Americans chronically overstimulate their dogs.
My experience as a canine behaviorist has afforded me the privilege of visiting thousands of different homes. For over a decade now I have observed the structure and function of many dog parenting families. It has been a long-running study of American value systems. In particular, this study has shown me how our culture connects with the domesticated dog. Over time, I have noted the strengths and weaknesses our unique, dog parenting culture.
Photo by Sara Rohar
My perspective was given far greater clarity after recent trip to Paris, France. Excited to get some shots with the my new Nikon lens, I set out, in part, to study how our European cousins relate to their dogs; to see how they are different, and how this compares to our own American dog-owning culture.
I came back with one dramatic, overarching realization -- Americans chronically overstimulate their dogs. It wasn't until I saw this cultural contrast in Europe that I had a vision of the true extent of our problem.
Of the dozen dog owners I observed in Paris, not a single one was jogging with their dogs. Nor did I see a single dog playing fetch or running wildly through the parks. Instead, they casually and confidently sauntered down the street. Moreover, almost all owners had mastered the loose leash technique. The one dog who had not yet mastered the loose leash walk barked incessantly at every passerby. This was the only misbehaved dog I saw in my entire time in-country. In fact, it was more common to see dogs completely off-leash and following closely with their guardian as they walked among hundreds of people than there were on-leash at all.
Back in America, in nearly every household I visit, the dogs have too much freedom, too much stimulation, and not enough boundaries. This is a volatile combination. We Americans are obsessed with stimulation. All day long we exercise and stimulate our dogs with play, toys, sights, sounds, and activities. And, worst of all, for hours on end, we give dogs pure freedom, which is highly stimulative and often times dangerous. Giving a dog the ability to run around our yards to make thousands of unguided choices with no parental supervision whatsoever opens the potential for all sorts of problems.
Yes, many of these activities can have benefits. Toys and play are great for early brain development in young, preadolescent dogs. Young dogs need to be exposed to every conceivable sight and sound possible so they might learn to cope with these types of stimuli. They need to play, socialize, and explore. They also need to connect to people in healthy attachment relationships. What is often deficient in our culture is a counter-balance of sleep, relaxation, structure, and proper competent supervision.
We engage dogs with distraction rather than teach them to ignore distractions.
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As dogs age, over-stimulation can become harmful and even destructive. As dogs develop into mid-adolescence, the cumulative effects of constant, non-stop mental exertion and stress compounds and negatively impacts proper brain development.
Young dogs, just like adolescent children, require copious amounts of sleep. Disallowing our dogs from engaging in sleep literally breaks down connections in the brain.
Conversely, allowing for no stimulation whatsoever also negatively impacts proper brain development. Under-stimulated brains too will break down over time. Therefore, the truth is found in the middle by balancing these activities, not in all-or-nothing extremes. However, in America, we need to push the pendulum back towards destimulation.
In our country we have a particular belief system that is unique. We believe that dogs are "of the wolf", and therefore must treated like wolves. This belief dictates that we must allow them to run amok in hopes of liberating them from the unjust shackles of their human slave masters. So we free them in an attempt to connect them with their wild inner wolf. It is a false, self-deprecating ideology that has led dog parents to feel chronic guilt and shame for controlling even the most basic aspects of our dogs' lives.
An example of wolf theory messaging:
The wolf ideology is largely exaggerated. Dogs are not wolves. Canis familiaris is an entirely new species created by man. As such, they are almost entirely dependent on us for their survival.
A German Shephard off-leash in a stay command. Photo taken in Montmartre, Paris near the Sacre-coeur, Oct 2016. Notice the owner in the background with a leash around his neck. Photo by Aaron McDonald.
So what can we do to help our dogs feel and behave better?
Dogs that are overly energetic and misbehaved do not need to "get their energy out." There is no such thing! Energy is not a mysterious force stored in a dog's muscles that can be gotten out. Instead, dogs that are overly energetic have an inability to keep their energy in. Along with some stimulation, they also need rules, structure, and copious amounts of relaxation time. In fact, dogs should sleep most of their lives. Break out the leash and use it inside the home to limit your dog's decisions
2. Slow Down!
We Americans have a tendency to run and jog too often with our dogs. There is no need to run our dogs in order for them to be happy and well-behaved. In fact, it is far more important to walk slowly. Even further, we should walk so slow that it feels uncomfortable to us. In France, for instance, they do not often run their dogs. Instead, they casually saunter down the road and take the time to enjoy the quality of life with their dogs, not the quantity of steps they achieve in a particular time frame. Let me ask you this, why are you in such a hurry?
3. Put away the toys
What is more important, you or a $5 toy? If your dog is more concerned about finding toys than about connecting with you, there is a problem. You are more important than a toy. If a dog chooses a toy over you, then the entirety of your relationship has been devalued to several dollars. Bring the toys out on special occasions. When done playing with them put them away and go back to providing structure.
4. Reduce social play time
Play is important. Too much play is destructive. You should decide when, where, and to what extent your dog plays with others. Play should incorporate rules, guidelines, and structure, just as with sports for children.
5. Kennel your dog
When proper boundaries cannot be set for our dogs, we should fall back on the use of kennels. These are healthy security zones that provide feelings of wellness for our dogs when we can't be home. Many dogs should be kenneled while we are at work, not left outside. Dogs should receive around 14 hours of sound sleep each day. Therefore, I recommend that many dogs be kenneled a minimum of 14 cumulative hours a day. That number can be increased to 16 or 18 hours each day if necessary. Don't feel bad about that. Feel bad about overstimulating them. You will still have 6 full hours of time in the day to stimulate, exercise, snuggle, fetch, and have a blast together!
So relax. Imagine yourself casually walking around a beautiful Parisian arrondissement as you marvel at the ancient architecture. What is your big hurry? Where are you trying to get to? You are already there! Even better, you are there now with your dog. Enjoy it. We don't have very long together, so make the best of each moment.
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