I don’t know where to begin when talking about how good it is to have dogs, but I have long wanted to write about it and recently got extra inspired after reading A Kindred Soul by Musings of an Aspie.
We have 2 dogs. In line with the policies of this blog, they’ll have Internet pseudo-names and will be known as ‘Spirit’ and ‘Nala’ online. Spirit because she is a free spirit, and Nala (named after Simba’s girlfriend in The Lion King) because there is something lion-like gracious, majestic and childish about Nala and the way she moves.
What the dogs do to the house*
The dogs spread a happy & easy going vibe in the house, so we look extra forward to being home when we’re out … not to mention the cheering, tail-wagging welcome committee that greets us when we open the door. The dogs are great fun on an everyday basis; and a play or cuddle with the dogs can lift almost any heavy mood.
Most of all, the dogs have transformed our home into a little community. We are not just a married couple any more, we are a little tribe with a culture that we shape, but which also shapes us and which’ evolution is not fully under our control. I guess having dogs is somewhat akin to having kids in that regard.
The dogs are therapeutic
Whenever I’m feeling down, I can easily make the dogs happy, and that tends to lift my mood too. Sometimes all the way up from ‘tired and de-motivated’ to ‘having fun’.
When I feel nerve-wrecked and overloaded (or whenever Nala needs a hug), Nala will lean on me and/or rest her body on my chest. Although it sometimes feel like my ribs are slowly bending and it is hard to breathe, Nala’s warm heavy softness and trust is one of the most soothing sensations I know when I’m stressed, anxious or in sensory overload mode – just the right impact at the right time. And she is always around, with her unconditional support and strong but simple needs.
I also learn a lot from observing the dogs and their pack dynamics every day. I learn about social dynamics and political games (dog politics is mainly about bones, but still), perspective taking, care and responsibility, about their unique personalities, about being open to another species’ very different type of mental operative system, about conflict management and many other things.
And the dogs keep us/me physically fit. And safe too… protecting the house against real and imaginary enemies.
Dogs are routine animals
All that said, one of the key aspects of having dogs has to do with rules, everyday structure and routines. Dogs cherish and need daily routines such as walks, feeding rituals, training, and just all the little things we do at certain times and which they know will happen. Routines and predictability give dogs a sense of knowing the world they live in and be prepared for what will happen. Dogs thrive when they know precisely what to do, and carry out the same sequences day after day with the same persons. Carrying out routines together is a bonding kind of communication; it conveys that ‘we are together’, ‘we belong here’.
It isn’t necessary to be as rules-oriented as I am with dogs and some may find it a bit extreme, but I like to have many little scripts for longer activities, such as walks, that break the activity into small steps and mark how far along we are in the process and what will happen next. It helps the dogs to know what to do (even if they sometimes do the opposite!), and it helps me to control two dogs that are actually so strong that they can pull me over the ground ‘like a sled’ if they forget I am there.
Below is an example of a sequence of little scripts embedded in a daily routine; namely the morning run on a route via bush firetracks. It may be boring to read, but it is fun to do due to the dogs’ infectious enthusiasm for every step in the process.
Routine: scripts for the daily morning walk/run in the bush.
- I begin my day with a short yoga-like exercise programme, then have fruit and coffee while I read on my tablet et.c. The dogs find my personal morning rituals fairly irrelevant until I grab the clothes & running shoes. – That faint little sound is the dog-wake-up-alarm!
- Walkie routine starts: Collars & leash on. The dogs sit and wait in a specific place in the corridor, eager to get their walking stuff on. They get collars and leashes on and a few treats in a specific way.
- I open the door and say ‘Come’. The dogs get up and go out of the door and sit down. I lock the door, pick up the leashes again and they get a treat.
- We go to the kerb, they sit down again and get a treat while I check for cars. When I say ‘Come’ we cross the road, and walk up the road towards the alleyway to the Bush.
- We follow the track into the bushland, and I get the dogs to sit while I unleash Spirit. When the dogs are both calm and Spirit watches my face, I say ‘OKAY’ and give Spirit a hand signal, which means she can be off leash provided she doesn’t run off. Obedience isn’t really her thing, but she seems to understand that her freedom is subject to instant suspension in case she breaks the rules. She LOVES to be off leash and do her own things, so she mostly manages to control her antics… roughly. (she is no good for running on leash).
- Then we run the usual route, Nala on leash and Spirit off leash most of the way. There are little things we do during the way – e.g. I stamp in the ground before passing a rock where I think I have seen a snake once, a part where Spirit is on leash too due to strong temptations, and another point where Spirit has a hidden bone she picks up, et.c.
