What are the Top Must-Do's of Dog Care?

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Answered by: Susan, An Expert in the Care for Dogs and Puppies Category
Dog care is not always intuitive. Often, we humans confuse our own needs with our dogs'. For example, we want affectionate, attentive companions, so we shower our pups with lovin' and feed them much more than is good for them. Yet neither affection nor food are at the top of the must-do list of dog care.

Of course our pets need to be fed. But it's best if they get the recommended amount for their size twice a day, and that's it. Currently in the United States, overdoing meals and giving frequent snacks are at the root of a canine obesity epidemic that in turn creates diseases like arthritis and diabetes. Like us, dogs need far less food than they want, and they rely on us to keep them healthy by saying no. Today's dog owners often think their pups are fine when they're in fact dangerously overweight.

Similarly, affection is not a basic canine need. During most of their evolution, dogs have flourished with very little or no affection. In the wild, they give and receive occasional contact through licking, nuzzling, and lying next to each other, but even these activities are linked to non-affective needs, like grooming, signaling submission, and warmth. When dogs became domesticated, it was largely because of the work they could do for their humans, and positive rewards were limited to subsistence level feeding and the occasional "good dog!" Today's dogs seem to return our affection because they want to please us, and do so largely through imitation. They're dependent on us for their basic needs, so they deliver whatever they think we want. Except of course, if something they want overrides that tendency. That said, regular affection in reasonable doses does increase canine self confidence, and well-being.

The top three must-do's of dog care are exercise, discipline and affection, in that order. Dogs are well-equipped doers. They need to see, hear, smell and move, and they're better than their people at those things. Indeed, for most of their evolution, dogs have supplemented our limited capabilities by providing such services as finding prey (birds, rabbits, foxes); tracking game; herding domesticated animals; scaring off our enemies; and pulling human conveyances at a dead run. They're still hard-wired to work (except a few small decorative breeds like Lhasa Apsos and chihuahas). Their metabolisms are geared for activity, whether high energy herding or the slower work of finding a lost human in the snow. So they need to run every day, and they need to experience the world by detecting and following scents outdoors, and even just hearing the sounds of nature. Retrievers need daily sessions of fetch. Hunters need to run after scents in the woods. Herders needs to race around large open areas. Guard dogs need to patrol and meet potential friends and foes. These things lacking, dogs will develop annoying, nervous behaviors, like excessive barking. So put the appropriate exercise for your dog's breed or mix of breeds at the top of the list. If you live in the city, go a a dog park at least a couple of times a week.

Discipline is the must-do of dog care that people most often neglect. Dogs are hard-wired pack animals, and as our pets they see our household as their pack. In their world someone has to be in charge of the pack; survival depends on it; they need to see their alpha take charge on a daily basis. If they don't see it, they have to take charge. It's not something they can help; if no one's doing the job, they'll take it on. That's why dogs rush through doors pushing anyone and everything out of the way; bark at passers-by; warn off strangers approaching their people; and stubbornly initiate activity when we're exhausted.

They need to dominate people, other animals, and events to the best of their ability. Often, people interpret damaged furniture as a dog being spiteful because we've left him or her alone. Nothing could be farther from the truth! We need to understand and recognize our desire for our dogs to be like us, with similar motivations, and then realize that they're most definitely not. A dog that destroys a chair while alone, may well be tearing prey apart after a hunt. He's learned that he gets fed at his own instigation, so he goes hunting even when you're not alone to accede to his demand.

It's important to train dogs in the basic commands, but it's even more important to follow a "no free lunch" practice in order to consistently reinforce the fact that you're in charge and he isn't. If your dog barks incessantly while you're preparing her dinner, put the dish out of reach and do something else until she quiets down. Never let her go through a small passage like a door or gate before you. She needs to know that you're the one who will lead, make sure the way is clear, and keep you both safe, so tell her "wait" and step through first. She should follow only when you tell her "come" or "ok". She also needs to know that things happen when you want them to and not vice versa. So try ignoring her when she brings you a toy, then initiate play a bit later. Play often and long with her but always on your own initiative. If she wants to cuddle, tell her to lie down on the floor and leave her there for a few minutes before diving into a love fest.

Then do dive in. Shower your dog with affection - it enhances trust and self confidence. But do it on your shedule, never on his. Get your need to be responsive met with your kids or other humans. They're equipped to recognize that your responsiveness isn't a sign of submission. Your dog isn't.

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