doggy News. When we confine our dogs to the indoors, or just the back yard, their territory is completely saturated in just their scent. It would be the equivalent of looking on your phone to read todays news, and all you see is a picture of your own face!

While this post is making a case for walking the dog, I am also making the case for our own well being. I remember when I went for my physical shortly after Belle came into the picture. The doctor asked me the usual questions along with, “Are there any new changes in your life”. I mentioned having a dog again and he made a note of it in his records. It dawned on me then that having a dog was seen as a positive impact medically. In prior visits he would tell me I should lose 10 pounds (I think he says that regardless) and while I never enjoyed jogging and repetitive exercise, I have always enjoyed hiking and walking. So each day we wander and I make a point to go different routes and change up the scenery for Belle. Belle takes moments to catch up on her pee-mail… I take moments to see new things… and…. I lost that 10 pounds!

Electric Collars are Not Effective Tools for Correcting Behavior

To put it mildly, there is a lot of debate about Electric Collars. There are several different kinds being used, starting with Bark Collars, then Electric Dog Fences, and the latest evolution being the Remote Training Collars. I have never used, nor recommend these training devices, because I feel they are potentially confusing for dogs. Using these devices run the very high risk of negatively reinforcing behavior in ways unbeknownst to the person making the correction. I feel I should write about this, because I am seeing an increase in calls regarding dog aggression where, as it would turn out, electric dog collars have been used. It’s not clear if the electric collars caused the behavior, but I strongly feel it may be exacerbating a dog’s behavior.

We must consider the absolute Law of Association when working with our dogs. Just like humans, dogs learn through association. For example, the very premise of an invisible fence is that a dog will associate the sensation of electric shock with a small flag in the yard and later associate it with other environmental markers. The end result being the dog will not want to cross the barrier even though the collar is no longer being worn. While one can make the argument that this is for the dogs own good and physical protection, we must consider the behavior and mental side of things, which I don’t feel is being considered at all. The latest version of electric collar is when used for training purposes via remote control. Once again, even under the best of intentions, there are many ways by which the sensation can be associated to other things the person pressing the button may be unaware of.

Since we don’t live in a vacuum when training or conditioning dogs, we run the very real risk of associating subtle environmental factors with collar stimulation (ranging from a mild unsettling vibration to electric shock). Being that a dog’s predominant sensory organ is the nose…we can all too easily create an association between the collar’s stimulus and a certain smell. Taking it a step further, there are numerous human trial studies and articles supporting the link between scent and memories, which eventually all ties to emotions. Being that dogs are emotional creatures as well, I feel we need to extend the same level of consideration to an animal that is so heavily invested in the world of scent. A world which they clearly have greater sensitivity to than ourselves. Of course, association can occur with other perceptions as well whether it be around the visual or audible presence of children, dogs, plants, men, women, cars…the list is virtually endless.

It has been my experience that there are simpler and less confusing ways to solve behavior problems with our dogs, rather than introducing another stimulus into the mix. If your dog hears too much “NO!” in its life, then give me a call and let’s change it to more “YES!” There is a way!

PREPARING YOUR DOG FOR WHEN YOU RETURN TO WORK

Spending more time with our dogs has been a bright spot of 2020. I like to think that our dogs feel the same, with more walks, impromptu belly rubs, and maybe a few extra treats, which is a more than equitable trade for the sorely needed therapy they provide us.  

This year of the pandemic, dog ownership soared and some families added new members to  their pack.  Animal shelters were at their lowest levels ever this year and there was a noticeable uptick of new puppy pictures on social media.  Our dogs have always stood beside us during times of emotional stress, but this year was an exceptional test.  Despite whatever unsettling news of the day, our dogs played on with their smiles and wagging tails, giving us all a much needed distraction.  

No doubt, 2021 will most likely bring its own set of challenges as our places of work phase people back into the office.  While I am a mega supporter of dogs in the workplace, not everyone will be so lucky. So it appears change will be on the horizon yet again and that means we may be spending less time with our dogs down the road. 

Understandably, this prospect is already making some folks nervous as to how they will break the news to their pooch. When we begin to do more away from home, our dogs will feel the separation and are quite capable of tuning into our apprehensions about the subject.  

Behaviors, such as separation anxiety, occur when we make sudden disruptions to our routine, neglecting to give adequate time to prepare our dogs and ourselves for the adjustment. It is not that our dogs can’t handle being alone for a period of time, but instead how we go about introducing the change.  A sudden change in our life pattern creates a build up of stress in our dogs, especially when there is no clear indication of how the stress will end or be relieved.  By properly practicing specific routines we can calmly adjust our dogs into a new life pattern that feels natural to the dog and ourselves.

When working with behavior, such as separation anxiety, I begin by helping my clients develop greater rapport with their dogs, identify behavioral triggers, and then help create new routines to resolve the issue. I follow up with session notes to document our discussions and a follow up call to learn more about results.

As we put our plans into action calmly and  consistently over a period of time, we set our dogs up for success and in turn make everyone’s transition to a “new schedule” less stressful. Taking the time now to learn, rehearse, and trust a new routine together with our dogs can be a pleasurable and relationship building experience!

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