Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Ohana" Means Family.

How long did it take after you brought your dog home for her to act as if you hung the moon? Did she quickly start following you around, taking your lead? How long was it before she was seeking out warm spots near you to take her naps or just sit and observe her new world? She might have even “picked you” before you even decided that you were going to take her in! At some point you became her safety net and one of the people she trusts.

Dogs are domesticated creatures that have had thousands of years to become what they are today. They are so separated from wolves at this point that it is extremely unfair to compare the actions of the two. In fact, recent research has shown that even young puppies will naturally seek guidance from the face of a human being while a wolf will not. Dogs are not just reliant on people, they are so tuned into us that they might as well be an extension of us.

Dogs do not read us as they read other dogs. Dogs know how to read us as human beings! How amazing is that? They pick up on our human emotions, the tones in our voices, even our facial expressions and body language! They are so attuned to our feelings and actions that they can detect when something “isn't right” and alert us of a seizure or panic attack. They are able to be our guide dogs or emotional support animals. Dogs care about their people even more than they care about other dogs. Just watch two pooches fight over who gets to sit in “Mom's” lap and you'll see what I mean. You are already the leader of the pack, even if you have failed to expand on your ability to communicate through training. Even better than being leader, you are loved unconditionally. Because we've developed such an amazing relationship with this animal, you already have his adoration and respect. You don't have to get on all fours or roll your dog over on its back or growl or otherwise act like a crazy person to earn that respect. (However, if you're looking to confuse and scare your dog out of its wits that would be a good start.) Fido is very smart. Fido knows you're not a canine and so he's not going to read your actions the way he would if they were coming from another canine. 

Dogs aren't merely “pack animals” at this point. In fact, do the world (or at least your dog) a favor and throw that mentality out of the window. It incites far too many negative and incorrect thoughts or interactions. Dogs are family.

Whether or not you see things this way or treat your dog this way really doesn't matter. Your dog has considered you family from the start. You may have lost your attachment to him, but he will still wag his tail excitedly and thank everything holy (which is you, for all he's concerned) upon your return. Your new baby or new hobby might be more important to you but that isn't the case with him. You will always be the most important being in the world to your dog as long as he's a part of your life; sometimes long after you leave him with someone else.

There's a quote that I keep hearing and it almost literally drives me mad: “Before you have kids, your dog is your baby. After you have kids your dog is just a dog.”

If only I could find whoever thought they were clever when they made that statement for the very first time. I understand where it's coming from but here's a reality check: Before you had kids, your dog was family. After you had kids, your dog was just neglected and/or abandoned family. Unless, of course, you don't let that happen.

There are many ways to include your dog in the family and to keep his role as a family member in perspective. In fact, if you have kids, a dog, and a busy schedule, then the following points are absolutely vital to the balance of your entire household:

  • Family members don't live outside. Dogs only thrive when they can spend time with their human family. To banish a dog to the back yard is to ask for behavioral problems that are caused by lack of stimulation, anxiety, and boredom such as excessive barking, digging, or even territorial aggression (against strangers or dogs on the other side of the fence or the other end of his chain).
  • Family members are included in the fun. Sure, there are limits to what you can and can't do with your dog, but try to plan activities that include him such as trips to the park or games in the yard. If your dog is unruly and makes this difficult to do safely then consider that...
  • Family members sometimes need further education. I can't think of a better activity for a family with a dog to share than obedience classes. Most instructors will allow well-behaved children to join in. Personally, I encourage this. Everyone in the family needs to be on the same page when it comes to teaching your dog how to be well-mannered. This is also a fantastic way to bond with the four-legged member of your clan.
  • Family members must have rules and routine. Take what you learn in obedience class and apply it consistently at home so that your dog learns exactly how to behave appropriately. No one should be hitting or screaming at the dog in an attempt to train him. If the trainer you've consulted condones this type of behavior (or any that involves causing your dog pain, fear or discomfort) then you should look for another one immediately. Pure positive reinforcement results in a healthy, safe relationship with your dog and has the added benefit of teaching your children how to properly communicate with and respect animals. 
  • Family members aren't perfect. Go ahead and acknowledge that your dog is still going to make a mistake from time to time. Maybe your child's new toy looked deceptively like a dog toy and he mangled it or he had a little too much water to drink and had an accident on the floor. Yeah, it's a pain to clean up but he's family; it happens.  

I've noticed that even among self-proclaimed dog lovers there is a disturbing amount of leniency on this issue. People tend to worry so much about insulting another person or causing conflict that they make or accept excuses from others as to why the dog “has to go.” It's as if they forget that dogs have feelings... or maybe they just don't care enough? Maybe they don't realize how incredibly hurt and confused a dog becomes when you pass the leash to someone else and walk away? Maybe this is why I prefer dogs to people; when things get inconvenient they still want to be with me. They've never walked out. You can look into your dog's eyes and know in an instant that he's never even considered living without you as an option. 

One of my favorite quotes is from the Disney movie, Lilo and Stitch:

Ohana means family.

Family means nobody gets left behind...

or forgotten.”

This is a quote to live by. If you're one of those people who claims that your dog is a member of the family, then keep it in mind when you consider giving that family member away. Contact me (or another local trainer) if you need advice on behavioral issues or how to further involve your dog as a part of the family. I'm always open to help:

If you're not one of those people and find yourself seeing your dog as “just a dog,” then maybe it really would be best to find your dog a home with a family that will treat it with the love and respect it deserves. This is the least you can do for a creature who never once stopped doing this for you. And if it comes to this, please don't simply drop him off at a shelter. Take the time to find a loving home for him yourself. There are too many dogs already living on borrowed time in our animal shelters. Adding one more means another is pushed closer to death's door. I know that in my county our shelter staff do the best they can, but unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who have decided that their dog is not a true member of the family. 


  1. Amen! No matter how many times I have seen it happen, I am always shocked when someone gives up their family member. I mean we have had fosters that when they leave our home, I feel like we are the worst humans ever. You can see in their eyes that they are confused as to why they are not staying with you or why you are not going with them or who is the strange person that they are going with.

  2. I know just what you mean! It was a foster dog that caused me to write this post, actually. In the tiny amount of time that she was with us she clearly identified us as her family. She is off to find permanent happiness but it was still so sad.

  3. What a fantastic post. I agree, 110%!

    1. Thank you, Jen! Glad you enjoyed it. :)