I am guilty of treating my dog like a human. How could I not? He eats with me, sleeps with me, exercises with me. He sees my tears, my triumphs and he even goes on the occasional Netflix binge with me. He’s part best friend, part my baby. In my human mind, he relates to the world the same way I do, right? Wrong.
No matter how many outfits we put them in, we shouldn’t lose perspective that our beloved dogs are still animals. They’re on a different frequency with Mother Nature than we mere humans can reach. They don’t operate on an emotional plane, but rather on an instinctual spectrum.
The theory of nature versus nurture comes to mind when I think about how it must be living as an entirely different species in a man made city. Because I think about this a lot: At what point does a dog’s genetic nature override what we’ve nurtured and trained them to do with millions of treats? Unfortunately, I discovered that point the hard way.
I was so convinced and blinded by how “connected” we are that I underestimated how he might react in a particular situation with another dog. Never in my wildest dreams did I think my always calm and sweet companion would lash out at me in the middle of an outburst he was having towards another dog.
Something on a level I will never truly understand like a certain smell or a side eye from another dog triggered him. It was a nice sunny day, he was on a leash and we were walking down the street on our usual route. Suddenly he spotted another large dog across the way and launched into full attack mode. He could have very well been trying to “protect” me by snarling and barking up a storm, but in my effort to take him half-serious and move him along he took one bite of my leg to warn me he wasn’t kidding around. Nature told him we were in danger.
I was shocked. Stunned. I couldn’t believe how betrayed I felt. My feelings hurt exponentially worse than the wound. Did I know him at all? Or maybe I wasn’t honest with myself about the reality that my beloved buddy and I were not on the same wavelength. I finally had to realize and respect the animal kingdom inside of him.
That being said, I think that painful moment of reckoning was actually magical and freeing rather than disappointing. Stepping back from this moment with a bit more clarity, I realized there was an opportunity here to start to understand my dog’s cues and his intrinsic needs and desires. This was my personal wake up call and invitation to understand his language. And instead of dismissing this as an anomaly event, two things happened:
One, I had more compassion and a greater understanding for him. He has basic instincts and those instincts told him something was amiss that day. He’s living in my world on my schedule and even though 99% of the time he makes it seem like a breeze, it must be challenging for him. I became more empathetic and compassionate to his experience - it helped me reframe my mindset.
The second is that it made me pay more attention to details. Sometimes I passively navigate this world with him without much thought, but his outburst made me aware of the fact that details matter. There are small things that he’s noticing that I’m not and if I can hone in on those details, the two of us can better understand one another.
There’s a balance here. We have to balance the nurturing and training that goes into fitting our dogs into our lives along with the nature within them that’s unique to each individual dog. I need to understand him and his nature within just as much as I need to then train and work with him and nurture him to live happily and thrive in this world.
Here are some cues to take into account that will help you honor your dog’s nature and live their best life…
Know your dog’s breed characteristics! There is a reason why there are so very many dog breeds. They are bred and refined to have innate specific traits - in other words nature. Understand your breed’s intrinsic traits and that will help you understand why your husky might need a little more exercise than most or why your bulldog has a harder time breathing on long walks. Each dog has a specific purpose and they feel most like themselves when they’re getting their needs met in relation to that purpose.
Take training seriously. While you cannot 100% predict what your dog will do in a situation that overwhelms their instincts, you can do a great deal of prevention by being consistent with training. Dogs want to please their humans and they understand best through patterns. That means don’t let things slide - don’t let them have food from the table this one time, don’t let them jump on approaching visitors only when it’s your best friend. Be strong and structured because that will better help them understand the rules of your world!
Don’t be embarrassed when they act out! I’ve been mortified a time or two when my dog has a reactive outbursts, but over time I decided to learn from the situation and understand what his triggers are. Now, when we’re approaching a dog that I think might set him off, I let the other owner know that “I’m sorry for his reaction, but I have the situation under control” and everything is just fine! Dog people get it.
We love our dogs as much as they love us. The more we can do to respect how they are genetically built to survive, the better we can help them thrive!