All dogs are individuals and have different preferences and priorities in terms of what matters most to them. Some are more motivated by food, others by play or exercise, others by social contact and company. However, there is one thing above all else that I would argue is of most value and importance to all dogs……… INFORMATION!
In my opinion, this fundamental concept is the most crucial and useful one a dog owner could ever learn. It shapes how we relate to our dogs and provide them with what they need to survive and thrive in our human world.
Information should be considered the most important resource to all dogs – it is in effect, their “currency”.
Think about this scenario for a moment, you are abducted by aliens and find yourself on board an alien spaceship without any other people around. You have to learn by observation and trial and error how to behave in order to keep yourself safe and get what you need and want. You may find something to eat on a bench – but get harshly reprimanded when you take it. You may find a suitable place to relieve yourself, but get aggressively confronted when you do so as this is not where the aliens deem it appropriate for you to pee.
This is similar to the situation our dogs are in when they enter our human homes. This can be an intense and endlessly stress provoking existence for our pups – fumbling their way through as best as they can – all the while with the cognitive and reasoning ability of a toddler.
In addition, they have very limited control over their own existence and environment – they are at our mercy.
No wonder so many of them are anxious!
So, when it comes to interacting with our dogs, the most practically useful, life-saving, stress-relieving and precious commodity we can give them is information.
Dogs need information to work out what is going to happen, whether it is of relevance to them, what to do about it and whether everything is going to be ok.
They need information to navigate through our confusing world and keep themselves safe, ensuring they get their wants and needs met.
Dogs are always trying to get more information. If we do not provide it or if we provide conflicting, confusing unhelpful information, they may develop emotional and behavioural problems as a result as they attempt to obsessively monitor the environment to gather information – this manifests as anxiety and hypervigilance.
They may also provoke the environment to try and obtain more information – this can manifest as a dog being reactive or aggressive as they try and act upon their environment to see what happens and thus elicit some information about whether something constitutes a threat and what they may need to do next.
In light of the above, to give our dogs the best chance of being able to relax and behave in a way we find appropriate we need to always try our best to impart upon them information which is:
- The information must be able to be detected as per their sensory abilities discussed above
- The info must be of use to them
- We need to cut the confusion and try to limit the redundant overflow of info we often output – dogs have to filter through a lot of irrelevant stuff from us! Think of all the noises and body language people make when interacting with dogs!
- We need to be concise, purposeful and direct with what we are saying (verbally or otherwise)
- Ideally, the information should be all the dog needs and only what the dog needs in order to decide what to do or how to feel
- We must never be ambiguous
Consistent / reliable:
- The information needs to always mean the same in the same context and not vary randomly. This way the dog can accurately learn, generalise and make appropriate assumptions based on it. They can then be confident they can obtain a reliable outcome each and every time.
If dogs do not have information which fulfils the above criteria, they are likely to feel very anxious! Anxiety is all about uncertainty. Dogs and people experience anxiety when they are worried about a potential future outcome which could be bad.
If however, dogs know:
- What is going to happen
- That they CAN do something about it (they can behave to influence their environment)
- What to do about it – how to behave to gain control over their environment
- That the outcome is going to be good (ie everything is going to be ok)
Then they will feel calm, confident and secure.
Remember, knowledge is power! This applies to dogs and people alike. Having the information you need is a powerful way to combat anxiety!