The Dog in Crisis
The dog bowl is the single greatest disadvantage to pet dogs in the Western world.
You may think, oh no. My dog disagrees. My dog sees her bowl and loses her freakin’ mind.
That’s probably true. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best—or even the right—choice.
Maybe your dog is perfect. Mine definitely aren’t. Most dogs have lots of crazy-making behaviors. It’s not always easy to live with another intelligent creature, even if the situation is ideal. (See also: marriage.) It’s even harder when you don’t even speak the same language.
Besides the general madness that is coexisting with other beings, some dogs develop serious behavioral issues. Reactivity, fear, and overarousal are more and more common in our pet dogs, with anxiety frequently in play. We can usually trace problem behaviors back to a few causes:
- The dog is sick
- The dog isn’t getting the right nutrition
- The dog isn’t getting enough physical exercise
- The dog isn’t getting enough mental stimulation
Most of us know enough about dogs to take them to the vet if they’re sick and to make sure we’re feeding them regularly, and everyone knows that dogs need exercise. That’s the litany reluctant mothers recited to us when we were seven and said we wanted a dog. It’s going to have vet bills! You’ll have to feed it every day! And take it for walks! It’ll need exercise!
But we tend to neglect, or at least underperform on, delivering our dog’s fourth need. We know that our dogs are smart. We see them think and make choices every day. And yet we often leave them home for eight hours with nothing to do except nap and look out the window, and expect them to understand when we have after-work commitments as well. We’ve taken dogs into our strange, inexplicable human world, where we expect them to behave in very undoglike ways. And our dogs are usually pretty happy to comply, as long as we give them lots of other things to do. But we’re also busy: we have jobs, kids, lives to tend to.
Anecdotally, behaviorists and veterinarians note the increase in behavioral issues in dogs over the last few decades. As our lives become busier, more structured, and more technology-focused, our dogs are trapped in our houses and fenced yards with only leash walks and Chuck-Its to amuse them. It wasn’t that long ago that they were let out the front door in the morning and had to find their own way home at night, and who knew what they got up to during the day?
Now, I’m not advocating for free-range dogs. That certainly had lots of disadvantages, and it wasn’t exactly safe. But its one compelling benefit was that our dogs were rarely bored. They wore themselves out doing dog things, and came home to hang out with their people in the evening.
The domestic dog is in crisis. Our modern idea of what a dog is, how it behaves, how it relates to other dogs and to people, is quite different than a hundred or even fifty years ago. Today’s pet dogs are more thoroughly integrated into their families than ever before and have excellent nutrition and veterinary care, but they suffer a serious lack of opportunities to behave like their ancestors behaved. And those behaviors—instincts—can turn into weird problems if we don’t pay attention to them.
There’s lots of room to compromise if we maximize our opportunities to get our dogs doing stuff. This brings me back to dog bowls. That thirty seconds of scarfing kibble out of a stainless steel trough? It’s a hugely wasted opportunity.
Most dogs love dinnertime and find food extremely motivating. To help our dogs adjust to this strange world they live in with us, we need to harness that enthusiasm for good. We need to feed our dogs their meals interactively. Make your dog use the innate drives she inherited from her foraging village-dog ancestors to work for her breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll have a happier, more mentally satisfied dog who is also more relaxed when it’s time to just hang out.
What is a Dog?
The domestic dog is an incredibly diverse and adaptable animal. It’s important not to make too many generalizations about dogs, because they are individuals with their own ideas, preferences, temperaments, and quirks.
However, we can say for certain that all dogs have some specific things in common. They have innate drives inherited from their dog ancestors; they have problem-solving capabilities and intelligence; they have emotional ranges and responses. They’ve got personalities.
What a dog isn’t
If you watch enough TV, you might come to believe that the domestic dog is pretty much a wolf sleeping on your sofa. Even the neighbor’s long-haired chihuahua: a tiny wolf, desperate to dominate everything he sees. That labrador puppy licking the kitchen cupboard, that sheepdog chasing a frisbee: wolves, wolves everywhere! It might seem a little ridiculous when you look at who we’re talking about, but most people carry the fact that dogs evolved from wolves somewhere in their memory. It’s what you might call common knowledge.
