Get to Know Your Dog on a Deeper Level: Good Luck!
By Paul Riggins, PhD
For the past three years I have brought my two large dogs to our small little sweet Quail Creek dog park most every day. I have rarely missed a day nor have Luna and Lupita my Husky girls. Over this time period I have met most of the residents who also bring their dogs to the park. I know most of the dogs by sight and name. It has been a fun and memorable experience. Some users refer to us dog park users as family and certainly, like most families, we have shared many wonderful and a few sad moments together.
While visiting the park, I have observed many interesting situations involving both owners and their dogs. I have heard many a story and listened to some strange rumors. I have observed a dog tussle or two, seen residents and pets get accidently injured and had more than my share of both tears and chuckles. I have developed many friendships and, as President of the Critters Club, I have worked hard and spent countless hours to represent all of our resident Critters Club pet owners and their pets. As I have mentioned above, during this time many positive things and only a few negative things have happened. True, there have been one or two unfortunate situations involving a dog or an owner but most of my time spent at the dog park has been worth every minute for both my dogs and myself.
I do observe situations almost every day that upset me only because some dog owners approach the dog park with fear and trepidation and often leave the area shaking their head fearing something negative might happen to their beloved ones. The fact is, all dogs are welcome and most all get along with each other really well. Size or breed are not factors. If there is any kind of problem that develops, it is normally a human issue brought about by an over-protective or unaware owner.
Believe it or not, it is in the genes and nature of all domesticated dogs to get along with both humans and other dogs. Time and time again, regardless of the breed of the dog, problems might develop because of the owner not the dog. Very few humans understand the complex nature of a dog which stems from a well-evolved brain oriented toward survival and getting along in a pack. The hormones that are generated by a variety of glands in the body and brain in all dogs are finely tuned and developed at levels not easily understood or known by their human mates.
Dogs have highly developed senses supported by their design and nervous system. Their noses, ears, eyes, and mouth are finely tuned to provide information about their surroundings that humans could rarely, if ever, understand. The truth is, dogs sense their world in unique ways that are far beyond the senses of the average human being. Every smell, every sight, every movement and every interaction is full of information.
Recently, I became very curious about the internal “working” of dogs and discovered many interesting and important facts that can help all of us to better understand our dogs and their surroundings at a higher level. I have learned much from two specific dog PhD “psychologists”. One, Evan MacLean is a psychologist and anthropologist who is the Director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona. The other is Alexandra Horowitz, author of the Inside of a Dog (what dogs see, smell and know). She is a professor of Psychology at Columbia University, Barnard College. Both are dog lovers, owners and well-known authors and researchers.
For example, I wondered why some dogs are more aggressive than others even within the same breed. I wondered why certain breeds are more prone to be aggressive than others. I wondered what influence owners and breeders have on the personality and character of a dog. The answers to these questions are highly complex and complicated with many variables involved. Based on what I have learned from various knowledgeable sources and their related research conducted with actual dogs and dog owners, hopefully, I will be able to translate it all in such a way that my dog owner friends can more easily understand.
Let me begin by returning to my initial observations regarding dog park visitors. Dogs reflect their owners because they are finely tuned to read the state of the owners and their environment. In fact, when the owner is in fear experiencing a level of anxiety, their dog often is experiencing fear and anxiety. Why? Animal researchers have observed that dog aggression may result from a comprehensive cognitive appraisal of their social surroundings including their owners. Anxious owners smell different than calm owners. If this cognitive appraisal by the dog senses fear, anger, discomfort or predatory feelings, their body and internal systems react in a specific way which could trigger aggressive behavior.
At times, leashes create greater anxiety in dogs due to the fact that they feel more vulnerable and also may want to protect their owners. Something as simple as a leash may be the cause of an unwanted conflict. Certainly these observations make logical sense yet many dog owners do not understand this relationship between themselves and their dogs. Many owners see a dog as just a dog, to be controlled by their human owner and independent of human influences. Most of us know better. An anxious or scared dog behaves differently than one that is comfortable with their owner and surroundings. And, there are many behavioral and scientific reasons that explain this scenario. It is both a chemical and behavioral issue based on social learning experiences involving both humans and dogs.
I have always believed what I have been attempting to show and that is, for the most part, dogs reflect their owners. If an owner tends to be timid, anxious, aggressive or abusive, the dog will reflect similar behavior. Likewise, if an owner tends to be confident, kind and loving, their dog will, most likely, reflect this behavior. My findings and the body of research done with dogs relating to aggression support my own intuitive dog owner feelings. After all, I have been around dogs for over seventy years.
I will show a few of these correlations that are supported in the literature and at the dog parks of America including our Quail Creek Park. Like their human owners, dog behavior is controlled by the release of a variety of hormones created in a number of small glands in the body each with specific functions and purposes. Specifically, there a number of hormones such as oxytocin, vasopressin, and adrenalin that directly impact behavior and behavior related indicators of body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure which in turn impact other body functions like vascular, muscle and brain based conditions.
One simple example is the role that the hormone oxytocin plays in owner and dog behavior. Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the love hormone and is associated with the presence of endorphins and dopamine in the brain. They are pleasure based. They calms us. We feel better. We are happier. We are more content. Now, let me get specific: when a dog is petted or touched by their owner (or other dogs), oxytocin is released into the bloodstream of the dog and to make my point further, assistance dogs have much higher levels of total oxytocin in their blood. Aggressive dogs have much lower oxytocin levels and higher levels of vasopressin which contributes to higher pulse rates and blood pressure and the readiness for the “fight or flight” moment. Whereas oxytocin reduces anxiety and promotes affiliate positive behavior, vasopressin facilitates aggression. In addition, other factors such as age, gender and breed enter into the passive/aggressive discussion. I will discuss this in a future blog post.
Bottom-line: how you treat and care for your pet will have a powerful chemical results that will impact positive or negative dog behaviors. Reducing owner anxiety levels will reduce the anxiety levels of your pet. Touching and loving your pet will likely produce a loving and friendly dog. And remember, a pound/rescue dog may have been an aggressive dog with a previous owner and their new owner will have an opportunity to modify the behavior of their adopted new friend. Also remember, dogs are naturally wild creatures and should never be so smothered and cared for that there wild side is forgotten. Let them be dogs who love to smell, bark and pee on things. Why do dogs smell certain things and places? This is important to know. Every smell has a trigger; a memory or a connection. Have you ever been peed on by your own pet? If so, be honored. You were the chosen one.