- By the end of the route we pass a creek where Spirit takes a dip in the water. Shortly after, the dogs sit again so I can put the leash on Spirit.
- We walk or run home, while the dogs constantly try to rough-house each other. I keep one on each side (normally they both have to walk on left side) to try to prevent pure anarchy. This isn’t my routine, obviously – I try to stop it, but something the dogs routinely do at that point.
- Walkie routine ends: we return to the house, and the dog sit down and wait in front of the door. I take the leashes off and open door wide open, and say ‘Come’. The dogs wiggle their tails and run in, excited to check out what my husband is doing (he starts cheering when he sees them, and they love it). Wild wrestling and chasing in the yard follows and goes on for a good while. Eventually they get tired and have a nap in their dog beds. That’s it.
Pocket-philosophical musings about dogs and rules
That dogs like routines and need clear, explicit rules for what to do and when, is extremely logical when thinking about it. Dogs live in a world they can never get to understand on an abstract level. They can never get an overview: all they have is details. One of their key needs & drivers is social belonging – to identify as useful/valued pack members, and interact with others. They will do whatever it takes to satisfy that need – in harmonic or problematic ways, whatever is available to them.
Any pet dog is a fascinating inter-species social experiment: can it really get itself adopted by a highly sophisticated different species – blend into that species’ advanced civilisation, live inside its innermost social structure as a friend and family member, and have all its needs met by the civilisations’ sophisticated technologies and infrastructure, having no clue about how it all works? Yes. Weird as it is. That is dogs’ ‘Normal’. Each dog doesn’t have a choice but to either succeed or fail as a human companion.
Source: Doghouse Diaries 2013
The history of dog evolution and wolf pack dynamics – or as much of it is ‘known’ is fascinating and full of cues as to why dogs can fit into human family structure like hand in glove, be ‘man’s best friend’ and develop so strong social intuition for the emotional states of individuals from another species’ than their own.
For example, the structure of a wolf pack resembles the structure of a standard human family quite closely: a mom & dad in charge (‘the alpha pair’) with off-spring from different years, who don’t themselves have offspring as long as they live with their parents (potentially for their entire life). A huge topic in itself – I’ll resist the temptation to go further into it here.
Cross-cultural and cross-species
It is said that one of the great benefits of getting to know a different culture is the opportunity to look back at one’s own culture with fresh eyes. Notice traits that were previously greyed out by their familiarity; see that familiar ways of doing things have alternatives.
I think a similar, but even stronger perspective shifts happens when one get to understand just a bit about how a different species thinks and operates. I see that as one of the really big ‘wins’ of having a dog or another pet.
The time tower
A dog can’t be punished for something it did 10 minutes ago – it won’t understand the connection between action and consequence, so the punishment will be connected to whatever more recent event the dog thinks may be relevant. Dogs don’t have the perspective of time humans do – as far as I remember, the time frame a dog can ‘span’ over is under 90 seconds.
That is a massive human advantage which I hadn’t consciously reflected about before I learned about dogs. As a human, I am figuratively sitting in a tower with an overview over my past, present and projected future experiences. I can scan over my inner time landscape to find patterns that match a certain problem profile, so I can connect events/actions and consequences that are far apart in time.
The dogs, using the tower analogy, are on the ground. They have little overview, and that’s why action and consequence needs to be within the same time ‘clearing’ to be connected.
The trees VS the forest
Dogs are also very slow to learn to generalise specific rules across different situations.
A dog tends to ‘see the trees rather than the forest’, to use another analogy. Dogs tend to perceive specifics and may not perceive the general category they’re supposed to. Or perhaps they just categorise situations according to their own different, human-irrelevant criteria.
So when a dog perceives that a situation differs from the situation where it was taught a rule, it won’t think of that rule. And a situation can differ in a lot of ways – location, timing, weather, smells, mood, whatever…
When I’ve taught my dog to heel on my left side when we walk along our daily route, that may not be what she has learned. She may have learned to walk in one side of the path, so that if we walk in the opposite direction, then she’ll heel on my right side. Or she may follow some other specific cues rather than my general rule. That’s why dogs have to learn rules and commands over and over again in many different situations before they start to generalise some of them.
Time frame for building a canine friendship
Dog education is mutual. A dog needs to learn the family norms and ‘read’ its humans really well, and the humans need to learn about how dogs’ minds operate and get to know their dog’s unique personality really well. In my experience it takes a couple of years before all the good sides of dog ownership starts to overtake all the inconveniences and frustrations and destructions and time consuming training involved in building a canine friendship.
* Not talking about destructions here… There have been a fair bit of those too.