Your Pup is Not a Person

May 4, 2020

I recently saw this article and it emphasized a point that I’ve been making to dog owners for years: I love your dog, and I know you do, too…but your dog is not a person! Your dog is not a baby. Your dog is not human, and is not capable of human emotions! I know I’m being blunt here, but I’ve seen so many preventable behavioral problems that can be directly attributed to the anthropomorphism of dogs by their owners. I particularly find that this is true with small and toy breed dogs, but I have also seen it with larger breed dogs too.

You all know that I love dogs. I’ve had dogs the majority of my life, and will continue to do so. Our pups have been well-behaved, polite, social and reasonably well-trained. Partly, we’ve just been lucky to adopt nice dogs. It’s not all luck, however. Dogs in the Dr. D house have lots of rules. They have to sit and wait before we tell them that they can eat. They are not allowed on furniture unless invited by a family member. They do not bark at other dogs while on the leash. They do not beg at the dinner table for hand-outs. They eat dog food, an occasional dog treat and very rarely some choice table food- fed in their dog bowls, after they’ve sat and politely waited to be told to eat. (Please don’t think that my dogs are perfect. My dog Kona needed endoscopic removal of a rubber ducky toy that he ingested- one of many foreign objects that he ate over the years, and my current dog Pepita becomes a crazed maniac when she spots deer outside the window. They have their imperfections, just as we all do!)

I’ve seen so many appointments with toy-breed dog puppies where the dog is not allowed to walk, and is carried, swaddled in a blanket like a newborn baby. These dogs never touch the floor, and rarely go outside. They routinely urinate and defecate inside. If they decide they don’t like kibble one day, they are offered a smorgasboard of home-cooked delights. Who can blame these pups? Why ever eat dog food again when chicken with Parmesan cheese is available instead? Why go outside in the rain to eliminate when you can stay indoors and use the plush carpet instead? These dogs may growl or snarl at owners when they try to clean their ears or brush their teeth. I’ve seen owners terrorized by their own dogs when trying to get onto a couch where Fido is already sleeping. Stories like this tell me that Fido is the king of the castle and that nothing has ever been expected of Fido, other than just being cute.

So many of the behavioral concerns that veterinarians see, especially with small breed dogs, could be avoided altogether if these dogs were treated like dogs! Dogs that have rules, boundaries and expectations tend to be well-behaved. Dogs that are “busy” with exercise, training or other mental and physical stimulation frequently have less behavioral problems. One of my mantras when talking to clients about behavioral problems is that tired dogs are well-behaved dogs. There seems to be a misconception that small breed dogs don’t need exercise, or can’t tolerate it. I’m here to tell you that I regularly used to run five miles with my 8-pound Chihuahua, and she could have gone even further if I could have kept up with her. Dogs of all sizes and breeds need training and exercise.

I’m a huge advocate of the “Nothing in Life is Free” training philosophy, which is simple to implement and can reap many rewards for Fido and family alike. The basic idea behind this training program is that Fido should “work” for or earn every reward he receives. Rewards in this instance include things as basic as food, exercise, and affection. Fido should be asked to do something before any reward is given. Simple tasks like asking Fido to sit before handing him a treat, or before snapping on the leash for a walk, can reinforce that you are in charge of Fido, not the other way around. Fido isn’t given a treat simply because he’s cute (even though he may be the cutest thing around); Fido is given a treat or toy because you’ve asked him to sit and stay, and he listened, thus earning his reward.

The idea of  “pack leaders“, “dominance down” and “Alpha rolling” dogs is outdated, and can be downright dangerous. That is not at all the behavioral philosophy I’m espousing here. There is a huge difference between physically scaring dogs into obeying you versus teaching a dog to respect you and your boundaries.

Puppies with rules are happy, well-adjusted canines. Happy puppies lead to happy well-adjusted households (and happy veterinarians!)