Keeping your best friend happy

File picture
FOOD AS A REINFORCER: Anticipation of imminent reinforcers can be seen in the upright ears, steady gaze and relaxed, open mouth. Picture by Cath Muscat
Making dogs happy: how to be your dog's best friend

Experts in canine behaviour Dr Melissa Starling and Professor Paul McGreevy explain how dogs see the world and what you can do to enrich their lives . . .

We tend to humanise dog emotions and that’s not surprising as domesticated canines have lived with us ever since that fateful moment some 36,000 years ago when an enterprising caveman or woman tempted a wolf to sit by the fire with them.

However, as Dr Starling and Prof McGreevy point out in their book Making Dogs Happy, dogs see the world differently from us.

They will be happy, or at least content, if the following needs are met:

  • Companionship with their human or another dog
  • Food and water
  • Shelter
  • Playtime
  • Mental stimulation
  • Chance to explore using their incredible sense of smell.

There are many ways in which dogs’ appreciation of the world differs from ours; we receive and process information differently. This adds to the wonder of being around dogs, but it should remind us that we must never assume they are aware of the same stimuli that we are. Similarly, we may be unaware of what matters most to them.

Only when we are aware can we take a walk in their paws and understand how to make them happy.

A walk in the park

A walk through the park with a dog is a very different experience for the dog than it is for the human at the other end of the leash. The dog senses a world full of complex scents that contain information about who has passed here and when, what has been fossicking nearby and what humans have left lying around that might be edible.

You might stop to admire an intricately patterned insect with iridescent colours, your dog stops to admire a tussock of grass with layers of scent that may be every bit as fascinating to them.

You see an acquaintance and stop to ask how they are; your dog does the canine equivalent by sniffing the dog’s muzzle, then genitals and anus. Your dog sniffs around and lifts his leg on a shrub; the other dog gets precariously close to a damp head in her effort to get in and read the pee-mail.

You notice bright birds with melodious songs; your dog stops and stares — ears up, tail stiff — at someone doing star jumps on a field several hundred metres away.

Several streets away an ice-cream van starts playing music that your dog seems to think is the sound of the Gates of Hell being opened. You coach him or her through it until the sound dwindles, then it’s time to throw a ball repeatedly so your dog can bring it back to you for the sheer joy of chasing it when you throw it away again.

They vex us at times, but the different ways that dogs perceive the world is part of what makes them such great company. Their simple joy in life puts a smile on our faces. More of that, please.

It’s a dog’s life, goal by goal

A dog’s goals can vary wildly, just as human goals can. Let’s take, for example, a dog in a multi-dog household, who is fed and walked in the morning. It is easy to imagine how her emotional state can change in just a few hours. We can map that out in a way that follows her goals and whether or they are achieved.

When it is approaching lunchtime and the dog is well fed, she has spent the early part of the morning playing, running and exploring. If she has relieved herself and no one in the household is doing anything of particular interest, her primary goal might be to simply rest comfortably. This is easily achieved and so she is content.

Perhaps she chooses to rest where she can monitor the household and be aware of any interesting activity the moment it begins, such as her human heading to the bathroom.

In that instant, her goal might switch from resting to trying to reach the bathroom door before it closes, so she can participate in bathroom-visiting with her human; her human emotional state shifts, depending on
whether she is successful or not.

Maybe her human stood up from a desk because it’s lunchtime, and when the human starts to move about the kitchen, her goal splits between participating in human activities in the kitchen and obtaining any food that falls onto the floor. Both these goals are easily met simultaneously by being in the kitchen.

Perhaps the sound of busy-ness in the kitchen entices another dog to come into the kitchen, and now our first dog’s goals split again to particpating in human activities, obtaining any food that drops on the floor and maintaining a safe distance from the second dog to avoid being forefully displaced from the kitchen. Imagine how both dogs’ emotional states might fluctuate as they navigate this daily chain of events. You can see that our first dog is not necessarily happy or unhappy.

She might or might not have achieved her goal, and it might be impossible to achieve all her goals without compromises. It might not even be clear if she is getting closer or further from her goal at any one moment. In some households, going to the kitchen when food is being prepared is a fair bet for snatching food off the floor. The arrival of the competitor dog introduces conflicting goals. Our original dog now has to weigh closeness to the potential food drop zone against the risk of aggression from the other dog.

