What Dogs Want
"He's just a baby," the woman told me. "But he seems so withdrawn." A rescue group had taken in the mixed-breed dog and requested that I evaluate his potential for rehabilitation and rehoming. The dog, Otter, had gotten himself into trouble by growling at the people who owned him. As Otter climbed out of a big SUV, I could see that he was young, and despite the fact that he was wearing a basket muzzle, he hardly looked aggressive. His paws and head were entirely too big for his bony body, and he seemed to have difficulty coordinating all four of his lanky legs. However, when I looked into his eyes, any resemblance to a puppy quickly disappeared. They belonged to a much older soul, one that was not so much angry as it was weary.
I knelt sideways in front of Otter, my gaze averted, allowing him to determine whether it was safe to approach me. We stayed motionless for several long minutes. Finally, he took two small steps toward me, lowering his head, resigned to whatever fate awaited him. I did not want Otter to approach in fear, so I slowly inched away.
"Maybe we can get Otter to follow another dog into the building," I suggested to the woman holding the puppy's long leash. I knew from the rescue group's intake form that his owners, an older couple, had used a trainer to help teach Otter his house manners. The trainer had advised the couple to squirt hot sauce in the dog's face when he jumped up to greet them. She also provided a remote shock collar, to be used when he did something they considered inappropriate. So it was clear that Otter was scared to death of people. As we stood in the driveway at Canine Assistants, the nonprofit I founded that provides service dogs to people with disabilities, I knew the only comfort I could offer him was the companionship of another dog.
A pretty female golden retriever quickly worked her magic on Otter. He followed her into our office, where he allowed me to unclip his muzzle and leash. The woman from the rescue program said her goodbyes and, without thinking, reached to give Otter a pat. The dog suddenly shied away, as if her hand were a hot iron.
"What on earth will you do with this poor dog?" the woman asked me, as she turned to leave.
"We'll start by getting him healthy and showing him that he is now safe. If we can, we will earn his trust and teach him some skills so he can gain a little confidence. As one of my friends says, we have to earn the right to be heard."
"That poor dog deserves a good life," the woman said. "I hope you can give it to him."
In 1943, Abraham Maslow, a psychology professor at Brandeis University, published a paper titled "A Theory of Human Motivation," in which he proposed a construct of human needs. Human needs, he believed, evolve sequentially from the most basic to the more advanced, forming a pyramid that culminates in a self-actualized individual when the needs at each successive level have been met. Since its publication, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as his theory is known, has come under some criticism as, among other things, ethnocentric and exceedingly individualistic. This criticism aside, Maslow's hierarchy provides an excellent basis for describing the needs of dogs and how they rank and structure their most valued necessities. To better describe dogs' needs, I have adapted Maslow's work for my own use and named the pyramid Canine Construction, or C2 for short.
The principles are relatively simple. Initially, all efforts will (and must) be directed to meet the base requirement of canine existence, the first level: physical needs. A dog's primary instincts demand that if he is hungry or thirsty, he focus all of his energy on obtaining food and water. Subsequently, if he has no immediate shelter, the dog must concentrate on finding a way to keep his body temperature regulated. Likewise, if he is sick, his illness becomes his singular concern. Fundamentally, a dog must have a healthy body. Only after that has been addressed can the dog turn his full attention toward the next level: safety.
This second level of the pyramid is of critical importance in the life of any living being, and certainly dogs are no different. Our dogs have no way of understanding that the yard is safe but the street is dangerous. Nor do they understand that something isn't safe to swallow simply because they can fit it into their mouths. Dogs, like toddlers, must be protected from the dangers lurking in the outside world. Sometimes they must be protected from even their own instinctive responses to situations such as the presence of the mail carrier, a running child, or a cat dashing across a busy street. When we help our dogs stay safe and feel safe, we allow them to take the next step on the path to a good life.
