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How Can You Tell a Canine From a Primate?

Well, for starters, we don’t see many dogs or wolves climbing trees or walking around on their hind legs. But how about what’s on the inside? Specifically, what’s going on inside that canine brain that might be different from what’s inside our primate noggins?

Many dog guardians want to treat their dogs just as they would a human best friend. That does sound warm and fuzzy and appealing to us, but unfortunately, our dogs don’t always enjoy that role because of the way their canine brains are wired. Of course, each dog is different, but in general, dog psychology dictates that every dog pack, which can also include humans, has to have a leader (even a pack of two). A dog without a leader feels anxious and unprotected and thus takes steps to try to become the leader in order to fill that void. This can take the form of aggression, obsessive barking, inappropriate urination, and domination, among other things. Now, I don’t know about you, but as much as I dearly love my dogs, I don’t want them to be the boss of me anyway. So that means that I have to be the one to step up and fill the role of pack leader in order to fulfill my dogs’ psychological needs.

The appealing thing about having a pack leader, from Fido’s point of view, is that the leader provides protection as well as structure, boundaries, and rules―all of which make dogs feel secure. Does that sound familiar? That’s because children crave the exact same things.

A second big difference between canine and primate psychology is that whenever anyone gets scared or hurt, we primates jump in to comfort and console and make a fuss―that makes us all feel better, whether child or adult. However, with dogs it’s different. If Fifi gets frightened or hurt and you freak out, showering her with comfort and caresses, it will have the effect of highlighting and bookmarking the trauma, thus validating her fear, so that she will end up becoming even more fearful.

Instead, whenever there’s a mishap, even a serious one, the best way to react is to be calm and upbeat and confident. Say cheerful things, like, “You’re doing great, Fifi!” This will help her feel calm and confident too. Of course, get her to the vet if needed, but even then, do her a favor and avoid giving in to sobbing or hysterical exclamations of “My poor little BABY!!!”

Another thing that distinguishes canine thinking from primate (or at least human) thought―and one that makes dogs so endlessly appealing to us―is that they really know how to live in the moment. They are true Zen masters. But too many dog guardians, especially those who have rescued a dog from a terrible situation, inadvertently force their dogs to live in the past by not ever letting go of Bowser’s tragic beginnings. If, every time we gaze upon him, we think, “My poor sweet angel―you’ve been through so much in your life!” it will inevitably lead to permissiveness (lack of boundaries, rules, and structure―see above), way too many treats (can you say “obesity”?), and a general atmosphere of sadness and uneasiness.

We need to let go of the past and be here now―for our dogs as well as for ourselves! Regret has the effect of stealing our present moment away from us. Dogs don’t go there. They don’t dwell on the past and they certainly don’t worry about the future. They just take the present moment and make the most of it. So let’s learn from Bowser and forget about his awful past experiences. Just see him for who he is right now and treat him accordingly. He will be thrilled!

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  • Sharon says:

    What is interesting in my pack of 1 16 yr old and 2 4 yr old dogs (brother and sister) is that the pack order seems to change depending on the circumstances… in most normal situations the pups defer to the older dog (even at 16 he can and will put them in their place when they irritate him)…. but when it comes to feeding time all bets are off… both pups will not only growl at the older dog but even with each other… of the pups the girl is dominant over her brother… even though he is nearly twice her weight at 105 pounds she still beats the crap out of him… and to reinforce her dominance she does mount him… on the rare occasion he tries to mount her she quickly turns on him and puts him in his place…. I do make a point of doting on the older dog because of his age (even his vet is surprised he’s made it to 16 as he is a Lab/Chow mix)… Guess what I’m trying to say is that pack dynamics are fluid and can change with time and mood of the dogs involved….

  • Trevor says:

    There is only one pack, and one alpha. Then a 2nd and third…etc.

    But only one leader, it sounds to me like you are the 2nd, shannon, not the alpha and you dont even know it.

    The pack is defiantly hierarchical, but the leader sets down what is acceptable behavior for the rest, and they will listen if you correctly identify yourself as leader.

  • Barb says:

    To Shannon and Karen-

    It sounds like you are both right to me. We have three dogs and one is absolutely the alpha. The problem was that he wanted to be the boss of the humans, too! We took him to a trainer and learned that we had to defer to his need to be alpha (greeted first, let out first, fed first) so that he felt secure.

    On the other hand, when he was being too bossy or aggressive, that had to be curbed by the real boss – me! We are still working on it, but have seen an improvement in his behavior. The alpha is a 15 pound pup and our second in command is about 90 pounds – and its great when the big dog lets the alpha groom him. That’s when I know that our pack is at peace, when each dog knows his place.

  • Karen says:

    Hi Shannon,

    That can work out fine as long as none of your dogs are too pushy. Some dogs will go too far, knocking other dogs down and keeping them away from toys and food. If you have one of those and don’t intervene, then that pushy dog can end up really hurting the other dogs, both physically and psychologically. So in a case like that, you need to step in and make all dogs equal. I have six dogs in my household, and I’ve had a couple of instances where one dog got too big for her britches (always a female!) and I had to teach her that she was going too far. In one case, it was my big 60-pound golden shepherd frequently knocking over one of my other big male dogs and humping the other one (who was too old for that), and in the other case, it was little Chihuahuas trying to boss around the big dogs by lunging and snarling at them. I have zero tolerance for those kinds of shenanigans in my household, and everyone now lives in peace and harmony.


  • shannon says:

    Another thing about dogs is that if there’s more than one in the house, they will see themselves as their own pack and one will be the alpha dog. What we as humans and guardians need to do is understand and respect the order that they’ve established. We shouldn’t coddle the dog that ends up at the bottom of the pack by giving them food first or lavishing them with toys to make them feel better. The rest of the pack will see this behavior as disrespectful.

    Instead, we should let the alpha dog get first dibs on food, water, and toys. the other dogs will respect that and show respect to the alpha dog and you. You may be the leader of the pack for the entire household, but one dog will be the leader of the dogs themselves.