What constitutes a full life for a dog? The deeper, far more important question is how to know what is “enough.”
To define what we consider “enough” we have to ask the dog himself if his life is working for him. And really listen to his answer. This requires that we put aside what we think is an ideal life for a dog and ask your specific dog what he has to say about things.
In a seminar, I worked with a woman who was making herself and her dog literally physically ill from the stress of trying to live a full life, and give this dog “enough.” The dog did not like going out into the world, something she found rather overwhelming. Fearful, anxious, reactive, this dog had a hard time coping with strangers and a lot of activity. She was really, truly happy, playful and relaxed only at home, and during private herding and agility lessons where she did not have to worry about strange people and strange dogs.
Attending group classes, agility trials, herding lessons & obedience four to five times a week took its toll on this dog. As a result, a lot of unhappy and unpleasant behavior problems were surfacing. On top of the clear body language and behavior that said the dog would rather not be there, there were more troubling signs: the basics of healthy functioning were being affected – sleep was disrupted, soft stools and uneven appetite were common after “fun” outings. The stress of the “fun” followed the dog home.
I asked the woman why she felt all this activity was necessary. Why couldn’t the dog just stay home and enjoy her small family and the activities that she did enjoy?
There was a very, very long pause.
Her answer, “I don’t know. I thought that for a dog to be really happy, her life had to be full of fun stuff to do.”
I pointed out gently that if she had a friend who hated parties, hated travel and hated group activities, thinking that the friend “needed” such things in order to have a happy life would just end up with her friend being miserable. No one would suggest that her friend simply needed to get over hating crowds or parties or travel. But many folks had urged her to keep bringing the dog to this activity or that event – “she’ll get over it!” and “she’ll learn!”
No one had ever suggested that she take a look at the dog’s reaction to the theoretically “good life” and see what it was really doing to the dog. She admitted that after an agility trial, the dog typically crashed and slept for 2 days to recover from the stress. As we talked about further details, she could suddenly see that the dog who stood in that seminar setting, anxious, unsure, vigilant was not the carefree, joyful, bouncy dog full of sparkle that she saw at home.
She gave herself and the dog permission to create their own version of what a “happy life” should be. She took the dog out of the group activities, stopped trialing her, and scaled it down to the private agility and herding lessons that the dog adored. Without robbing the dog of joy, she eliminated the stress.
We can all get caught up in the desire to do “the best” for our dogs, and in doing so, lose sight of the dog standing in front of us. The answer is simple: SEE THE DOG.
When in doubt about an activity, outing, sport, expectation or technique, ask your dog that most powerful of my Elemental Questions: “How is this for you?”
You can trust that the dog will tell you their truth. They’ll let you know whether things are working for them or not. Balancing developmental stages, personalities, talents, quirks, sensitivities, needs as well as your goals and your ideas of what constitutes a full life for a dog – it all become very personal.
When you take the time to truly SEE THE DOG, when you make sure the dog’s needs are at the center of all you decide for them, you’ll find the best life for that dog.
For more information on how to assess and track any dog’s function on physiological, cognitive and social functioning, learn about Suzanne’s new app, FAT (Functional Assessment Tracking) at FATforDogs.com
Learn more about The Elemental Questions