As every dog lover knows, dogs are social beings. Most dogs want to be around others and be part of a family, even if that's a two-member family: the dog and his human. Dogs are social animals rather than pack animals. The prevailing theory that dogs are pack animals has recently been challenged by studies on feral dogs, which show that rather than forming stable packs, feral dogs form transient attachments to one another. Regardless of its specific structure, dogs do form and need the third level: attachment.
Contentment is the fourth level in the C2 pyramid. Dogs must live in predictable environments with a manageable level of stress in order to be content. Although occasional adventures are great for maintaining excitement in a dog's life, most dogs crave daily routine. And, whether it is assisting someone who uses a wheelchair, keeping the yard free of pesky squirrels, or just being your faithful companion, every dog needs a raison d'être. Having purpose allows dogs to develop self-confidence and garner the respect of those around them, important components in the life of a content dog.
Understanding what our dogs need is relatively simple; determining our role in meeting those needs is considerably more complex. This book addresses how to help your dog successfully negotiate the progressive levels of the C2 pyramid. It discusses the practical issues involved in meeting his physical needs, such as veterinary care, first aid, feeding schedules, and exercise protocols. It details how to keep him safe from both extrinsic dangers, such as becoming lost, and intrinsic dangers, such as biting. It outlines how to choose the right dog for your lifestyle and, by so doing, help him be successful and content.
This book was written because I love dogs. But I also believe in dogs, and I believe that when we are presented with the opportunity to have a relationship, based in mutual trust and understanding, with a dog, we are being offered a gift-one that offers both species myriad rewards. Throughout the book are stories of the extraordinary ways in which dogs prove themselves worthy of our care and devotion, and how we can, and why we should, help them achieve what they so deserve-a good life.
The Gift of Good Health
Amber is a beautiful, small golden retriever, placed with a little boy named Jack who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Although Amber had clearly given her heart to Jack, she adored the entire family. She responded to each member that came in with polite, if reserved, warmth. Jack's mom was perhaps most impressed by Amber's apparent recognition that Jack's grandmother, an almost daily visitor to their house, was older and somewhat fragile. For the first several months after the placement, Amber was quietly cautious around the grandmother, acknowledging her presence but keeping a distance. So it was a shock to everyone when one day the elderly woman walked into the house and Amber began frantically jumping all over her and whining loudly. Nothing seemed to appease Amber. Day after day the behavior continued when the grandmother entered the house: Amber would not be still.
Several months after the behavior started, Jack's grandmother had a regular checkup that revealed she was suffering from lymphoma. She began treatment immediately. Amber stopped jumping and crying as suddenly as she had started the odd behavior. When I asked Jack's mom if she believed Amber realized the grandmother was gravely ill, she said, "Don't you see? She knew it long before we did. Once it was clear we understood, she no longer had to try and tell us something was wrong."
Although this is a remarkable story, in my experience and in the accounts of animal behaviorists and dog owners alike, it is far from rare. Cancer researcher Michael McCulloch says, "The dog's brain and nose hardware is currently the most sophisticated odor detection device on the planet." As a matter of fact, McCulloch's work at the Pine Street Foundation has led him to conclude that it is possible for dogs to be trained to detect lung and breast cancer from the exhalations of human patients. It is widely believed that cancer cells produce a metabolic waste that differs from the waste produced by healthy cells. McCulloch contends that this unique chemical signature in the patient's breath is detectable by dogs. Other researchers have further concluded that dogs can be taught to distinguish slight differences in these chemical signatures, helping determine which type of cancer is present. The presence of skin, ovarian, bladder, bowel, and kidney cancers may be sensed by a dog's nose even before they are detectable through other forms of testing.
Several years ago, I was in a large grocery store just outside of Dallas for a Milk-Bone presentation. I had Butch, my goldendoodle and Canine Assistants spokesdog, with me. After the presentation, Butch and I were aimlessly drifting down the pet aisle when a woman spotted us. She looked at me briefly and then down at Butch, staring at him for so long and with such intensity it seemed as if she were counting each of his wavy hairs. She noticed me watching her and looked away quickly but then turned back again. She slowly walked over to us. "You may not believe this"-she paused-"but a dog just like this one probably saved my husband's life."
