Dogs are at once surprisingly complex and simple; they live in a rich world, but if we satisfy some basic needs they tend to do quite well. Dogs are social creatures, and right after food, water, and shelter, their social life is crucially important. Many of the behavior problems I see are the result of inappropriate social structure.
Dogs understand fairness and reciprocity, but I have seen no indication that dogs understand the concept of equality. Conflation of the terms is a mistake that can cause distress for the dog. Fairness and reciprocity are about the dynamics of the relationship; “I do something for you, you do something for me.” If you stop paying a dog, she will stop working – same as humans. If your behavior is not somehow predictably connected to the dog’s behavior, the dog will lose interest – same as humans. But just because we are in a fair and reciprocal relationship it does not follow that we occupy the same status.
Equality is a uniquely human construct; it is not about the dynamics of the relationship, rather a state of existence or being for which dogs have no mental category. In the dog’s mind, she is either bigger than you or smaller than you, has priority over you in access to resources, or you have priority over her. You are leading and making the rules or she is. Dogs do not have the ability to comprehend otherwise.
In the ads for the cruise lines or the beach vacations it looks like there is always plenty to eat, few if any rules, we’re all at least hypothetically able to do as we please even if that means doing nothing, and we still get whatever we want. At least that is the idea. While this is appealing to some humans, to suppose that a dog is happy if she gets anything she wants, whenever she wants it – for doing nothing – is an example of anthropomorphism, that is, ascribing human characteristics, emotions, intentions, or beliefs to a non-human entity. When pet owners anthropomorphize to justify their lack of relationship with the dog they engage in a logical fallacy that is at the root of many behavior problems.
The one I hear most often is, “He likes being free!” but there are endless variations in which the human assumes because that is what they would prefer, it is what the dog would prefer. This usually results in an exceedingly anxious dog making the rules for an equally miserable human. The problem with a dog making the rules is that their capacity for abstract thinking is limited, for them it is always now so the rules are constantly changing according to circumstance, you won’t necessarily understand or agree with the rules the dog is making, and at some point the dog will attempt to enforce the rules. This can and does end in tragedy.
Among non-specialists, the language of dominance and submission carries connotations that occasionally elicit an unproductive visceral reaction. If instead we think in terms of leadership and subordination, we lose the uniquely human emotional baggage and the concept becomes more clear. Anyone who has ever experienced good leadership intuitively recognizes the social benefit; experience suggests the inverse holds.
To feel safe a dog needs to be able to recognize and understand boundaries, not only spatial, but also relational. Your dog does not want to be in control of the relationship anymore than a pre-verbal toddler wants to be. I regularly get calls from people who cannot stand living with their “out of control” dog anymore, and just as often watch the smiles of amazement and disbelief when the dog is taking direction in a calm manner with no coercion whatsoever in one session. This doesn’t happen every time, but it happens often enough that we have to ask what is going on.
So what is happening when the dog goes from anxious / fearful / aggressive / frantic / disobedient to calm / composed / subordinate / affable / compliant in one session? Very simply, the dog feels safe.
Your dog needs you to make rules that are fair and consistent. Your dog needs to know how to follow those rules, using her own behavior to achieve a predictable outcome. Your dog needs you to be her advocate and leader. Your dog needs to know that she can trust you and that you will take care of her.