But it’s not totally accurate.
Dogs and the modern wolf are related: they share a common ancestor. But no modern species of wolf is the forbear of our domestic dogs. This may seem nitpicky, but it’s not—a lot of statements about how dogs think and behave are made from observations of the behavior of modern wolves. A lot of people say, “dogs do x because wolves do it like that.” But modern dogs aren’t like modern wolves. Twenty thousand years ago they might have had a lot in common. But twenty thousand years is long, long time.
Think of it this way: twenty thousand years ago, none of us wore shoes. If you were now expected to go shoeless through your commute—let’s say you take the subway—home from your office, your quick stop at the grocery store, oh and also it’s raining out, how comfortable would you be with that situation?
Here’s another example. Say you have a kid who’s a finicky eater. This vegetable-hating, sauce-on-the-side kid is now a picky young woman finishing her first year of university. She goes off to a summer study abroad in Spain and comes back and… what’s this? She makes you a batch of cold gazpacho in the blender. She talks about squid and jamon as though she hadn’t just spent the previous school year surviving on grilled cheese and french fries. Then she shows you a picture of the fresh sardines she ate and loved at a place near the beach. They still have their heads on them! Who is this kid?
The point is, behavior patterns change. They change faster than evolution can keep up with. (Often they are the impulse for physical evolutionary changes.) Sometimes they change dramatically over a short time span. Imagine that same kid’s eating patterns after ten thousand years of evolution—would you recognize her? Maybe not.
All this is to say: dogs are not wolves. They don’t need what wolves need. They need something else entirely.
What a dog is
This all started with trash.
30,000 years ago, an enterprising canid figured out that it was a lot easier and less risky to grab dinner out of human hunter-gatherers’ garbage heaps than it was to go out and catch an elk. That dog was right. When she had puppies, she taught them to rummage through the dump for their dinner too. Her puppies were exposed to less physical risk and had access to a more reliable source of food than other puppies, and so they grew bigger and stronger than other puppies in the area, and more of them survived to breed and teach their puppies to dumpster dive. Of course, in order to do this, these animals had to be comfortable with moving through human villages, so the canids that were more comfortable around humans did better and lived longer. After a while the people noticed that having wild dogs skulking around kept the rats under control and other predators at bay, and they started feeding the puppies their scraps directly. The puppies started liking the people more and more, and the people ditto with the puppies, and eventually they became your neighbor’s Shih Tzu, Colonel Wiggles.
It’s important to note that the ancestors of our modern-day domestic dogs weren’t really chasing down deer as often as we imagine. If they’d kept to hunting large prey, then why not just stay wolves? They became dogs because they realized that human trash was nutritious and easy to come by, and the trash heaps were full of delicious rodents to eat as well. Dogs live in our houses now because they decided to give up the wolfish pack hunting for a different kind of lifestyle.
And we wonder why it’s so hard to keep them out of the garbage can.
Look at feral dogs
Dogs evolved into dogs by becoming scavengers and opportunists. In many parts of the world, they still live those lives. But pop culture gets really stuck on this dogs-as-wolves narrative that’s only partially correct, and doesn’t account for what our dogs really want and need in order to live happy, fulfilled lives.
Many places have thriving populations of feral dogs—dogs that are descended from domestic animals, but not owned or cared for by any humans. These dogs have largely reverted to the appearance and lifestyle of their ancestors. These dogs show our dogs’ natural behaviors far more accurately than wolves do.
By thinking about the way feral canids live and thrive, we can provide our dogs with more enrichment beyond tennis balls and belly rubs.
A Dog’s Drives
Satisfying our dog’s inner trash-picker isn’t as simple as tossing them some baby carrots now and then. Like so many things, it’s more about the process than the result.
