Healing Dog And Human Relationships

Living organisms have built-in mechanisms to repair damages and restore health. Healing is usually referred to as a biological process that results in recovery from a disease or other injury. Healing also refers to other biological processes that result in recovery from psychological injury. When dogs or humans are physically injured, we usually assist the body to make repairs over time. When dogs or humans are psychologically injured, we should also assist the body’s psychological mechanisms to make psychological repairs over time. When either of these processes go awry insufficient healing can cause chronic disturbances. In this article, we are going to focus on psychological health and healing regarding relationships with and between dogs.

Relationships between owners and dogs can be healthy, from birth until the dog passes away. For most dogs and owners, that is their experience. On the other hand, there are significant numbers of relationships that develop pathologically. When relationships go sour, bonds tend to become insecure or even break. When bonds are broken, the parties can’t and won’t live together peacefully.

How many dogs are neglected, rejected, abused, or given away because the owners fail to housetrain their dogs? Or in situations where they can’t fix destructive chewing; mouthing; running away; digging; barking; getting in fights with other dogs; or biting? When owners aren’t getting the results or affection they were expecting, it is at first puzzling, then irritating, and then infuriating. The longer the distress, the more likely that the owner will blame and reject the dog. Any of these defensive responses by the owner should be viewed as warning indicators that the bond with the dog is either fraying or has been broken. Once a bond is broken, it is much harder to heal, if at all.

How many times have you heard someone say, “if my dog ever does XYZ, I’ll do __.” I accept that boundaries need to be set in all relationships, but not always are these well considered, and not all people are willing to do what is necessary to either prevent XYZ from ever happening, or to change what they are doing to their dogs to possibly trigger XYZ. It’s like the person who says something mean to you when they are upset, and then says, “you made me do that.” Those are the words that we associate with someone who is a spousal abuser. But those same threats are made towards dogs by many people. Dogs don’t make the kinds of choices people do, and we can’t expect them to change their behaviors without our help. The question must be asked of these owners, “what did you do to prevent this and why did you let it get that bad and so far along?”

Similarly, how many dogs reject people or other animals because their relationships aren’t going well? I get regular inquiries from remorseful dog owners who have spanked their puppies for pottying in the home and then the puppy wants nothing to do with them. I also see plenty of inquires after the dogs in the home have been in fights, and now the dogs want the other dog out of the house. I also see plenty of situations where a dog likes one person better than another person in the home to the extent that the dog sometimes will bite if their proximity is pierced. I see this also where a dog likes one dog in the home but not some other dog in the home. Dogs make best friends in ways that seem to mirror what we do. Those friendships can remain stable or change over time. For example, it isn’t unusual for female dogs to be friends with one set of dogs, and when she goes into heat, she will drop those friends and be interested in other dogs. When heat is over, she will often then drop her new beaus, and go back to her original friends. Relationships are dynamic.

How do I approach all dog problems? First, it is important to know that I am not an equipment-based dog trainer. In my opinion, when any trainer approaches a problem to promote their favorite tool then things aren’t going to work out very well. I have inquires asking me what kind of tool I will use… food, clicker, electric collar, vibrating collar, toys, or some other thing. I think they ask these questions because that is what they have been sold into thinking by dog product advertising through mass and social media. Instead, I am a relationship-based trainer. Dogs are social, group living animals and the most significant influence on what they do is always going to be in the context of their past and present relationships. This approach is harder for today’s dog owners, and most of the dog training world, to grasp since they haven’t the background to understand why dogs do what they do. Most people are still seeing dogs as input/ output machines. We all need to start recognizing behavior problems are much more complex than teaching a dog to either do this or not do that with this or that tool.

