March 23 is National Puppy Day, but we should celebrate them every day.
March 23rd is National Puppy Day. Founded in 2006 by Celebrity Pet & Home Lifestyle Expert and Author, Colleen Paige, “National Puppy Day is a special day to celebrate the magic and unconditional love that puppies bring to our lives. But more importantly, it’s a day to help save orphaned puppies across the globe and educate the public about the horrors of puppy mills.”
Numerous people choose to share their homes and hearts with a dog. In the United States, there are approximately 90 million dogs living in 68 percent of all households. Needless to say, taking a dog or another companion animal into our lives is a huge decision. It’s a life-changer for many people, so it’s essential to think deeply about what it means to take responsibility for the life of another being who is totally dependent on your goodwill from the time you become their guardian until the when it’s time to say farewell. Unfortunately, numerous dogs don’t get what they want and need as they try to adapt to a human-oriented world.
Focusing on puppies, it’s essential that early in life they get to interact with other dogs and with humans other than their own guardians. During the first couple of months, these sorts of interactions are critical. We also know that giving puppies varied experiences makes significant positive differences in their lives. It’s well known that being properly socialized to other dogs and to humans is essential for puppies. This period is called the sensitive period, and classic research by Drs. John Paul Scott and John Fuller showed that as few as two 20-minute periods of social contact a week was enough to produce socialized dogs. However, this is the bare minimum and the more the better. Dogs who are born and reared in many research or breeding facilities don’t get properly socialized, and there can be serious lifelong consequences even for dogs who are re-homed after they’re used and very often extremely abused.
In the study mentioned above by Helen Vaterlaws-Whiteside and Amandine Hartmann called “Improving puppy behavior using a new standardized socialization program,” puppies were assessed when they were six weeks of age and when they were eight months old. All in all, the puppies who received extra socialization when compared to puppies who received regular socialization “got better scores in tests at 6 weeks old. By 8 months of age they were less likely to have separation-related behaviors, general anxiety, be distracted, or have body sensitivity.” The researchers write, “the extra socialization brought important benefits for their behavioral welfare as young adult dogs. These results will be of particular interest to those who breed and train service dogs, but they are important for anyone who cares about dogs – especially those looking to get a puppy.”
According to Helen Vaterlaws-Whiteside and Amandine Hartmann, “The additional age-specific stimulation received by puppies given the extra socialization during this study provided increased physical contact, mental challenges and extensive positive interaction with people away from the litter. These stimuli could be considered to be mild stressors and may help explain the reduced anxiety and distraction-related behavior observed in the eight-month handler questionnaire.”
In Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, Jessica Pierce and I note that socialization is an especially important freedom enhancer for puppies. When puppies are not socialized, their freedoms are curtailed for the rest of their lives because they don’t learn how to be “normal,” well-adjusted dogs. In his book Before and After Getting Your Puppy, ethologist and dog trainer Ian Dunbar suggests puppies should be introduced to a hundred dogs and a hundred people before they’re twelve weeks old. Of course, this is virtually impossible to do, but it’s sage advice to ensure that puppies have plenty of contact with other dogs and with people other than their human companion. Also, puppies and dogs of all ages need to be cognitively challenged, and this extends well into their sunset years. Cognitively challenging work can have positive effects on the canine brain throughout the dog’s lifespan. For example, lifelong training appears to be linked with increased attention span in aging dogs.article continues after advertisement
How puppies sense their worlds
It’s also important to learn about and to understand the sensory worlds of puppies, and to be sure that they are allowed to exercise their senses as well as their bodies in ways that are puppy-appropriate.
Of course, puppies also need physical exercise and playing with friends and simply zooming around here and there on their own or with other dogs are things they love to do. They can exercise their senses while they play and also get physical exercise. However, it’s essential not to run them into the ground, because a good deal of energy has to go into maintenance and growth. And, it’s essential to take into account individual differences among puppies, including littermates and siblings. Concerning physical exercise, In Unleashing Your Dog Jessica Pierce and I note that puppies typically need a lot of play and exercise time, but they shouldn’t be walked or run excessively since their muscles, tendons, and bones are developing. Too much of a good thing can be harmful to them as well as for older dogs. (See “Dogs at Play: Fun-Filled Zoomies Exercising Senses & Bodies” and references therein.)
