Dogs do not make New Year’s resolutions. Apart from hearing fireworks and maybe a round of Auld Lang Syne earlier this month, dogs are completely unaware that 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018. But maybe someone should tell them.
In some cultures, the beginning of the year is a time to plan how things will be different. We make resolutions and goals and plan that our future self will go to the gym; our future self will eat less pizza. But behavior change is no easy feat (I say as I get ready to go out for pizza). It could be that a shift in perspective—opening up to new ideas and information—may be a more realistic first step, and even set us up for behavior change down the road.
Take your dog. Do you sometimes wish your dog would just can it? But what do you know about training? Certain techniques are more effective and safe than others at decreasing unwanted behaviors. Do you want to set your adorable puppy up for an awesome life in the big city? But what do you know about early-life socialization?
Who better to highlight how we can make the world better for dogs than experts in animal behavior, veterinary medicine, animal welfare, and training? These ideas are worth carrying into the new year and beyond.
Many thanks to Zazie Todd, PhD, of Companion Animal Psychology for putting together the extensive list of recommendations, How to Make the World Better for Dogs. And just as important, How to Make the World Better for Cats.
“We can make the world better for dogs by recognizing that we are ultimately responsible for everything they experience, from their eating and elimination schedule, to their exercise and access to both wonderful and frightening things. Once we recognize that we humans are responsible for all of it and that dogs are powerless animals whose welfare depends on us, kindness and consideration naturally follow. Dogs make choices when they have the opportunity – to be warm, well fed, near the people and animals to whom they’re attached (an important one!), and to be safe; we humans are the ones to present those opportunities. Force-free behavior modification then makes sense: if you want to influence what a dog does, offer appropriate choices, give the dog time to choose, and reinforce the behavior you want. If the dog makes the wrong choice, try again – don’t punish. Punishment leads to stress and unravels trust so that choice-making is inhibited. We are also capable of making choices; choosing to train dogs with kindness and generosity is an important one.”
More to explore: American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals. ASPCA Pro Webinars Human Body Language and Dog Behavior and Canine Body Language.
“The world would be a better place for dogs is if every dog owner understood that their dog’s behaviour, good and bad, is motivated purely by consequences, not their dogs desire to be “leader of the pack”. The myth that we must dominate dogs, or else they will assume the alpha position, is outdated and incorrect. Thanks to a recent explosion in the depth and breadth of canine research over the last 15 years, our understanding of dogs has improved dramatically. We now know that dogs are not trying to be the boss; they just do what works for them. Behaviours that have a desired consequence are repeated whereas behaviours that don’t tend to stop. It’s the same for us humans and, in fact, every other living being on the planet! This is why positive reinforcement training is so effective. When dogs (and other animals) are reinforced with things they like for desired behaviour, they quickly learn to repeat those behaviours. Recent science has also taught us that physically punishing dogs (smacking; popping the check chain) for undesired behaviour can adversely affect their welfare and the human-animal bond and punishment doesn’t teach the dog what to do instead. Unfortunately, this relatively new understanding of dog behaviour, learning and training has not become common knowledge amongst the general population and the old paradigm persists. It’s up to those of us who have this new understanding of dogs to share our knowledge far and wide to make the world a better place for dogs.”
More to explore: American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on The Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals. Dog Training Research Resources by Companion Animal Psychology. Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior by Eileen and Dogs.
“Proper socialisation and habituation when young; this simply cannot be emphasised enough. Careful, positive exposure to all of the aspects of the human world they can expect to encounter as adults can greatly reduce their fearfulness when adults and help your dog to be emotionally stable and cope with the world it will live in. An important aspect of this is getting them used the vet clinics, by visiting regularly for simple weight checks and rewarding them whilst there, habituating them to traffic, and the sounds of parties and fireworks etc. Appropriate socialisation with different types of people, children and dogs (again conducted carefully to ensure a positive experience) will also help your dog to cope with the social world and be better adjusted for its life-course.”
“We can make the world better for dogs by making dogs who fit into the world better. I would love to see dog owners draw a line in the sand and insist on dogs with muzzles long enough to let them breathe normally, or dogs who are not born with a 60% chance of developing cancer at some point in their lives due to their breed, or dogs whose heads are too big for them to be born without a C-section. I'd love to see more breeders taking matters into their own hands and starting to experiment with how we breed dogs instead of continuing to use dogs from within breeds lacking in genetic diversity. I'd love to see more breed clubs supporting outcrossing projects to bring an influx of genetic diversity and healthy alleles into their breed. I'd love more dog lovers to become aware of the problems with how we breed dogs - how even the most responsible breeders breed dogs! This year, it is time for change.”
More to explore: The British Veterinary Association aims to decrease suffering in flat-faced dogs and offers an explanation of the potential health and welfare issues of brachycephalic dogs. The Love is Blind initiative (short video) explains, “Many breeds of dog have exaggerated physical features, which means they can’t breathe, walk or give birth normally. Many have chronic and painful ear, skin and eye problems. These problems prevent many dogs from having a normal and comfortable life.” Flat-faced cats and rabbits can also suffer. International Cat Care highlights the issue.
“Let them sniff. Perhaps because we humans are so visually-centered, it's hard for us to imagine what it might be like for our primary sensory ability to be olfaction. But that's how it is for dogs: they sniff first, and ask their eyes to confirm or deny. Their world is made of scents more than sights. As a result, when they agreeably head out with you for a walk, the two of you are experiencing parallel universes: we see what's on the street; the dog smells who's passed by and who is upcoming (on the breeze). Since humans are generally averse to closely smelling things -- in fact, we find the idea of "smelling" one another funny or even rude -- some owners discourage dogs from doing that -- from sniffing one another or the traces other dogs have left. But that is the dog's whole world. I would no more pull my dog away from a street corner he is mightily investigating than I would force my son to stare at his knees as we drive by the Colosseum. Acknowledging the dogs' otherness -- and in this case, his different way of perceiving the world you share -- is a good step toward giving them the life they deserve.”