When modifying dog behavior, nothing is more important than healing relationships. Good bonds create joy, mannerly exchanges, cooperativeness, understanding, proper perceptions, and open minds for learning. When bonds are healthy, people and dogs want to be near one another and get along. Frayed or broken bonds do just the opposite. In worst case scenarios, broken bonds result in aggression, either anger by the owner or biting by the dog, or both. An insecurely bonded dog has psychologically unhealthy relationships. Insecure relationships can cause dogs to engage in clinginess, separation anxiety-based responses, a variety of misbehaviors, or even paradoxically aggressive attempts to restore proximity. Insecure relationships can cause people to waver back and forth regarding their caregiving and interactions with their dogs.

As with most dog problems, bonding problems begin in puppyhood. Most dogs are never sufficiently socialized before 16 weeks of age. Insufficient socialization hampers a dog, usually for its entire life, from making a full range of healthy relationships with people and other animals. I am currently working with a wonderful 6-month-old female Chow Chow. This owner has done everything right when it comes to her socialization. Whereas most Chows are touchy, irritable, aloof, and don’t want to be handled or messed with much, this dog is more like what you’d expect from a nice Labrador Retriever of the same age. Right from the start, she had a big “puppy party” at her home when the puppy arrived. I think she told me she had 35 people there. She also took this dog for lots of walks in public. The owner is always in a happy mood and is never rough on her dog. The dog’s puppy training has been a joy. She just got another Chow Chow puppy, a 9-week-old male from the same breeder. The puppy arrived at 7 pm on Saturday night, and Sunday night she had a big puppy party. Because of the early socialization, both dogs are getting along like they’ve been sister and brother forever. We are also doing other things to promote all these relationships so these dogs will turn out very well. Even though, as I write this article, the daytime highs in Phoenix are running over 110 ℉, and the female puppy is now in heat, she is committed to taking that new puppy to as many places as possible to ensure he turns out as well as his sister and ensuring these two dogs get along.

Did you do that with your puppy? I bet you didn’t. It’s not difficult to connect obvious defects in the early socialization of each dog to their current behavior problems today.

The next place where relationship problems come from improper confinement and crate training. I was contacted by someone the other day about a first-time puppy owner. The puppy is 9 weeks old, and he has only had the puppy for a couple of days. Instead of getting good advice, he asked his friends about what to do because his puppy cries all night because he leaves it in a crate downstairs. His attitude is that the puppy needs to learn it can’t cry to get his attention so he’s going to ignore it and teach it a lesson. That is a complete misunderstanding of how to properly introduce a new puppy. First the home isn’t home to the puppy yet, so of course that is going to be frightening. Second, the puppy isn’t crate trained, so the entrapment is going to panic the puppy and probably worsen the potty training problems. And third, the puppy isn’t safely bonded to him yet. So, the puppy cries… and is punished by neglect. That kind of approach sets dogs up for separation anxiety, house training, and other behavioral problems in the future. It makes for an insecure adult dog.

Puppy handling is the next potential problem area. Puppies need to be properly taught social manners. There is so much that can be done early to make a dog easy to live with. How do young altricial animals in the wild learn where to eat, what to chew on, where to defecate, where to sleep, how to play nicely, how to make friends and avoid enemies, where the water is located, and what to do when there is danger and who to rely upon? They don’t get it out of a book. Mama animals don’t run around the forest with clickers or treat pouches or any other devices. Youngsters learn this stuff from their parents, mostly their mothers when it comes to mammals. Good manners, and all that social learning, is essential for survival. But how many dog owners neglect to spend the time developing a two-way communication type relationship with their dogs to sort all this out over time? Most people get lucky because dogs are domesticated. Dogs make it easier on us than if we owned a lion or an elk. Even so, many dog owners mess this part up, and then get upset with their dogs. Dogs aren’t like frozen dinners; pop them in the microwave for 10 minutes and ready to serve. Dogs need to learn all this stuff with someone, and in a multidog household, with other well socialized, managed, and mannered dogs.