Extract taken from Making Dogs Happy: How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend.
By Dr Melissa Starling and Prof Paul McGreevy
Published by Allen & Unwin Australia

Experts in canine behaviour Dr Melissa Starling and Professor Paul McGreevy explain how dogs see the world and what you can do to enrich their lives . . .

We tend to humanise dog emotions and that’s not surprising as domesticated canines have lived with us ever since that fateful moment some 36,000 years ago when an enterprising caveman or woman tempted a wolf to sit by the fire with them.

However, as Dr Starling and Prof McGreevy point out in their book Making Dogs Happy, dogs see the world differently from us.

They will be happy, or at least content, if the following needs are met:

  • Companionship with their human or another dog
  • Food and water
  • Shelter
  • Playtime
  • Mental stimulation
  • Chance to explore using their incredible sense of smell.

There are many ways in which dogs’ appreciation of the world differs from ours; we receive and process information differently. This adds to the wonder of being around dogs, but it should remind us that we must never assume they are aware of the same stimuli that we are. Similarly, we may be unaware of what matters most to them.

Only when we are aware can we take a walk in their paws and understand how to make them happy.

A walk in the park

A walk through the park with a dog is a very different experience for the dog than it is for the human at the other end of the leash. The dog senses a world full of complex scents that contain information about who has passed here and when, what has been fossicking nearby and what humans have left lying around that might be edible.

You might stop to admire an intricately patterned insect with iridescent colours, your dog stops to admire a tussock of grass with layers of scent that may be every bit as fascinating to them.

You see an acquaintance and stop to ask how they are; your dog does the canine equivalent by sniffing the dog’s muzzle, then genitals and anus. Your dog sniffs around and lifts his leg on a shrub; the other dog gets precariously close to a damp head in her effort to get in and read the pee-mail.

You notice bright birds with melodious songs; your dog stops and stares — ears up, tail stiff — at someone doing star jumps on a field several hundred metres away.

Several streets away an ice-cream van starts playing music that your dog seems to think is the sound of the Gates of Hell being opened. You coach him or her through it until the sound dwindles, then it’s time to throw a ball repeatedly so your dog can bring it back to you for the sheer joy of chasing it when you throw it away again.

They vex us at times, but the different ways that dogs perceive the world is part of what makes them such great company. Their simple joy in life puts a smile on our faces. More of that, please.

It’s a dog’s life, goal by goal

A dog’s goals can vary wildly, just as human goals can. Let’s take, for example, a dog in a multi-dog household, who is fed and walked in the morning. It is easy to imagine how her emotional state can change in just a few hours. We can map that out in a way that follows her goals and whether or they are achieved.

When it is approaching lunchtime and the dog is well fed, she has spent the early part of the morning playing, running and exploring. If she has relieved herself and no one in the household is doing anything of particular interest, her primary goal might be to simply rest comfortably. This is easily achieved and so she is content.

Perhaps she chooses to rest where she can monitor the household and be aware of any interesting activity the moment it begins, such as her human heading to the bathroom.

In that instant, her goal might switch from resting to trying to reach the bathroom door before it closes, so she can participate in bathroom-visiting with her human; her human emotional state shifts, depending on
whether she is successful or not.

Maybe her human stood up from a desk because it’s lunchtime, and when the human starts to move about the kitchen, her goal splits between participating in human activities in the kitchen and obtaining any food that falls onto the floor. Both these goals are easily met simultaneously by being in the kitchen.

Perhaps the sound of busy-ness in the kitchen entices another dog to come into the kitchen, and now our first dog’s goals split again to particpating in human activities, obtaining any food that drops on the floor and maintaining a safe distance from the second dog to avoid being forefully displaced from the kitchen. Imagine how both dogs’ emotional states might fluctuate as they navigate this daily chain of events. You can see that our first dog is not necessarily happy or unhappy.

She might or might not have achieved her goal, and it might be impossible to achieve all her goals without compromises. It might not even be clear if she is getting closer or further from her goal at any one moment. In some households, going to the kitchen when food is being prepared is a fair bet for snatching food off the floor. The arrival of the competitor dog introduces conflicting goals. Our original dog now has to weigh closeness to the potential food drop zone against the risk of aggression from the other dog.

Extract taken from Making Dogs Happy: How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend.
By Dr Melissa Starling and Prof Paul McGreevy
Published by Allen & Unwin Australia

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