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Just tell me what you want, what your really, really want…..

(I am not an expert on dogs, but have loved and shared my life with many dogs over many years as well as my own personal readings and internet research some of which I share here.)

Dogs are descended from wolves, and over the past 15,000 years or ore, have co-evolve alongside their humans so that they can understand us, read our body language and behaviour and co-exist as part of our “pack”. Unfortunately, we humans have not really mirrored this in coming to understand our dogs and how they communicate with us and with each other.

Dogs perceive the world a bit differently to us and understating this and how they think and feel, what is important to them and how best to provide for their needs is fundamental for us to have a happy and healthy relationship with each other.

So next time you are looking deep into those soulful eyes that you love so much trying to work out what’s ticking over in that brain keep these points in mind….

1. Sight

Coming from wolves, they are primarily predators and scavengers. So their vision has to be spot on, with their eyes being forward facing providing an overlapping field of view gives them great binocular visions, with good depth and distance perception and they are attuned to any movement within their visual field. This does mean that their peripheral vision is not so great and they can’t actually see anything behind them.

Their eyes also have more rods and cones than ours, which means they can see better in low light enabling them to confidently mover around at dawn, dusk and night time.

It’s thought that they can only see in blue and yellow hues of colour and can’t differentiate anything that is green, red or orange. Many dog owners would argue this point, but scientifically they have only two types of colour photoreceptors whilst we have three, so they don’t have the full colour vision spectrum that we do. So if they can’t find that red Kong on the green grass that’s probably why!

2. Hearing

Dogs can hear 4 to 5 times better than we can. They have a wider frequency of sounds and can detect noise that is at the low and high end of the sound spectrum that humans can’t. This is why your dog may be barking and alerting you to something you can’t hear and you think it’s nothing, and also why many dogs are frightened, and even terrified, by loud sounds (eg thunder or fireworks) because they are amplified so much more for them.

3. Smell - a Dog’s Superpower!

This is their ultimate superpower! We can’t possibly imagine the extent to which they perceive the world through scent. Most senses can only detect what is actually present in the moment, but a dogs sense of smell can detect things that are no longer present - to see in the dimension of time with their noses! That’s how they know which dog has marked which territory even if it was some time ago.

Their nasal surface area is much larger than ours along with the density of smell receptors with a much more advanced

brain centre for perceiving and interpreting scent. One study proved that dogs could still detect a human fingerprint on a pane of glass 6 weeks after it had been left! Incredible!

4. Taste

Like us dogs have the same variety of taste receptions but fewer tastebuds on their tongues. They can detect sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury meaty taste stimulated by MGS etc). Having less tastebuds you might think they can’t taste as well as us, but in fact they probably taste even better due to their amazing sense of smell, since sell and taste are linked.

5. Touch

Most dogs love a pat and a tummy tickle, clear evidence that they perceive tactile stimulus the same way we do, they can experience sensations from pleasure to pain, as well as receptors for heat, cold, pressure, balance, movements and painful stimuli.

6. Cognitive Ability, Intellect and Reasoning

Cognition is the conscious and subconscious workings of the brain that allows us to make sense of our world and understand it. Scientific studies into dog psychology and intelligence are heavily flawed and hugely limited. Whilst it is very difficult to accurately observe, measure and explain the inner workings of a different species brain, we do so in comparison with our human brains which are meaningful to us.

That said, it is widely accepted by many professionals that dogs have the cognitive functioning and reasoning ability of a young child of 2-3 years of age. They are more impulsive and less rational than adult people, more driven by emotion but with less ability to recognise and reflect upon their emotions.

Like young children, how your dog thinks and feels is heavily dictated and influenced by what is happening around them at the time. So when trying to interpret your dogs behaviour or mood its very important to consider both the external and internal environment around them at the time, ie the context of the specific situation!

The presence of external stimuli will affect what they think and do and triggers will need to be considered in terms of distance, duration and distraction. Internal factors such as temperature, hunger, hormones, pain, itchiness, discomfort, irritation, illness etc will also influence your dogs mood and behaviour.