Dogs also need some safe place to run to when they feel endangered. Home needs to be safe. Family needs to be safe. Going for walks needs to be safe. When those situations aren’t safe, the owner needs to figure out how to make it safe for the dog. I remember my Bouvier, Kate, my first dog. When I was with her, she never barked or lunged at any strange dog or person. But if walked by some other people, she would bark or lunge. When she was with me, she felt safe all the time. When I wasn’t there, these other people didn’t project the same safety signals and so that activated her defensive responses. Many homes aren’t safe for dogs. For example, the location provides no physical safety from intruders. Maybe the front window of the home faces a busy walkway, or many strangers enter and leave the home without a proper introduction, or there is too much startling novelty (loud, harsh, irregular sounds, for example) to settle in. Many families aren’t safe. For example, I have seen many dogs who became very defensive in homes full of strife; with people who were going through hard times; with people who suffered a recent health scare or calamity; living with people who are emotionally unstable; or living with kids who are not nice or respectful to the dog. if a dog isn’t feeling safe family relationships, then don’t expect the dog to be obedient or well mannered. And I see people take their dogs into situations that aren’t safe when they are away from home. Why is it necessary for your dog to meet every strange dog? Why is it ok for your dog to get in a fight with your friends dog every time you get together and visit? Why take dogs to places that aren’t dog friendly? None of this is good for your dog. When you don’t make your dog feel safe, then the relationships will suffer.

Let’s not forget what happens when a dog enters a municipal animal shelter. Every bond is broken, every dog breaks down over time, and the traumas make it hard for many dogs to integrate into a new home. The dogs that suffer are deemed unadoptable and killed. There is no true compassion for what the dogs are going through. Most places like this are no better than the puppy mills everyone wants to shut down. They are just as irresponsible and cruel; the only difference is that they can get away with it legally.

I could give many other examples, but I’ll end with this last one. Sometimes relationships are damaged between the owner and dog, or between the dogs in the home. I have worked with dogs that overly bond to one family member and then reject the other family members. That is a relationship problem. I’ve worked with dogs that fight in the home. That is a relationship problem. You first must sort out the relationship by getting some history and to safely observe them around one another. Then you must rebuild the relationships. Relationship building involves psychological healing. Even if you are doing the right things, it takes time and you don’t get TV show, 30-minute episode, results. These things can take months to restructure and heal. If the bonds are insecure or broken, then you must knit that relationship together. You can’t make a dog like you, another person, or another animal. What you can do, like a child psychologist between a parent and their offspring, is heal the relationship. First, they must be able to tolerate being around one another. I am often not given enough time to get past this step before the owner gets rid of the dog. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a push button relationship, and old bad memories need to be replaced with good new memories, and bad habits need to be replaced with good habits. Part of this is replacing old ideas about training with new ideas about training and implementing that new training. I begin to see I’m on the right track when I see and hear about new, consistent mutual playful invitations, where before there was aloofness, fear, misbehavior, or even hostility.

What doesn’t work in any relationship is forcing the people or dogs to be together with strict training. You might be able to contain the problem for a while, but the centrifugal forces of a bad relationship will eventually win out. This is why I emphasize not making dog training about the tools you promote. That is backwards thinking. The emphasis should be on building good relationships, maintaining good relationships over time, and healing any relationship breakdowns.

I’m right now thinking of a couple of male pit bulls I worked with earlier this year. The fights became serious, and one dog had to be stitched up. We worked through the steps I mentioned above, and over a few short months, the dogs were once again able to be around one another in the home. I was sent a photo of them sleeping on one another in the living room. The owners have a better understanding of what caused the rift, reduced the stress levels, raised awareness of the fight triggers, kept the dogs apart for a time in the home but kept them together on fun daily walks to prevent the bonds from completely breaking, did the recommended changes, and allowed time for the relationship to heal. Unfortunately, not all relationships can be healed. Sometimes it has gone too far. Sometimes there isn’t enough time, resources, or willingness to try and heal the relationships. We must be realistic here. Not all people can get along, either. But there is a lot we can do to promote good relationships and heal relationships that have suffered some kind of trauma.

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