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Canine Psychology 101: Lomonaco's Dog Hierarchy of Needs

Can lessons learned in college classes make you a better dog owner and your dog a better companion? You bet they can.

 |  Aug 14th 2012  |   4 Contributions


I took a lot of psychology classes in college, because I thought they were exceptionally interesting. One of my first lessons was on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs -- what do we need to reach our full potential or "self-actualization"? The levels of need include physiological, safety, social, and esteem. Generally, you cannot move up to the next rung of needs without meeting the needs of the current rung.

Now that I am a dog behavior consultant, I realize that Maslow’s hierarchy, like so many concepts from my psychology classes, creates a fair framework for building better behaviors in man's (or woman's) best friend.

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Golden Retriever running by Shutterstock.com.

At the bottom of Maslow's ladder are the most basic needs -- physiological -- which include food, water, air, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion. For dogs, these might translate as:

• Optimal diet (foods that generally cannot be found at the grocery store)
• Fresh water and air
• Adequate sleep (did you know that dogs require 17 hours of sleep per day for optimal physical and behavioral wellness?)
• Appropriate place and opportunity to eliminate
• Appropriate veterinary care
• Regular physical exercise

Once those are met, you should consider safety. For dogs to feel secure in their environments, they need:

• Structure: Realistic expectations of regular food and water, daily schedule, and social interaction. Most dogs thrive on predictability
• An environment free of harsh punishment or treatment
• Protection from perceived threats
• An environment that does not include fear, panic, or the perceived need for aggression in self-defense from things that trigger these
• Ability to learn the skills necessary to thrive in the living environment
• Owners who learn and respond to canine body language

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Photo courtesy of Michael Celiceo and Indo Lab.

Next on the list is love and belonging. Maslow characterizes this stage as featuring friendship, family, and sexual intimacy. When discussing dogs, we’ll leave it to friendship and family, which for dogs equals:

• Engaging in fun activities and quality time: Hiking, positive training, walking, playing
• Snuggling or cuddling: -- appropriate physical contact that is mutually enjoyable for dogs and humans
• Teach your dog that you really mean it when you say, "You're such a good dog," and "I love you."
• This stage, like any loving or friendly relationship, must involve trust and faith. You trust the dog because you have confidence in the training you've done, and your dog trusts you to place him only in environments where he can feel confident and successful, relying on you as a protector.

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Next we reach esteem. Maslow characterizes this as including respect for and from others, self-esteem, confidence, and achievement. In the dog-human living partnership, this includes things that create confidence in your dog and in yourself as a pet owner through skill-building and positive training. Some examples:

• Early, extensive, and appropriate socialization during critical periods of puppy development.
• Continued reinforcement of good behaviors throughout the dog's life.
• Continued mental stimulation. Many behavior problems and dog-owner conflicts are related to boredom. Food-dispensing toys, positive training exercises, puzzle toys, and impulse-control exercises are examples of self-esteem builders for dogs!
• Mutual celebration of shared accomplishments: Be sure to celebrate your training achievements together.
• Accomplishing goals together: Train your reactive dog to walk well and confidently through the neighborhood; to accept handling and muzzling for vet appointments; or to run to and lie on a mat when the doorbell rings. Graduating your first puppy class or getting your first agility title will build your relationship and your feeling of pride in your dog.

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Finally, we hope our dogs will attain self-actualization. "What a man can be, he must be," says Maslow. (I know this might sound a little new agey for some, but bear with me!) According to Maslow, this stage features morality, creativity, problem-solving, and spontaneity. Essentially, it means a dog or person is realizing his or her full potential (not necessarily perfection).

The question of whether dogs have morals as we view them is one best left for research, but I will say that all of these concepts apply in some way to creating the ultimate pet dog. I believe Mokie is just reaching this stage (she is a very young 7), and it includes:

Understanding: This involves environmental cues and a lesser need to micromanage the dog with cues. This is a dog who has learned the skills needed to thrive in her environment. When Mokie is uncomfortable by the level of activity that often accompanies our youngest visitors, she will find a quiet place to relax outside of the chaos. I do not need to place her in her crate, cue her to go to a mat, or otherwise micromanage the environment -- she will find a place of safety. She knows to sit and wait if she wants to go through a door or get out of the car, without me asking. She knows to come back to my side if she reaches the end of the leash on a walk. She knows to sit in order to get out of her crate. She knows that things that fall on the floor are not necessarily for her, even without me issuing a "leave it." She waits, watches, offers a hopeful sit.

Creativity: Mokie is confident exploring new things in her environment, seeing them as a likely predictor of reinforcement rather than something scary. When new things that might be scary pop up, she looks to me for guidance instead of reacting without thinking.

Problem-solving: This goes along with creativity; Mokie will work to figure out even the most complex challenge, new food-dispensing toy, or shaping exercise. She is confident that if she just keeps experimenting and trying new things, she will find success and satisfaction.

Ability to achieve greatness: This involves identifying your dog's passion and allowing her lots of opportunities to thrive doing what she loves. It involves constantly building and improving known skills, and introducing new challenges that promote thought, enthusiasm, and a great bond with your dog. It might be dock-diving, therapy work, K9 Nosework, agility, biking, running off leash, tracking, weight pull, Treibball, hiking, or playing with other dogs.

Where do you think your dog rates on my Dog Hierarchy of Needs? What characterizes that step in your home, and what are your plans for moving up the ladder? Let me know in the comments!

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