7 Key Ingredients for Helping Your Dog Lead a Happy Life
Dogs offer their people a great many gifts, from medical benefits like lowered blood pressure and increased opportunity for exercise to more emotional benefits, like a great snuggle at the end of a rough day. In fact, there are any number of reasons canines are rightly called "human's best friend." (This lady thinks that "man's best friend" fails to take into account half of the dog-loving population.)
Dogs give to their people willingly. What should dogs expect from their people in return? What exactly do dogs need to reach their full potential as canine companions?
I'm sure we all have a different answer to this question. I'll share with you my "recipe for a good dog," which is the foundation for my training work with my own dogs and those belonging to my clients.
1. Dogs need a safe environment
Dogs need a place to live where they feel safe. These environments are typified by the following characteristics:
- Shelter and warmth
- Freedom from violence, harassment, or excessively harsh training techniques
- Clear and consistent guidelines from all family members
- Owners who can observe and effectively respond to signs of stress and other body-language signals
- Dogs who have been taught to be comfortable with the "tools of life," which may include harnesses, collars, crates, muzzles, etc.
2. Dogs need a great vet
Not just a vet you like, but a vet you love. One that takes the time to answer your questions and listen to your concerns about your dog. One who treats dogs, from the shy to the overly friendly and unruly, with patience and compassion. One who is connected enough to make thoughtful referrals when needed. This may not be the closest, cheapest, or most convenient vet, but it is well worth putting in the time, effort, and maybe the extra money to enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing you got your dog the best care you could find.
3. Dogs need good food
Have you ever read the ingredient labels on most grocery store dog foods? BLEECH! They tend to be full of preservatives, artificial flavors, artificial colors, and low-quality ingredients. A premium food may cost you a few more dollars each month, but it may also save you significant veterinary bills in the long run. A transition to a higher quality food may also improve behavior in dogs. The Dogster food and nutrition forums have helped many pet owners find their way to better diets for their best friends. Check it out!
4. Dogs need physical exercise
The type and amount of exercise a dog may need varies by age, breed, and health, among other factors, but all dogs benefit from regular and appropriate exercise. Talk to your vet about what type of exercise may be most suitable for your dog, particularly if your dog is a still-growing pup or adolescent, geriatric, or suffering from chronic health problems like arthritis.
5. Dogs need mental stimulation
I have seen dogs in beautiful physical condition, well-muscled and proportioned, only to find that one of their muscles was extremely, er, flabby? Doggy brains need exercise, too! Wherever it comes from -- positive training, engagement with work-to-eat toys, games like "find it!" and kibble hunt, sports like agility or nose work, or even a walk in a new location -- dogs need mental exercise. I tell my clients, "a rose on any other street would smell more sweet," because even something as simple as changing the route for your various walk can stimulate your dog's brain.
6. Dogs need a social life
I don't think that all dogs need the company of other dogs to be happy, but I do believe that dogs need quality social time -- this may be with a favorite doggy friend, another pet in the house, or human visitors.
Maybe your dog is reactive and doesn't like strange people or dogs -- that's fine. Please don't relegate him to the backyard. Because his social life has already shrunk, he relies on you to provide all that social contact, from playing to grooming to snuggling. You can certainly work on the reactivity, but in the meantime, your dog needs to feel loved by a good friend.
7. Dogs need a good set of genes
This last is perhaps the hardest, because if you love your dog, this is the only thing on this list that you have no ability to change. I hate statements like "there are no bad dogs, only bad owners." The truth is, some dogs are genetically wonky, for whatever reason, and it is no fault of the owner (or the dog, or even necessarily the breeder). It is what it is. There are no guarantees in any breeding of soundness, physically or behaviorally.
While many problems that are genetic in origin actually can be addressed to some extent through training or a medical treatment, raising a dog is a bit like playing a game of poker. Your dog's DNA is essentially the hand you are dealt. Dogs who are genetically "off," behaviorally or physically, are best placed in homes with experienced owners who are well-equipped to deal with such challenges.
So, that's my recipe for a good dog. If these basic needs are met, you get a dog who is healthier and in a mental state more conducive to learning and training. They will also be better-suited to the environment in which they live. It's a win-win for dogs -- and their people!
Dogster readers: Are you meeting all of your dog's basic needs? Tell me how in the comments!