The Good Dog

My dog is a good dog

We hear it a lot. “My dog is a good dog. She doesn’t cause any problems for me and she behaves really well. She is actually very comfortable for me.”

But – is she OK?

We must bear in mind that health is not the absence of disease. This can be a problem as we could get to believe that a dog that does not have behaviour problems is OK. This is false. Being OK is not the same as not being unwell. I find it very important that we come to understand this.

What’s important is not the behaviour, but the dog’s well-being. Not the absence of problems. We have to keep in mind that the vast majority of behavioural problems are problems for us. In most cases, for the dog these behaviours are completely normal. (Bark at a stranger, lie on the human bed, or grab the steak off the plate.)

A dog that doesn’t cause problems could many time be a lot better than it is. She may be under-stimulated and has learned to live with it, or perhaps she lacks social skills. We can be happy with our dog, but we should ask if our dog is happy with us and assess how she is emotionally. We can find our coexistence perfect, but come on – the dog is not a plant and it would be normal for her to cause a problem from time to time.

So what is a good dog?

In short, a good dog is not one that does not cause any problems. A good dog is one that integrates in our life and is happy and enjoys being in it. I.e., it is about seeing the active incorporation of the dog in our life and how it lives happily with us.

Dogs love us

When we talk about the dog, we are talking about a highly social and gregarious species. If we take this into account it should not be very difficult to understand that what the dog really wants is to be with us. Many times we have heard (even I used to say it) that the dog does not love us, but we know better now. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns trained dogs (starting with his own) to be still for the time necessary to be able to scan neural activity with an MRI. He has been able to show, with more than a hundred scans done, that the dog’s brain reacts just like the human before stimuli that leads to love. He has also been able to see that the vast majority of dogs prefer a caress or vocal appreciation over a piece of sausage when it has done something right. (Which is actually a great relief, because otherwise we are reduced to just being the bell in Pavlov‘s experiments.) If we later add that any positive reinforcement sooner or later turns into a negative punishment (B.F. Skinner – Operant Conditioning), we should focus on our life with the dog and the training mostly on building a strong relationship.

Or do they?

Now, someone may argue against this. We tend to hear arguments like “they only lick us for the salt on our skin” or “they are only animals”. This type of argument is, in my point of view, dumb and I don’t even enter to answer. But you may hear smarter arguments from science like dogs are “social parasites” and they only trick us to get what they want. The ability of the dog (almost unique in the animal world) to read human body language is used as proof of this. Some use the term “mutualism” instead of “parasitism”, but basically it is the same.

All this may be, but it leaves aside a very important thing when we talk about behavioural evolution. It is clear that the dog has evolved to depend on the human and vice versa. To ensure that our DNA continues its journey, we humans love our children, but we are not consciously thinking about it. This does not mean that we love them less, or that it feels less real. In this same sense it may be that dogs are genetically designed to deceive us, but they do not enter that game. They just love us – because that’s what they do and it’s proven that the dog values us, per se.

Making decisions

Another mistake of mine was the excessive control that I exercised over my dogs. This comes from our need for control. It really has nothing to do with the dog. In my experience (and that of other dog professionals) what dogs really need is to have an environment that allows them to freely make decisions (with their inevitable restrictions) with the greatest possible autonomy within this environment. Dogs are clearly capable (I have been able to observe this) of managing their physical, social and emotional environment in a way that allows them to cognitively analyse and process it. If we give them the chance, dogs can make correct decisions in the different situations they encounter. But for that it is necessary that we give them the freedom to make decisions. In this process dogs also become more responsible, but this does not prevent some mischief from time to time.

The good dog is, as I have already said, mostly defined by its behaviour – “She is well behaved“. But we must, as much as possible, forget about behaviour and focus on the social relationship. In some situations the behaviour may be urgent, but the social and emotional part is without a doubt infinitely more important.

Luna – obedient Husky

Some years ago I had a Siberian Husky named Luna. I was told from left and right that the Siberian Husky was an impossible breed to train and it was genetically dissobedient and stubborn. I dedicated a lot of time training her and got her to be extreemly obedient. She could walk heeling, off leash in the town centre at rush hour and she did it perfectly, never leaving my side. People used to praise her and tell me what an incredible job I had done with her. I was sooo proud.

Knowing what I know now it is quite clear to me that Luna was not a happy dog. She was doing everything I asked of her, but she really never had no other option.

She was such a beauty and an absolutely amazing dog. I loved her so much and I get very sad everytime I think of her. I look at her as my big failure.

Now I don’t even ask my dogs to sit…

So the next time you say “My dog is a good dog” take a moment and ask…

“Yeah, but is she OK?”

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Jonas Thulin

*Note:
When the gender of the dog is unknown it is taken as femenin. I do not like to treat the dog as an “it” and apart from that, I am just lazy – nothing else.

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Here’s a link to a podcast episode with an interview with Professor Gregory Berns.

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