Dr. Nichol’s Blog – Why are Dogs such Animals? I’ve tried Everything!

Over my career there has been a person as an essential component of every pet I’ve treated. It has been a rare four-legged creature who has walked into my office alone, requesting treatment for diabetes, a fracture, a nasty case of diarrhea, or a serious behavior disorder. They show up with a flesh and blood human in tow, with an emotional, vested interest in their well-being. Many of these pet parents seek help early but some have to dabble in trying to solve it themselves. But that’s just water under the bridge. A veterinarian can only be truly helpful if all judgment is abandoned at the back door of the animal hospital. Actually, the dumpster is a better place for criticism. Everybody makes mistakes. We come to work to give service.

Sure, people do dumb stuff. It is interesting though. Almost everybody who has ever sat down with me for a consultation on their pet’s behavioral disasters has tried and failed at solving the problem. Sometimes they’re proud of the punishments and retributions they have meted out, in some cases to assure that the dog doesn’t think he/she has won a test of wills with its person. The commonly used term is dominance. Really? Should we engage in a pitched battle with man’s and women’s best friends? They are not our adversaries. There is a better way.

Actually, it’s OK. At least these folks realized they were getting nowhere and called to make an appointment. Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Ole Mark was right but he left out an important benefit of mistakes and ignorance. If we realized we screwed it up we can learn to avoid that dysfunctional line of thought and replace it with real information-just not quick fixes, or short cuts.

Safety, especially for children, has to be the first priority in every case. The most basic rule for families is that kids and pets should always be supervised when they are together. That sounds simple enough but, hey, people are imperfect. There were 4 responsible adults right there with me and Buster when I escaped serious disfigurement at age 4. The grown-ups just looked away at the wrong time. They wish they’d paid better attention. I was lucky.

Here’s another take-away: there are always lessons to be learned when things go wrong just as long as we don’t let our emotions add to the damage. Use your prefrontal thinking brain, rather than your gut, and create distance from a behavior challenge. Literally walk away and shift your mental focus. The disaster will still be there in 10 minutes, waiting for your logic and your leadership.

There are so many pet behavior problems. As more research uncovers the underlying causes and treatments we practitioners fall in line and put them to work. Scholarly articles are published and text books are cranked out. We’re doing the best we can at this imperfect science. So if your pet’s problems are a big enough concern that you’ve got your knickers in a twist you can do a very big service for yourself, other humans who are close to you, and to your dog or cat to hunt down and find a credentialed professional to help you sort it out.

However you choose to proceed be sure not to act on impulse. That’s a bad choice because you might do something rash like punishing fear or removing choices from a member of a different species who is trapped in a human domicile with creatures who are huge in comparison and may at times behave like scary monsters (like a 4 year old future veterinarian)! Arrghh#@&*!

Our dogs are remarkable because the majority of them do so well “living” in a contrived environment i.e. a human world.
We’ve all heard the great litany of oxymorons like “military intelligence” or “jumbo shrimp” or “living in Nebraska”. Of course, I don’t mean to offend. Some of my best friends are really big shrimp, bright soldiers, and Nebraskans having a whale of a good time watching whatever sport it is they enjoy while husking corn. But, let’s get serious. What is living-really?

Most people reading this screed have a great deal in-common with me. We stand upright on two legs, speak intelligible words, and think everybody else is just like us or at least they should want to be, damn it. Well, if I were president I’d make a law that everybody had to agree with me on everything. Wouldn’t that be great? I could tell the entire population what to think and life would be grand. If this absurdity makes sense to you please close this book and leave it in your outhouse where, like an old Sears catalog, it can be repurposed.

We humans are a diverse lot with disparate interests and preferences. Here’s a revelation: Despite the bonds we share there are significant behavioral differences between companion animals and humans. Not only are our pets not little people in furry suits, they’re not even human wannabees. What may be perfectly legitimate behavioral solutions for people who do inappropriate things are often utter failures for horses, cats, and dogs. The wrong methods can darken animals’ emotional states, scare them badly, and dramatically worsen their behaviors. If we don’t allow our dogs and cats to live in ways that are consistent with their genetic programming we are setting them up for failure in our human world. There is a huge number of well-loved pets who aren’t really living. They are getting by, incarcerated in a strange place, adapting as best they can.

Providing others with the benefit of the old Golden Rule has long been the standard for the treatment of others, hasn’t it? I know how I want to be treated so I will extend the identical courtesies to others. Sometimes that works. I want other people to be nice to me so I’ll be nice to them. Simple enough but there are lots of small differences that can add up to significant conflicts.

No matter how much we think other people are just like us it’s actually much better to give them permission to be who they are. Our dogs deserve nothing less. They can’t be people; they must have the rights and privileges that are naturally and legitimately theirs to enjoy and endure. Too bad they can’t speak words that could make their requirements clear to us. Stay tuned for specifics on setting your pets up for success.