She and her husband, Tom, had a three-year-old goldendoodle named Rufus. One day Tom was lying on the floor playing with Rufus, throwing a chew toy and wrestling for control. Suddenly the dog stood over Tom, sniffing and lightly nibbling the man's lower lip. Her husband assumed it was part of the game Rufus was playing and lay there quietly, until he realized that Rufus was attempting to bite a sore just on the inside of Tom's mouth. Before Tom could move Rufus away, the big dog bit down on the sore hard enough to make it bleed. Tom knew that Rufus wasn't being aggressive, but he couldn't understand why Rufus would bite the inside of his mouth, or why Rufus didn't seem to want to leave him alone even as Tom pushed him away.
Tom could not stop the bleeding inside his mouth after more than an hour of trying, and he ended up in the emergency room of a nearby hospital. The physician saw the bleeding sore and immediately called an oral surgeon. What Tom thought was a canker sore was actually oral cancer. The spot was surgically removed the following morning; the cancer had not spread. The woman believed that without Rufus, her husband would have ignored the sore until it might have been too late for him to receive successful treatment.
It isn't just cancer that dogs appear able to detect. They seem to know, and care, about a number of things that can go wrong in the human body.
One evening, a very tired Kay was walking through her college cafeteria with her seizure-response dog, Greer. She had just gotten off work and wanted nothing more than to crawl into her bed for a good night's sleep. Greer had other ideas.
Normally very good at walking right beside Kay, Greer began to pull hard on her leash. Nothing Kay did calmed her normally placid dog. Kay became irritated with Greer. "I'm too tired for this. Get a grip," she admonished the golden. After rounding a corner, Kay saw what was so upsetting to Greer. Two girls were slowly lowering a third to the floor as she began having a seizure. Greer ran to the girl on the ground and snuggled next to her-just as she does when Kay has a seizure. The school nurse on duty was notified and quickly arrived to care for the girl.
The nurse proclaimed that the girl was coming out of the seizure just as Greer moved from next to the girl to on top of her. Greer began whining and looking pleadingly at Kay. "Something's not right," Kay told the nurse. "Everything's fine. She's just recovering," the nurse replied. "Get that dog off of her." Greer would not be moved and continued to whine. By then, Kay was carefully watching the girl. "She isn't breathing!" Kay shouted to the nurse.
The young girl had gone into cardiac arrest. Undoubtedly the timing coincided with Greer's whining and change of position. As Greer watched, the girl was successfully resuscitated.
"She knew," Kay told me several days later. "She didn't care how upset I got with her. She knew that girl, a total stranger, needed her."
On January 4, 2011, The New York Times ran an editorial by Hal Herzog, author and professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, that focused on the lack of well-validated evidence that pets positively affect human health. Susan, my literary agent, was incensed by the tone of the piece. It intimated that many people, such as veterinarian and author Marty Becker, were bamboozling the public into believing that pets are good for us, and it questioned whether or not pets are worth the money they cost. He did all this under the guise of calling for better studies on the human-animal bond. Susan suggested I write a rebuttal. I declined, never wanting to appear to be discouraging of more scientific research.
I was wrong not to respond. Common sense tells us that our dogs are good for us, and it is precisely because of the failure of people such as Herzog to credit this common sense that dogs have been devalued and underestimated by many in society. Without a doubt, dogs- indeed, all companion animals-positively affect the physical health of the humans who love them. Repeated studies have indicated that pets lower blood pressure, while others have shown that interacting with dogs floods us with soothing hormones such as oxytocin. Whether or not the studies were scientifically well designed is largely irrelevant to me as a dog lover. I know they get us out of bed each day, forcing us to move, bend, and stretch, if only in our efforts to care for them. The anecdotal evidence in support of the theory that dogs positively impact our health is far more compelling than any to the contrary. The effect a dog has on a human life can be nothing short of miraculous.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from In a Dog's Heart by Jennifer Arnold. Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Arnold. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.