More socialization is better, so let’s not hold back on giving puppies all we can and then some
The study by Helen Vaterlaws-Whiteside and Amandine Hartmann shows that puppies benefit from extra socialization in terms of their resiliency and quality of life. Companion animals need much more than we often give them and they want and need much more than they usually get from us. The positive effects of extra socialization show that we can always do more for the dogs for whom we are caretakers, and it’s a win-win for all. Numerous companion dogs are more highly stressed than we realize in a human-dominated world, and it’s beneficial for them to develop as much resilience as possible as they try to adapt to our varying and busy lifestyles.
Young and old dogs live in an environment that “makes it impossible for them to alleviate their own stress and anxiety.”
It might surprise people to learn that numerous companion dogs who are fortunate enough to share their life with a human are highly stressed, but when you think about it, they’re always trying to adapt to a human-oriented/dominated world in which their wants and needs are secondary to those of their own and other humans.
Psychology Today writer Dr. Jessica Pierce provides an extensive discussion about this in her excellent book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. And in her book, Love Is All You Need, Jennifer Arnold notes that dogs live in an environment that “makes it impossible for them to alleviate their own stress and anxiety.” (p. 4) According to Arnold, “In modern society, there is no way for our dogs to keep themselves safe, and thus we are unable to afford them the freedom to meet their own needs. Instead, they must depend on our benevolence for survival.”article continues after advertisement
Think about it: We teach dogs that they can’t pee or poop wherever they want. To eliminate, they must get our attention and ask for permission to go outside the house. When we go outside, we often restrain dogs with a leash or fence them within yards or parks. Dogs eat what and when we feed them, and they are scolded if they eat what or when we say they shouldn’t. Dogs play with the toys we give them, and they get in trouble for turning our shoes and furniture into toys. Most of the time, our schedule and relationships determine who dogs play with and who their friends will be.
It’s an asymmetric, one-sided relationship, one that many of us would not tolerate with another human. Simply put, dogs want and need more freedom. One way to relieve stress, your dog’s and perhaps your own, would be to get down and dirty with them and show your dog how much you love them and want them to enjoy themselves as much as possible.
Many dogs—let’s hope most of them—make their peace with these compromises. Yet millions also live with stress-related disorders or are on drugs to relieve stress and anxiety. (See “Pets on the Couch: Do Animals Need Freud and Pfizer?“) Jennifer Arnold notes that we abuse our power over dogs when we impose our will on them without considering their thoughts and feelings. Ample research shows that dogs are deeply thinking and feeling social beings. Across the board, we impose a lot of demands imposed on dogs, day in and day out. We need to do all we can to reduce them to a minimum or to try to eliminate them totally. article continues after advertisement
Pay careful attention to each puppy as the individual they are: There is no “universal puppy”
There is no being called “the puppy” or “the dog.” Dogs, even very young siblings, show incredible individual variation and explanations of behavior patterns that might work for one, two, or even 10 dogs, might not work for many others. One of the most exciting aspects of studying dogs centers on their marked differences in behavior, personalities, and how they adjust to living in a human-dominated world. And, it’s their individual variability and differences in the varying situations in which they’re studied that’s often responsible for differences in the results from experiments that focus on similar questions.
Becoming “fluent in puppy and older dog” also is critically important for learning about dog-dog and dog-human interactions and for knowing about what they’re thinking and feeling, and I’m sure most, if not all dogs, would have this request on their wish list of what they want their human to do. This is because a great many people who choose to share their home with a dog don’t know very much about dog behavior. One report on pet owners’ knowledge of dog behavior, for example, found that 13 percent of people had done no research into dog behavior prior to acquiring a dog, and only 33 percent felt “very informed” about the basic welfare needs of dogs. Although some dog owners have read shelves full of books about the natural history, ethology, and care of dogs, many others just fly by the seat of their pants. Dogs are amazingly adaptive and resilient and find ways to survive even in environments that aren’t particularly dog-friendly. But obviously, most people want their dogs to thrive, not just scrape by, and the best way to help them do that is to learn as much as possible about who dogs really are and what they need from us.