It’s thought that dogs are only aware of and concerned with how they are thinking and feeling, that they can’t empathise and understand how another would be feeling. They also are thought incapable of metacognition (to reflect and think about our thoughts). Again this is similar to the egocentricity of a young child. I am not certain that I entirely agree with this, as I my own experiences would indicate that dogs are actually highly empathetic and perceptive - especially if their human is ill or not travelling too well. I’m not saying they totally understand what is going on, but I do know they sense and respond in a loving, supportive way staying close to their human and providing comfort.

Dog psychologist and behaviour therapists will insist that dogs are not fundamentally moral (ie have a concept of right or wrong, fair or just). They are concerned only with the consequences for themselves - rewards (good behaviour) and avoid any bad consequences. The behaviour itself is not associated with any moral judgement. This means dogs are therefore incapable of doing anything “wrong” so should NEVER be harshly punished for what we consider bad behaviour - they do what works for them and in a way that deals with the situation at hand to get their needs and wants met, just as a child does. This does not mean we can’t encourage and teach our dog what we consider acceptable behaviour and what we don’t, but this training must always be done with love and consistency.

6. Emotional Connection

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who will claim Man’s Best Friend is incapable of emotions. They certainly have feelings and emotions - perhaps not the full range as we would describe it in human terms since they don’t connect moral judgement with their behaviour. So they are thought not to experience feelings like regret, guilt, shame, vindictiveness, self reflection or stubbornness (Although anyone who owns a Frenchie will challenge this one - me included!)

It is thought that they can have feelings of anxiety, fear, stress, grief, apprehension, frustration, anger, range, suffering, joy, excitement, satisfaction, contentment, disappointment and relief. I would personally argue that they also feel LOVE!

What Dogs really want….

Even within their breed, each dog is an individual with different temperaments, preferences and priorities in terms of what is important to them and how they respond to things. They can be motivated by food, play, exercise, social contact, company or any combination of these.

People might say that what your dog really needs is primal such as food, shelter and a sense of belonging within the pack, and whilst those things are certainly essential there is one thing above all else that your dog is constantly wanting from you to be able to not only survive but to thrive in the world of humans … INFORMATION!

From the moment your puppy or adopted dog comes home they are busy discovering what behaviours result in positive or negative outcomes for them, all the while with the reasoning ability of a 2-3 year old child! This can be an intense and endlessly stress provoking existence for them – fumbling their way through as best as they can.

Our world if very confusing and for your dog to keep themselves safe and make sure they get their needs and wants met, they need information to work out what is going to happen, whether it is going to affect them directly, what to do about it and whether everything is going to be okay. Dogs who have this are relaxed, content and well adjusted.

Dogs are always trying to get more information, especially if something is new or different, and if we fail to provide it adequately, or we are inconsistent - providing conflicting, confusing, unhelpful information, this can lead to emotional and behavioural problems. Dogs who are confused start to obsessively monitor their environment to gather further information which can quickly turn into anxiety and hyper vigilance. Sometimes they might become reactive or aggressive as they try to test things out to see what happens, if something is a threat or not, and how they might need to respond next.

To give your dog the best chance of being able to be relaxed and behave in ways we approve of and find socially appropriate, we need to give them information in ways that harness the way the perceive the world. Remember you are talking to a 2-3 year old child!

The information provided should be:

  1. Able to be detected as part of their sensory abilities, especially their keen sense of smell.

  2. Of use to them, not confusing or irrelevant, try to not overwhelm them with too much talk or stimuli that is not directly relevant to their situation.

  3. Clearly communicated - concise, purposeful and direct (both verbal and non verbal)

  4. Consistent, repetitive and reliable so they can learn, generalise and make assumptions based on past experiences so they know the expected outcome each time and not be anxious or uncertain. This helps them feel calm, confident and secure.

  5. Regular routines which help them know what to expect and how to respond and provides security and certainty in their world.

  6. Both verbal and non verbal in your signals and commands that you gently teach your dog so they can give you more of the kinds of behaviours you want and that have positive outcomes for them.

Hope this is helpful to you and your Best Mate!

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