I am very flattered that several times in the last year I have heard a similar message from some of my friends who are not dog lovers. “You have shown me why people love their dogs so much” they have said. This is the ultimate compliment to me, even more powerful than when other dog owners ask for my input or advice on something dog related. To hear this sentiment from non-dog people means that I have opened their minds and hearts to the joys that dogs can bring to the human world. If I can influence a handful of friends, maybe I can influence more by continuing to share stories and advice on my favorite topic.
It was not until recently that I realized that I have my own philosophy on dog ownership, a mindset that I call Love, Laugh, Woof. Over the last six years I have tended to my three senior dogs, all with their own serious medical conditions, and ultimately said goodbye to them one at a time when those medical conditions ravaged their bodies and took away their quality of life. I have also raised two puppies into grown dogs over that time, giving me ample experience in those moments when you need your patience and understanding the most.
Sure, loving your dog sounds easy. After all, dogs are cute and wiggly and sweet. Dogs want to please us and make us happy. Who wouldn’t love a dog? Unfortunately, too many people.
By love I mean real, true lifelong love. I mean the real love that never wavers when things get hard, the love that keeps you going through sickness and in health, like the words spoken in a marriage vow. By love I mean never giving up on your dogs, opening your heart fully to them, having compassion for the reasons behind their behavior. Real love means never abandoning them in a shelter or leaving them with just veterinary personnel when their time here on earth is about to come to an end. Real love means forgiving them when they do something “wrong” and never forgetting that we chose to bring them into our lives, not the other way around. Real love means real commitment from the moment they step that first paw into your life until the last breath that they take with you by their side.
If there is a way to get through life without a sense of humor then I am not aware of it! Laughter just makes most situations better, even the hard ones. Having a sense of humor and having fun with your dogs makes you an overall better dog owner and a happier person, whether you are laughing with them or at something they’ve done. With two young Labrador Retrievers, I laugh a lot.
Let’s flash back to Tinkerbell’s puppyhood when she was just a four-month old pup. We had worked with her for two months on understanding which of the items in our house were her toys and which were off-limits. For a young pup she was doing fantastic. Let’s face it, from a dog’s perspective it is not easy to understand why one furry stuffed object is ok to chew and the other is a decorative pillow that is off-limits. Both stuffed, both equally chewable.
One night I sat on the sofa watching a TV show with her entertaining herself on the floor a few feet away. I glanced at her every few minutes while she happily chewed her giant moose antler with those razor-sharp little puppy teeth. Later that night when it was time for bed I noticed that the carpet right where she had been laying looked matted down. I went to inspect and to try to fluff it up and make sure it was not wet. We had only had one accident inside since coming home two months earlier so I would have been surprised if she had peed there. She was an A+ student in the lessons being taught.
To my surprise the carpet was neither wet nor matted down; it was gone. Yes, gone. The mesh was still intact, but the carpet fibers were gone. I remember thinking, “Oh, so that’s how carpet is made.” While I thought she was chewing her bone she was actually pulling individual carpet fibers out with her little puppy teeth and had made a golf ball sized bare patch in our carpet, right smack in the middle of the floor!
The next morning I showed my husband what she had done, and I laughed as I relayed the story and took all of the blame. I couldn’t be mad, it was my own fault for missing that point where she switched from antler to carpet fiber. All I could do now was watch for her to do it again and correct her in that moment, but for this piece of carpet the moment was gone. Plus in the grand scheme of life, a small patch of missing carpet fibers was not a big deal. And so I relayed the story to my husband with greatly exaggerated detail of how she was chewing the bone one minute and the next I had missed her using her little pointy sharp puppy teeth to carefully pull the fibers out of the carpet but still leave the mesh. His reply was classic and one of the reasons I love him so much as a husband, a father, and my partner in dog-parenting, “Eh, we want to put down hard wood at some point anyway, right?” But how many puppies end up in shelters because the owners can not laugh at the situation, cannot laugh at themselves for not watching the puppy closely enough?
Laughing with your dog is equally important. Have you ever noticed your dog’s tail go into overdrive when you are laughing and having fun, maybe playing fetch or tug or giggling when they lick your face? They respond to that, they live for that happy sound to come trickling out of our mouths, it is an emotional reward for them, like giving applause to someone doing a live performance.
Dogs like to have fun just as much as we do and they recognize that human laughter is a happy sound. In fact according to an article in The Scientific American that I found on The Huffington Post, researchers in Europe studied MRIs of the brain activity of dogs and found that they have more neural activity when they heard positive sounds like laughter versus negative sounds like crying. You can see that in your own dog without a MRI machine just by looking at their happy and relaxed wagging tail when their humans are laughing.
The Woof part of my philosophy on how to be a great dog owner means putting yourself in your dog’s proverbial paws from time to time. Woof means being empathetic to the fact that your dog is a dog. Your dog is not a small furry human. Although we may refer to ourselves as pet parents or in our house momma/daddy, I know without a shadow of a doubt that my dogs are dogs. It would be disrespectful to them to treat them as anything else.
So I treat my dogs like dogs. But that does not mean I treat my dogs poorly, it means I treat them with respect, love and kindness, but I always honor the fact that they are dogs. Because they live in our human world I am a parent to them in the sense that I set the rules, I keep them safe from harm, I choose their dog food, their organic treats, I tend to their medical care. I teach and enforce the rules and do all of those things that a human parent would do for their kids.
By honoring the fact that they are dogs, though, I respect their culture, their body language, their rules for communicating and the way they view the world. It is similar to respecting another country and it’s culture in the sense that different does not mean lesser. Understanding that dogs are dogs lets you give them what they need to be happy in our human world.
As a result, as much as I would like them to be with me 24/7 I don’t drag them out to blazing hot summer festivals, I don’t take them places where there is something happening that would cause them stress. I let them stop and sniff interesting stuff on our walks, knowing that just because I don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not important.
I don’t smother them with nonstop hugs that they do not appreciate, although I do sneak some kisses and a few hugs here and there. I’ve learned where it is polite to be petted and I no longer pet the tops of their heads. I provide them routine like they need and both physical and mental exercise to keep them happy and I watch and pay attention to their verbal cues and how they interact with each other. And finally, I marvel every single day that we have a friendship and a love for each other than spans different species, where we do not speak the same language but we can still communicate, and that I give as much to them as they give to me.