World War II had a major impact upon the economy and lifestyle of Americans which has continued to affect each successive generation. One of the most significant changes was the shift from a rural, agricultural based economy to an urbanized, technological one. As more and more people left farms to move to cities, their daily interactions with animals became limited and fewer individuals had the opportunity to observe and understand animal behavior. Additionally, more people delayed marriage and child rearing to focus on careers. While there are many different reasons to own a dog, for some, acquiring a dog can be a substitute for children or an attempt to create a family unit. Unfortunately, the results of combining a lack of understanding of animal behavior and viewing a pet as a surrogate family member can lead to problems in the relationship between dog owner and dog.
There is no doubt that pet ownership can greatly enhance one’s life. Studies show that older men and women who own pets are usually in better health and that interaction with a dog or cat can lower blood pressure and decrease the likelihood of depression. Certainly, a dog owner can also benefit from daily walks or other physical activity used to exercise a dog. However, these benefits are less likely to be present when the relationship between owner and dog goes awry, causing behavioral problems and tension between the two.
Problems can be created when an owner has unrealistic expectations from their dog, or when the owner considers their dog to be a person in a furry suit. Too often, people don’t understand that love doesn’t equate with respect. Dogs, like people, are social creatures. Dogs, unlike people, do not believe in equality. Treating a dog like an equal is very likely to result in the development of the wrong sort of relationship. Dogs need to be able to both respect and love their owners. Rules and boundaries are a necessary part of the social structure of canids. For some dogs, a failure by the owner to be a good leader and to establish those rules and boundaries will open the door for the dog to assume a leadership role. Many dogs have been labeled as dangerous or aggressive when the dog creates and enforces rules and boundaries. In other cases, the dog may be temperamentally unsuited for a leadership role but feels forced to assume that role. This can lead to the dog exhibiting stress-related behaviors which are seen as undesirable by the owner or which are unhealthy for the dog.
Dog owners have a responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment for their dogs. Part of creating a healthy environment is to recognize that a dog is not a human but rather a living creature which should be respected for what it is and not forced into an artificial and unnatural relationship which endangers its health and even life. Recognizing that dogs are pack animals who need to clearly understand their position within the pack is the first step in creating the right relationship between dog and owner. Dog owners should assume the role of a leader, establishing rules and then enforcing those rules fairly and consistently. Trust and respect is earned through the use of fair and firm discipline and not by being a bully. Using physical force to intimidate or coerce a dog is not providing leadership but trying to rule through fear. Failing to correct inappropriate behaviors is also not providing leadership. Discipline should not be construed as being harsh or abusive. The definition of discipline is “training of the mental, moral and physical powers by instruction, control and exercise.” Therefore, discipline is no more than providing instruction and controlling a behavior.
Appreciating the traits which make dogs such wonderful companions and treating a dog like a dog, not a human, will go a long way in developing the right relationship between a dog and an owner.
©2001 Jan Gribble