Dr. Nichol’s Blog – Living Gracefully, Together in a Crowd


A peaceful existence is difficult for a lot of us in today’s world. There is so much conflict, office politics, lack of acceptance, isolation. It’s almost everywhere you look. Aren’t we considered a “developed” nation? Maybe not. It’s a good thing we have pets.

I know a place where strife and acrimony are rare. I’ve been there. Oh, sure, there is the occasional harsh word but it’s over quickly. The inhabitants give each other space. They are like us and they are different. Maybe there is something to be learned.

Grace is getting up in years. Actually, getting up and around is becoming increasingly difficult for her because she has a bad back and structurally incorrect knees. But she acts as though no one has told her she’s handicapped. She’s 13 years old now and did OK until she herniated a disc a few years ago. Add that to her permanently dislocated knee caps and you have a fawn colored Chihuahua- mixed girl with a seriously staggering rear gait.

You could say that this 15# dog has pluck and courage but it’s clear that she doesn’t consciously throw her shoulders back and “power through”. She doesn’t need to. Gracie just runs and sniffs and eats and plays with the other free-ranging 24-30 dogs as though she were as able-bodied as her much younger and far bigger compadres. They clearly notice that she has to almost drag her rear legs to keep up with them. If you stand back and observe you see them making allowances, giving her a clear path. She is one of them. She belongs.

Grace’s good life, as a disabled pint-sized member of a big, active canine social group, would seem anomalous but not if you understand what and who dogs are. I’m a specialist in veterinary behavior medicine. My work involves the full gamut of unhealthy and sometimes dangerous behaviors, many of which result from badly-wired brains and out-of-balance neurotransmitters. These are physical disorders inside the craniums of animals. Recent, robust research has established a genetic predisposition for much of this. The most common problem I treat: aggression between family dogs.

So why hasn’t some cranky, pushy, nasty, bigger dog bullied Grace? Dogs have a strong need to interact with each other, making conflict inevitable. There is certainly a hierarchy in this established, disparate group. There may even be adherents to opposing political views. But you’d never know it. Abandoned and neglected dogs from surrounding areas are added and immediately accepted by the others. Resource competition is rare and brief. That’s because the dogs of the Heart and Soul Animal Sanctuary have advantages enjoyed by few household pets. When you understand those differences you’ll be able to improve your own dogs’ lives.

People like you and me feel a natural affinity for dogs largely because our species shares so many innate social constructs with theirs. In their feral, wild lives, eking out survival and passing on their genetic codes, dogs function much as nomadic human tribes of yore. Dogs, like us, are programmed to band together to acquire, share, and guard essential resources. There is a leadership structure. If someone gets sick or hurt they call out to their comrades for help. Their young stay with them until they are adults, learning how to function and survive. We humans and our dogs bond because we are a lot alike.

Dogs are naturally inter-dependent. We humans used to be more that way, relying on each other for survival. People seem to have less need for that now. As rugged individuals railing for our rights we seem to have more to argue about than ever. We’re getting isolated. Dogs who are stuck in a contrived (human) environment can be prone to similarly dysfunctional behavior.

So why do the off-leash, free-ranging dogs of this animal sanctuary get along so well? They are not genetically superior but they do have natural canine choices. If they’re feeling anxious they can create distance and hide-out until they relax and then rejoin the group. They are free to do what dogs must do.

Grace the Chihuahua- mix copes well both physically and behaviorally. She takes breaks from the action. I‘ve observed her ambling away to curl up and bury her head in the corner of one of the dozens of pet beds of the “Big Dog House” at the sanctuary. It really is huge, so big that a person lives there too.

Each of the 30 or so dogs has unlimited opportunities to avoid or escape. There is so much space available at the sanctuary (150 acres) that Gracie, or anybody, can choose to join a different subgroup of dogs. They have the freedom to make other friends. Nobody is trapped.

Pet dogs, like yours and mine, don’t need to move to a wonderful animal sanctuary to reach nirvana. Despite the limited indoor and outdoor space of our homes they can have their own haven where nobody will approach or hassle them. A snug den-like enclosure is the essential hide-out for all dogs. But there must always be choice. Dens in the wild have no door. Their canine lodgers are always free to come and go. A crate can make a fine refuge for a pet dog if it’s covered and remains open.

I am a believer in dog doors because they allow choice. Still there can be stresses that lead to altercations among pet dogs who share food, a human leader, and other perceived “scarce” resources. From time-to-time each one will need a break from the others. Feed your dogs in separate rooms and manage your household so that nobody ever feels trapped in a corner.

While there can be too much togetherness dogs need to be socially engaged with others of their ilk. Give your highly social dog(s) daily opportunities to engage in raucous play, rear end sniffing, and competitive urinating. According to the fundamentals of natural canine behavior dogs benefit greatly from forays into the neutral turf off-territory. A not-too-crowded dog park can help provide essential nutrients for the canine soul.

Gracie and her companions enjoy the security and predictability of a reliable structure. This girl knows the routine; she’s enjoyed life at the Heart and Soul Animal Sanctuary in Glorieta, NM since she was found abandoned on the road as a canine teenager in a family way. Soon after Heart and Soul’s director Natalie Owings took her in Gracie delivered her brood of 6, all of whom have found good homes.

There is some jockeying for position among the members of this big canine community. But they have unlimited space. If one dog offends another there may be a sharp rebuke but no swords are drawn. They briefly increase their distance from one another and move on. Natalie doesn’t interfere. She lets the dogs be dogs.

They have some cool rituals at Heart and Soul that nobody wants to miss. One of my favorites, besides enjoying the puppies, is the afternoon hike. The dogs know when it’s time. As they follow their human leader they sniff, explore, and often just sit and inhale the scents. If Gracie, with her funky rear legs, falls behind, the younger, more able-bodied dogs just stop and wait for her to catch up. And why wouldn’t they? They lose nothing by their kindness. Maybe there is something to this business of having choices and enjoying the freedom to stop and smell the roses. The dogs of Heart and Soul are the best versions of themselves.

The Heart and Soul Animal Sanctuary does wonderful work with dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, rabbits, doves, horses, and llamas. They welcome and deeply appreciate your support. Visit their website www.animal-sanctuary.org to learn more. Donations are tax deductible.

I hope you found this story of Grace and her good life to be valuable. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your pet-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide.

Thanks for your dedication to your pets. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.