When we learn the basics of dog behavior and when we learn more about dogs as individuals and why they do certain things, the dogs and their and other humans benefit. And, while we can learn some life lessons from dogs, they matter because they’re alive, have intrinsic value, and are feeling beings. (See “Why Dogs Matter.”) We must be very careful not to embellish them and we must critically distinguish false beliefs and myth from what we know and don’t know. We are benefiting dogs of all ages when we dispel myths about how they supposedly behave and what’s good for them. article continues after advertisement
Unleash puppies whenever you can to give them as much freedom as possible
I’m a fan of giving dogs and other animals all we can and then some. There’s nothing wrong with doing more for the nonhumans who depend on us for their very lives. We are their lifelines and why not give them the best lives possible. So, let’s do all we can and then some, and even “get down and dirty” with our companions and show them that we really care about them and how much we love them and want them to enjoy themselves as much as possible in a human-dominated world. (See “How to Give Dogs the Best Lives Possible in a Human World” and “Dogs, Captivity, and Freedom: Unleash Them Whenever You Can.“)
Teach the puppies well: Let puppies be puppies and enjoy their puppyhood
Having a puppy in your life is a gift. We are their lifelines, as we are for older dogs. Before you take on the huge responsibility of bringing a dog (or other animals) into your life ask yourself, are you really ready to give another animal the best life possible? It’s important to remember that bringing a dog of any age into your home and heart is a life-changer for both of you and that living with a dog is good only if it’s good for you and the dog. Puppies can be a handful and bring with them many unexpected demands on our time. One day they will grow up to be adults and how they were taught to live with us, hopefully in mutually respectful and loving relationships in which there is give and take—mutual tolerance—will greatly influence who they become as adults. Erring on their side and giving them the benefit of the doubt could work well for them, and also for us, their humans.
The phrase “Unleashing your dog” is both literal—dogs need more time off leash—and metaphorical. We need to continually work toward increasing the freedoms that our dogs experience, thereby unleashing their potential to live life to the fullest. And with that, let’s unclip the leash and begin enhancing the lives of the dogs we love so much. Here are 10 ways to make your dog happier and more content:
- 1. Let your dog be a dog.
- 2. Teach your dog how to thrive in human environments.
- 3. Have shared experiences with your dog.
- 4. Be grateful for how much your dog can teach you.
- 5. Make life an adventure for your dog.
- 6. Give your dog as many choices as possible.
- 7. Make your dog’s life interesting by providing variety in feeding, walking, and making friends.
- 8. Give your dog endless opportunities to play.
- 9. Give your dog affection and attention every day.
- 10. Be loyal to your dog.
Let’s make each and every day National Puppy Day
Humane educator Zoe Weil often exclaims, “The world becomes what we teach.” We also can say “Dogs become who we teach them to be.” We need to teach them well, and when we do, it’s a win-win for all. Our relationships with dogs must incorporate give-and-take and be steeped in on-going negotiations between dogs and humans, mutual respect and tolerance, and lots of love. It’s a huge responsibility to take a dog into your life. Unleashing them is an excellent way to give them considerably more freedom and to allow them to express who they truly are, their dogness.
We are most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are most fortunate to have us in their lives. In the long run, we’ll all be better for it. My humble suggestion is that we need to give dogs a break and distinguish between beliefs and facts about who they truly are. If something works both for an individual dog and for you, then do it. And, if something works more for them than for you, it might also be a good idea to allow them to engage in the activity. When we do this, it will be a win-win for all.
Stand by for more discussion of research on the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of dogs of all ages. What an exciting time it is to conduct these studies and to learn more about dogs and the other fascinating nonhuman animals with whom we share our homes and our lives.
Other annual events to celebrate with your canine companions:
National Pet Day, April 11
National Mutt Day, July 31 and December 2
National Dog Day, August 26
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Bekoff, Marc and Pierce, Jessica. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, Novato, California, New World Library, 2019.
Vaterlaws-Whiteside, H., & Hartmann, A. (2017). Improving puppy behavior using a new standardized socialization program. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 197, 55-61.
Original article first published on Psychologytoday.com on Jan 09, 2019 and republished here by kind permission of the author. Marc Bekoff Ph.D. also publishes regularly for Psychology Today and you can see his other essays here.