Love and belonging is the next need on Maslow’s list. This relates to the need that humans have for a feeling of acceptance and belonging within their social groups.
One great similarity shared by dogs and humans is that both are social species, and I believe this need for love and belonging is as strong in dogs as it is in humans. Dogs are often acquired to meet the human need for love and belonging, but how good are we at meeting that same need in them?
So, as part of this need for love and belonging, let’s look at the dog’s need for company, to be understood when they try to communicate with us, and their need for love and care, bestowed in a responsible and beneficial way.
Dogs derive a sense of safety from being around others. For pet dogs, ‘others’ are often their humans. For village dogs, feral dogs or wild dogs, ‘others’ will usually be other dogs. Feral dogs tend to live in groups of 2-6 dogs. Being in groups mean that dogs can relax more, and don’t feel solely responsible for being on alert for any danger.
Dogs are social sleepers, and social eaters, and being alone is one of the greatest challenges faced by pet dogs. A lot of dogs sleep in the kitchen or utility room, far away from their humans. Many people then go out to work, leaving their dogs alone for 10+ hours a day. For a dog in this situation, they are essentially in isolation for 18 hours of the day. This is a real challenge for animals that have spent most of their evolutionary history in groups.
It is no surprise that a lot of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Unfortunately, common wisdom about teaching dogs to be alone has been that they ‘just have to get used to it’. For years, the wisdom was that when you did leave your puppy or dog alone, and they cried, or barked, or howled, that they should be left until they were quiet. However, when a puppy cries, their mother will always attend to them. In the wild, puppies stay with their mum for 9 months, so when we take home a puppy at 8 or 9 or 10 weeks, we really do need to step into the role of Mum. When a puppy is distressed they have a biological need and expectation that their mother will come. The most recent studies I have read on the matter suggest that contrary to common belief, dogs that are left to ‘cry it out’ are in fact more likely to suffer from separation anxiety.
So how can we manage this problem?
- Consider whether you need to leave your dog in a different part of the house overnight- you can potentially half the amount of time your dog has to be alone if you let him/her choose where to sleep.
- Don’t leave your dog in a state of distress. You need to teach your dog to handle being alone. Start leaving them for a few seconds with a really tasty bone or chew, and build the time slowly, at a level they can handle. If you do this, they shouldn’t reach a point where they need to cry or howl, but if they do, remember that they need you to be their parent, and ignoring their calls isn’t going to make them feel more secure.
- We can also make sure that our dogs have opportunities to have a rich social life with canine friends outside of the home! Puppy classes and social walks are a great way to offer our dogs these opportunities.
Here, Leo looks away, licks his lips and lifts a paw- these are all calming signals that show that he’s finding my behaviour a little worrying! I didn’t notice at the time, but it’s clear as day in the photo!
Although so many of us share our lives and homes with dogs, we often don’t communicate very effectively with them. We sometimes interact in quite a verbal way with our dogs, despite the fact that our common language is body language. Dogs have quite a developed system of communicating through body language. They use this with other dogs, and try (often in vain) to use it with us. I see so many cases of humans missing or misinterpreting the signals that their dogs are giving out.
Turid Rugaas has written a book called ‘On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals’ which provides an invaluable guide to anyone who wants to better understand what their dogs are trying to communicate to them and to each other. Below is a loose overview of some of the most commonly used signals that you might see your dog use. Please bear in mind that these all need to be taken in context- a dog yawning while relaxed on the couch after a long walk is probably tired; a dog who is yawning as you stare at it or hug it, is more likely to be displaying a calming signal.
These are all signs that the dog might use to diffuse a potentially aggressive situation by indicating their good intent, or to let us or another dog know that they’re not entirely comfortable. One of my dog’s suffers from corns, and whenever I try and put moisturiser on her paws or touch them to check on the corns, she will look away and lick her lips, to let me know that my interference with her painful foot is making her uncomfortable.
