Dog Psychology 101

You may be wondering what dogs or dog psychology has to do with “the good life.”  Well, a well-loved and loving dog is essential for it.  ; )

Anyone who is friends with me on Facebook has been inundated with updates and photos "Who are you, and when are you leaving?"showing that we just adopted our second dog during Christmas – a buff cocker spaniel named Peanut.  Being smaller and younger than our first dog Pastor, we assumed this would be a great chance for meek and mild Pastor to become leader of the pack and protect his little brother.  We thought this would boost his “self-esteem” and ease his separation anxiety.  Boy, were we wrong (at least on the first count).

Peanut is small but he is mighty.  He growls in order to get his way.  In fact, that bad attitude is what got him in trouble in the first place.  He was with his original family in Grand Forks, ND when a small child in the family decided to bother him while he was sleeping.  He let out a warning growl conveying he did not wish to play.  The little girl kept messing with him, and he bit her.  (What’s amazing is that they even had Peanut scheduled to be put down!  Ridiculous since in my opinion, the parents did not teach their child how to treat dogs.)

Anyway, he continues to growl.  He likes to block Pastor from where he’s trying to go, whether that’s to me or to his food.  About three times now, the dogs have fought viciously.  Not playful roughhousing, but really vicious, scary fights between the two dogs.  I was worried.  In an effort to avoid another fight, I started Googling the problem.

As most people know, dogs are pack animals.  This gives them a different mentality and approach to life than humans.  While humans treat other humans with equality (or at least parents try do so with their children), this doesn’t work at all with dogs.  They need to know who is the alpha dog (leader) and who is the omega (follower).  They don’t “feel bad” about their position; they find comfort in the hierarchy.  The key is to let them figure out the ranking for themselves.  According to what I’ve read, if you keep intervening in their stand-offs or fights, the next one will be worse because they must settle the issue.  Our stopping Peanut from growling was a mistake on a few occasions because it was contradicting the hierarchy.  Worse yet, we were doing everything possible to treat Pastor as the preferred dog because he’s so sweet and was being overpowered… making Peanut all the more mad that he wasn’t being recognized as the dominant dog.

The solution is as simple as it is counter-intuitive.  We had to start treating Peanut, who is clearly more dominant, with more preference.  This just means Peanut gets to be let outside first, gets his food first, gets a treat first and gets our attention/greeting first.  Pastor is soon to follow (and of course I still get to cuddle and “baby” my baby Pastor. : )  Making this simple change has made all the difference in the world.  There is more harmony in the house and I am sure Peanut will be able to stay forever.  Long live the pack!

But there was one more mystery to solve.  Pastor has been growing increasingly scared of his food and water bowls.  We thought it had to do with canine chaos that he experienced at a dogsitter’s house, five or ten dogs coming in at once for the water bowl.  But as we went to spend Christmas up in Minnesota, the problem got worse and worse.  For almost the entire week, Pastor didn’t eat or drink a thing.  He licked the snow when he was let outside.  He was clearly hungry and thirsty, but wouldn’t dare take a bite or a drink.  I thought Peanut was bullying him away from his bowl.  Again, I was worried.

After another round of Googling late at night in bed on my Blackberry, I had a dog psychology epiphany.  It turns out lots of dogs become scared of stainless steel food bowls for one of two reasons.  Either they see their reflection in the metal and it weirds them out, or the sound of their metal name tag clanging against the bowl shoots fear-inducing loudness into their little bones.  This morning, I switched Pastor’s stainless steel bowls out for a temporary plastic bowl, and voila!  Pastor ate and drank for 15 minutes straight until everything was gone.  He just ate again at dinnertime.  I am so relieved and can’t believe something so simple was the problem.  He’s all skin and bones now so I hope he fattens up a bit!  Or at least doesn’t starve anymore.

This concludes my lesson in Dog Psychology 101.  It’s been interesting to learn more about the world through my dogs’ perspective.

If you want a great book about why dogs can help you experience “the good life” including peace and presence, check out Guardians of Being by Eckhart Tolle (yes, of Oprah and Now-ness fame).  This is a joyful little coffee table type book that explains why our much-loved dogs and cats actually help us become more aware and happy people.  I am looking forward to many such reminders and cuddles with my two now-getting-along doggies.

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