Great Gifts for Dogs

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

For our holiday gift to ourselves this year we adopted an adult dog from the shelter. Now we want to get something really special to welcome her into our home, but we don’t have much money. Any suggestions?

Fortunately, the best presents we can give our pets don’t cost a cent but they do require that we give of ourselves. For those willing to do that, all of the following rate as gifts that will last your pet a lifetime.

Develop consistency. Of all the owner characteristics that undermine canine behavior, none looms quite so large as inconsistency. We all get our pets with the idea that we will reinforce what we learn in puppy kindergarten or basic obedience long enough for our pets and us to internalize these lessons. However life quickly intrudes, and five years later Skippy still jumps up on guests or only comes when he feels like it.

But how can we develop consistency in a life normally characterized by a lack of it? The easiest way is to link any changes to something we already reliably do. For example, rather than trying to set aside 10-20 minutes twice a day for training, Skippy’s owners now incorporate his training into their daily walks. He also sits before they feed him and before they precede him through a door, and he holds a down-stay while they floss and brush their teeth.

Notice the details. Few canine problems descend on us out of the blue. More commonly, they represent the culmination of a lot of little things we didn’t notice or chose to ignore in hopes they’d go away. Instead of giving puppy Rosie her own toys and teaching her to chew them instead of the furniture, her owners tell themselves, “She’s only teething. She’ll outgrow it.” By the time they realize she won’t, the couch looks like a disaster and the human-canine relationship heads in that same direction. Imagine how less complicated life would be for Rosie if her owners had noticed and dealt with her little chewing problem as soon as it appeared!

Ditch the guilt. Many owners now work or spend a lot of time away from home, leaving their dogs alone. When problems arise, many of these folks may feel tempted to give into guilt: “If I hadn’t been gone, Pixie never would have peed on all my shoes,” moan her owners. Well maybe, but maybe not. The fact remains that most of us can’t afford to stay home with our dogs all the time, or wouldn’t want to even if we could. Consequently, it makes more sense for Pixie’s owners to eliminate any negative human emotions and focus on concrete ways to resolve the problem. Imagine them making any changes because they feel like failures versus making those same changes because they believe these represent the very best approach for them and their pet. Which strategy likely will create the positive emotional environment that will enable them to do this consistently long enough for Pixie to internalize the new behaviors?

Respect species differences. In this era of studies that remind us how many owners view their pets as beloved family members, it’s easy to treat our dogs like one of the kids or little fur-covered humanoids. But even though similarities do exist between certain aspects of human and canine behavior, dogs do experience reality in ways quite different from ours. In a wonderful passage from The Outermost House (Viking, 1956) naturalist Henry Beston reminds us that we shouldn’t measure animals against ourselves because “they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” That in and of itself makes them and their unique species needs worthy of our awe and respect.

Celebrate the small stuff. Sometimes we get so caught up trying to provide our pets with the right diet, training program or whatever, we forget what most dogs consider the best thing going: their owners. Just sitting next to them. Just sighing in blissful contentment when a dog ear gets rubbed just the right way. Could any gift possibly be better than that?