Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What I Learned from My Dog

What I Learned from My Dog

And What I learned at the dog park
Kathleen Mary Andersen

for Opinion Magazine (Dec 2010)

Your dog has a lesson for you! What can “You?” the highly evolved human species who can read, write, speak and make rational decisions, learn from this creature with a 2 year old mentality? Your dog, whether his name is Fifi, Brutus, Gigs, Rocky, Mr Taterhead, Yogi, Blotto, Pecker, Monkeybrains, Dumpy or Sgt Poopooalot (guess how this dog got his name) can teach you some valuable information on how to behave.

The classroom: Dog Park 101 I adopted an Aussie Shepard “Luke” in Sept 2010. My niece introduced me to the dog park. I have come to the conclusion that the dog park is a classroom not only for dog behavior but a lesson for humans as well. You can observe the behavior of small dogs, big dogs, silly looking dogs but hardly mean dogs. It’s a dog social mecca for your dogs natural instinct and ability.

Dog smelling: “Meet and Greet”

As humans when we meet and greet, we shake hands, hug, kiss or touch in some way. This is to establish a starting point to where the relationship will continue from that point on. Dogs meet and greet by smelling each other (yes their genital parts) and no matter how well they know another dog or even in the middle of playing, they take the time to smell each other during especially rough play. Why? We actually do not know for sure, but we do know it helps reestablish the situation, each other’s position and attitude. Dogs need to smell something when stressed. After all, how do they know that other dog they have been playing with has changed his friendly behavior into something more aggressive. Or that piece of rotten meat someone threw out isn’t really so tasty.

Smell and touch is an electrical stimulation. In the animal kingdom, including humans, it signals a change in sensory perception. We pass smells through our olfactory to “test” whether something is good or not so good for us. Doesn’t our brain feel a sense of “happy” when smelling something good like a perfume or cologne, a whiff of a home baked pie or in contrast something rotten in your refrigerator? The external world is felt on the inside by smell, taste and the use of our cells to create a ground for what we are seeing. I have noticed that my dog does recognizes certain dogs at a distance when they arrive at the park, which questions how far can dogs smell. Smelling, for animals and human animals is primal.

Dog and Owner Bondng Unconditional love. Your dog is happy to see you when you come home, even if you haven't been there for a couple of minutes, a couple of days or a couple of months. They doesn’t question “and just exactly where have you been”, “what the heck did you do with your hair” “you are late and I am hungry” or “my you look simply terrible”! This animal is simply happy to be in the moment and to see you again. For you… matter what you look like, how fat or skinny you are, what your hair color is, nor how short or tall you are. And speaking of moment, dogs and cats for example are excellent at living in the moment. I observe my dog going from “I need to sit with my head on your lap and be pet” to “oh, I think I saw the cat walk by the door and I need to go and verify” and back to “did I hear a fork and plate noise while I was gone?” all in 60 seconds flat.

Why as humans do punish ourselves over our past mistakes, ponder the future, fear things we don’t even know exist while our dog just thinks about what is happening in the here and now. Perhaps they are in the thought process of “all we have is the now” philosophy.

Back to the dog park

I think every dog loves the dog park. They, like humans enjoy the interaction with objects of the same species. Smell, touch and feel are important. Maybe they don’t have hands or arms to reach out and interact the same way we do but their needs are really like our needs. We all need to be touched, loved and appreciated. And the love and touch I am referring to is not necessarily in a marriage, a relationship or even sex. It is just that simple motion of bonding with another person. And we do use all our senses to sum up out own bonding situation.

In a number of species in the animal kingdom, whether it is wolves, cows, birds or elephants, relationships are formed and mostly always, these groups will eat, sleep and play together as a team. Didn’t primal man have the same method? However now we seem to be evolving more into isolation from each other, looking for more ways to separate our primal behavior from our true nature, especially touch and feel.

At the dog park I noticed it is important to watch different dog body part motion and what the activities lead to. Are ears erect, do the tails point or wag, is the nose up in the air? Any dog owner is aware of a tail tucked in between the hind legs. And even a bobbed tail dog like mine, can tuck in his tail. What about the eyes. I have noticed that dogs do not generally look each other straight in the eyes as we humans do. It is a form of aggression. Like horses, they will move their ears independently, one front and one back to cover the entire peripheral area, catching a sound in front and in back.

Dogs do take a square and tall posture when trying to assert dominance. “Humping” is only one method to assert their rank. I have seen dogs who will come up to my dog Luke and put on paw over his shoulder and then move closer in for a dominant position. Dogs use the ancestral gestures of dominance to act as a bully; or to turn off a possible aggression or even when they feel a human might be "attacking" them irrationally (dog thought) versus (human thought) “why did you pee on the carpet”. If you think about it, humans set these guidelines that are not always necessarily “practical” to a dog’s natural instinct nor especially rational thinking. Perhaps rational thinking is detrimental to man’s evolution.

In wolf pack studies, the higher member never demonstrates his position unless he is “uncertain” of himself. Do humans who lack confidence, pretend to be dominate when in reality they have insecurities?

In animal studies and observing at the dog park, a bend on the front legs also known as the play bow, a yip (usually this is dog to human talk), a tail wag or a paw up in the air to another dog means simply “"None of the biting, stalking, or humping I'm about to do is serious, this is just fun, OK?" Humping during play is not a sexual thing, especially with dogs that have been altered or neutered. It is a more complex behavior than simply overcoming the dominant dog in a pack but a feel of "where do I belong in this group of dogs" I don’t really even know but I am having fun playing with.

Dog Smiles

I swear my dog smiles. He does have his “happy” face. Anyone can tell when your dog is happy, with mouth open, relaxed lips. In comparison, a dog who wants to show aggression will pull their lips back, teeth showing and nose crinkled. We’ve all seen “play” dog fighting mode and “real” dog fighting mode. Dogs passing each other on leases will sometimes “bark” to show frustration.

A sniffing dog with his nose to the ground is hardly a dog who is not exhibiting aggression. He is far too in the moment of finding a “treasure”. Likewise nose licking is a calming method a dog will use to bring the situation into a less threatening situation. Playing dogs will often “shake off” after play before they begin another round. Then it’s the ritual of dog butt smelling before another round begins. Dogs that live in the same household as other dogs will periodically smell each other when the other dog will get up for water or food. It’s a reassurance to almost say “what have you been eating, doing, drinking or what have you been into”.

What I learned from the dog (from

Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.

When you see someone you love, always run to greet them.

Set boundaries when others are invading your space.

Run, romp, and play daily.

Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.

Be loyal.

When someone is having a bad day, be silent. sit close by and nuzzle them gently.

Thrive on attention and let people touch you.

Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.

When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.

No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout…. run right back love your friends and family

Delight in the simple joys of a long walk.

Dog Ownership

Being a dog owner has lots of rewards especially if you pay attention to what these incredible creatures have to share with their owners. You can’t buy loyalty and love but you can buy or adopt a dog. It comes with the territory. “We should look at a creature who has never read a book”. They can change your world and how you see the world around you.