You may also notice your dog curving as they approach or pass other dogs. This is a non confrontational way of approaching, but we often deprive our dogs of this opportunity by holding them on a short lead or forcing them to pass other dogs on a narrow pathway. Dogs that have under-developed social skills or reactivity issues can be aided by your encouraging this curve as they approach other dogs.
Another oft-misunderstood part of the dog’s repertoire of communication is the ‘whale eye’ look that is often misinterpreted as guilt or shame, but is in fact a fear response to your anger.
This is just one part of the equation. We also commonly use body language in a way that dogs can find quite confusing and/or threatening, such as:
- approaching with out-stretched hands;
- head patting (a primate thing- dogs never pat each other on the head!);
- hugging (another primate thing that dogs can find restrictive or frightening, especially if done by someone they don’t know and trust);
- calling them forward while standing square on (a ‘stay away’ stance as far as they’re concerned);
- approaching straight on (an intimidating approach);
- putting our faces close to theirs and making straight-on eye contact (often perceived as acts of aggression).
This sort of thing will often be met by the dog using some of the calming signals mentioned above- looking away, turning away, lip licking etc to try and discourage you!
Keep an eye on how you’re interacting with your dog, watch how he or she reacts to you, and try to listen to what they’re telling you with their body language. Being better able to understand your dog will definitely improve your relationship and will contribute to your dog feeling safer.
I like to think that most people love their dogs. However… perhaps a better question to pose is do we love our dogs in a way that benefits them? When another living being is entirely dependant on you, loving them comes with a lot of responsibility.
In her book about her journey with a rescued street dog from Romania, Lisa Tenzin-Dolma sums up the responsibility of having a dog:
‘Taking care of another living creature, whether human or non-human, necessitates accepting responsibility for their wellbeing and safety. The very expression ‘take care of’ indicates of the process of caring for, looking after, concerning ourselves with, nurturing, and helping that soul reach full potential. It’s a term of selfless love; or rather it should be. Whether our care is extended to children, family members, friends in need, those we are employed to help professionally, or non-human charges, it has to be unconditional. Putting conditions on caring taints and ultimately undermines the relationship.
Choosing to take responsibility involves accepting the likelihood that there will be a degree of sacrifice. Because it involves doing what is best for the other party, this can result in making decisions that cause us inconvenience, wither minor or major…’
In the above extract, Lisa Tenzin- Dolma speaks of helping a soul to reach full potential. Training a dog to be a robot and to blindly follow commands does not allow that dog to reach full potential. To love them in a way that benefits them, we need to be parents to our dogs, to guide, to protect but also to allow them become their own person (if you will!), able to make their own decisions and to think for themselves. We need to give them the confidence to explore the world, to be curious and to enjoy life. We need to think about what they need from us, and not just what we’d like from them. We need to be reasonable in our expectations, and recognise and enjoy the differences between dogs and humans.
And if we’re going to love our dogs unconditionally, responsibly, and in a way that benefits them, I suppose a lot of people will want to know if they love us too, or if they just see us as food dispensing, shelter-providing, chauffeurs?
Science appears to be proving that they do. Darwin was of the opinion that animals experience the same emotions as humans, but to a lesser extent. For a long time, the scientific community believed that dogs were just pavlovian machines, learning that one thing was a consequence of another. Then it became generally accepted that they experienced primary emotions, and now it is becoming apparent that they most likely experience an entire range of emotions, and also have a theory of mind.
If their enthusiastic greetings, constant willingness to forgive, and endless displays of affection were not enough to convince us of dogs’ love of their humans, various studies have shown that dogs’ brains release oxytocin, the bonding chemical, when they look at their humans. Gregory Berns, in his studies on canine emotional responses, found that the caudate of the brain (the reward centre) lit up when dogs are presented with the smell of a human family member, to a much greater extent than when presented with the smells of non-family members or other dogs.
Because we are generally not entirely dependent on our dogs, their love of us may have less responsibility attached to it, but all the same they love us with an endurance and consistency that many people would struggle to match!
So, there you have it! Some reflections on what is involved in providing dogs with the love and sense of belonging they need and deserve, and the indicators that they love us too.