Back when I was a kid and Dr. Spock was a guy telling parents how to raise kids, punishment was a part of nearly every household. Children were spanked and dogs were swatted with rolled up newspapers; kids had their mouths washed out with soap and dogs had their noses rubbed in their accidents. We’ve come a long way, baby.
To err is human – to forgive, canine. -Unknown
Your dog’s loyalty is a gift and a privilege. Loyalty in dogs is a powerful quality. Dogs are loyal even to abusive owners. You can choose to earn your dog’s loyalty with love and trust, or you can rely on Stockholm syndrome to keep your dog’s loyalty. I hope you are with me in choosing the former and rejecting the latter.
It is often said that dogs live in the moment. In part, I agree. Their joy abounds in moments of play, running, swimming, and getting a belly rub. Where I disagree is through the experience of watching formerly abused dogs respond to situations. A dog that was physically punished for infractions will cower any time a hand is raised or maybe even snap out of fear-based aggression, even if you are just reaching for something on a table near her head. She will turn her head away and not make eye contact if you come in the door angry over an aggressive driver that cut you off. The smell of your adrenaline from an argument with a coworker is no different from that of her previous owner’s anger over a chewed up throw pillow. She is reacting based on her past, not on the present. Years after never having been struck again, she will still respond based on her experiences of abuse as a puppy. If a dog can remember a beloved human after they return from a long deployment, he can remember being struck with a stick.
Our dogs gaze at us with such love and devotion it causes the release of love hormones in our brains. Oxytocin is a neurochemical released when any two animals bond: mothers and babies, human couples falling in love, dogs and humans engaged in petting, cuddling, and yes, gazing into each other’s eyes. It is a love hormone. Oxytocin also reduces stress responses and blood pressure in both dogs and humans. There are now schools of dog training using eye and gentle physical contact to reinforce learning and strengthen the bond between dog and human.
Endorphins are another class of pleasurable hormones produced and released in both humans and dogs. Endorphins are natural painkillers, like the plant-derived morphine, which it structurally resembles. Exercise is an excellent means of raising endorphin levels in both dogs and humans. A long walk or run will leave you both relaxed, happy, and will promote better sleep. When a dog chews, endorphins are released, whether it be on a bone, or your favorite shoe, your dog is feeling relaxed. There is some evidence that hyperactive and extremely anxious dogs produce lower levels of endorphins. Many of these dogs self-medicate in harmful, disruptive, or destructive ways in order to get relief, even to the point of causing themselves pain, which causes endorphins to be released.
In addition to oxytocin and endorphins, yet another hormone exists which, when released, activates pleasure centers in the brains of dogs and humans. Dopamine release is triggered by activities and rewards that are pleasurable and it can be caused to be released by reward-based training (food or verbal rewards). Think of how much happier you and your dog will be when an enthusiastic ‘Atta boy!’ encourages your dog to repeat good behaviors!
Enhance your dog’s world by promoting her natural brain chemistry. Calm, gentle, reward-based training is the obvious choice given all that we have learned. Does a dog need for you to be in charge? Yes, but not as a dominant pack leader, rather as the head of household in charge of well-being and safety. Even dominant wolves are not the aggressive ones. They tend to be the calmest wolves in the pack. Fear-based, punishment-based, and dominance-based learning do not foster happy hormone release. If called from across the street, who would you come running to, the person yelling and acting aggressively, or the person doing a happy dance with a smile beckoning you with love?
Love: the power that builds and sustains trust.
Choose love. Choose understanding. Choose not to expect your dog to read your mind. Establish and maintain trust and consistency. Choose not to be punitive, rather redirect your dog to acceptable behavior. Help them learn what they can do to keep you both content and they will be the best friend you want. Help them learn with love, and you will be that best friend in return.
If I could be half the person my dog is, I’d be twice the human I am.