Feral dogs spend most of their waking hours looking for their meals, or passed out from the exhausting effort of foraging. Pet dogs spend most of their days barking out the front window and wondering if mom and dad will be home soon. Interactive feeding is about bridging the space between these two creatures so that our pet dogs can use the instincts they’ve inherited from their evolutionary forbears and spend their days gloating about all the treasures they found instead of twiddling their dew claws.
Feral dogs find food in a number of ways that will seem familiar to any dog owner:
Foraging is the bread and butter at the opportunist’s table. We could easily define all of a dog’s food-seeking behavior as a kind of foraging, but for our purposes we’ll consider foraging to be general problem-solving behaviors that don’t exactly fit other categories.
Opportunists are often presented with the problem of knowing food exists, but not knowing how to get to it. Think of garbage cans outside a restaurant or a hiker’s abandoned backpack. Our scavenger doesn’t have thumbs, so how do they access the food inside?
Pet dogs sometimes need to be encouraged to solve this kind of puzzle. They’ve been scolded for poking around places they might find food and told to keep their noses out of trouble. But once you help them understand they can solve the puzzle you’re presenting them, most dogs love figuring things out. It uses their brains, and who doesn’t love feeling like the smartest guy in the room?
Your dog’s nose is better than you think it is.
Sometimes it looks like this lauded sense of smell is over exaggerated. Has your dog ever lost a treat on the floor, helpless until you showed them where it had gone?
These dogs aren’t disabled. They’ve been taught not to use their nose, inadvertently, by us. How many times on a walk do we tug on the leash to pull our dog away from a delicious smell? How often do we tell them to leave something their nose is stuck to, because we think whatever they’re smelling is gross or potentially harmful, or because we’ve just lost patience?
Our human world is extremely visual and verbal. Our dogs learn to live in this world with us by using their eyes and ears more often than they would on their own. They do this at the expense of their sense of smell; they learn to ignore the signals from their noses, because we ask them to.
The good news is, this is reversible. Even dogs who seem like they’re smell-blind are secretly high-powered scent machines. Show your dog that they can and should use their noses, and they’ll surprise you.
Even better: the olfactory portion of the dog’s brain is enormous, nearly ten percent. That is an absurd amount of gray matter devoted to sniffing. When your dog is using that part of their brain, they are thinking extremely hard in a way that we humans really can’t understand. A dog that’s used his nose for ten minutes is often mentally exhausted and ready to go lay on the couch for a while. And doesn’t that sound convenient for you, the human?
A dog having a really good chew looks like they’re getting a massage. Their eyes go a little glazed and their bodies relax as their minds wander somewhere peaceful. This is a state of mind we should put our dogs in as often as possible.
Depending on what your dog is chomping on, chewing can also act as a teeth-cleaning activity. Additionally, the act of chewing itself is a therapeutic behavior for many dogs, a way to self-soothe. A chewing project can keep a dog busy for a while and buy the human half of this equation some quiet time after a long day at work, or when email demands to be checked.
Many people think of chewies as a special occasion treat, and the price tags on many of the nice edible chews can make that even more acute. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Dogs should have a good chewing session every single day to help burn off some of their mental energy. This is especially important for anxious, overly-excited, or fearful dogs. Thankfully, this doesn’t have to mean a thousand dollars’ worth of bully sticks; there are lots of ways to make each meal into something that needs to be licked, nibbled or gnawed.
How This All Comes Together
In order to give our dogs opportunities to use their innate doggy drives, we need to consider where they come from. Until the last hundred years or so, dogs were partially responsible for themselves, scavenging around for snacks, catching small animals when they felt like it, and generally looking for opportunities to score an easy meal from human leftovers. As domestic dogs’ lives become more and more restricted, behavior problems become more and more likely: feeding behaviors need an outlet. But this does not mean you must let your dog have at the trash bin. It also does not mean you need to lock your dog in a room with a live rabbit until someone emerges supreme.
But we can definitely get creative. The dog dish is where we start.