Making Sense of the World

Dogs notoriously make sense of their environment by predominantly using their sense of smell and sight.

Their top priority always being the one of safety – of being safe. Their world is basically divided into two categories: safe and unsafe. After the dog has decided that a certain thing, person, etc. is safe, their next question is: What’s in it for ME?

There goes the popular theory that dogs do things to “please” us. Really, nothing could be farther from the truth. This goes back to a living organism: strive to survive.

In case you are feeling a tightening of the chest as to my suggesting that your adorable pooch could kind of care less about making you happy, let me state that dogs DO form bonds with people, 🙂 but that is ultimately a different thing than doing things to please us as their ultimate goal.

Now back to the topic of making sense of surroundings. Most dogs have a difficult time with transitions. I guess the same is true of some people. I am defining transitions as any notate change in the immediate environment. Perhaps it has to do with the dog once again having to ascertain the safe/unsafe nature of the novelty.

For some, transitions are hard because they were not exposed positively to the given circumstance from a very young age, so now the experience is not a positive one.

The case of a very fearful shelter dog that I had at home for several weeks comes to mind. One of the most difficult things for poor Louie was getting in and out of the car. Once in the car, he was fine – I even think he enjoyed the ride. So it took me a very long time to work with him in getting in and out of the car.

Once we are aware of circumstances in which our dog might need a little bit of help, the best thing we can do is to slow down the process.

Slowing down the process means that we will give our pup ample time to take the scene in. It might be that you stop at the front door and let your pooch take in all the smells that abound, perhaps opening the door a bit to investigate further and letting your dog walk in on its own, instead of you pulling on him because you live a frantic life and you are late for your appt.

For some dogs it might even require that we take the time to make special quick trips to the vet just to say “hi” and having the staff doll out special treats.

I suggest slowing down the transition if the pup seems uneasy when entering new environments such as the vet clinic, groomer, a training class, etc.

Take mini-breaks with all activities surrounding animal husbandry such as grooming, nail and hair trimming (make sure your vet or groomer if using one is doing this- if not, I suggest finding a new one), when putting any “equipment” on your pup for the first time or as long as the dog is not comfortable with the item. This includes, harness, head-halters, muzzles and the like. Learn to chunk-down the process! Better yet, teach your dog by pairing any of these possible traumatic experiences with good things for him or her.

Take it slow too when medicating your dog if doing this by mouth. I make it a habit of allowing my dogs to smell the pill, the brush, etc. first and then slowly pilling while I am soothingly talking to them. Of course, I follow any “nasty” yet necessary procedure like this with a tasty treat. It is my way of thanking my dog for putting up with the intervention and to make the process easier for them one step at a time.

Allowing our dogs to smell on walks- even if this means cutting the walk short. Smelling is one of the most salient senses in our dogs, not only will being allowed to smell at will provide with much entertainment, but also it will wear them more than almost any amount of physical activity.

Slowing down the process for our dogs is also good for our souls. It is the perfect opportunity to practice the art of taking time for what is valuable in our lives; it is in essence exercising respect and empathy for our dogs.

An interesting exercise would be to observe and analyze the circumstances that make your pup uneasy. I can guarantee that you will come up with a few. Once these are known I suggest coming up with ways by which you can make all these circumstances and transitions – should this be the case, easier on your dog. Perhaps you can make some changes in the environment, or just giving your dog more time to get acquainted with what concerns them, removing your pup from problematic situations before they become a stressor.

The kindness towards your pup will truly make a difference in his quality of life and don’t we all want happy, thriving pups? I guess in that sense we are like our dogs… we do much of what we do out of self-interest.

NOTE: In order to help folks with coming up with some creative, effective and humane ways of helping their pups out, I am inviting you to submit your solution for helping your pup on my Facebook page here:

We can all share, discuss and learn.