Thursday, December 8, 2011

Quality of Life

While considering which of the E-list dogs I'm going to be fostering next, I was thinking this morning about the quality of life issue. What is quality for a dog? What makes it a good life? a rewarding, fullfilling, natural life?

For a human, it's pretty easy to figure out.  If there is happiness, and an abundance of those "things" a person feels are necessary to promote happiness, then the quality of life is good. IMO this is the wrong way to go about finding happiness and a quality of life, but this is the general consensus about what constitutes happiness and quality.

But dog's aren't into things, they are not into happiness as a concept per se - as a beingness yes, but not something they think about or ponder.  So what makes a dog happy and what constitutes a quality of life for a dog?

When I first bring home a foster dog - or even one I've adopted right off the bat - the first thing I do is introduce them to the space they will be living in.  This is done on leash so that they don't start seeking reinforcers from the start.  The first thing they learn is that I am the dispenser of all reinforcement and that if they want anything, they must come to me first.

Why is this important and how does it contribute to the quality of life of that (or any) dog?

Most behavior problems start with a dog's desire to have it's needs met.  Food, water, a place to sleep, play, and belonging to a social group.  These are the "things" that makes for a satisfied and "happy" dog in my experience.  Avoidance of pain and trauma is the other half of the equation. 

A dog by nature is a wonderful experimenter.  A dog will try a hundred behaviors to figure out how to get what it needs and wants.  Most times those experiments are NOT what a human would consider appropriate.  For instance - to stave off boredom in an empty backyard, a dog will most likely start digging and of course barking at everything that goes by.  Not activities that are approved of in the human world.

So the "happiness" that the dog has engineered for itself quickly becomes torture as the dog tries to relieve it's boredom and the humans try to stop the process of relief.  This stopping process can sometimes involve pain and trauma and send the dog into a fight or flight response.  Ever wonder why your dog jumps the fence to explore the wider world?

Happiness is also a choice.  Humans make this choice all the time.  Do I buy the fancy new car or send my kid to college?  Humans also make the choice to consider that quality is "things" and happiness is having "things" or entertainment.  In my world view, happiness is achieving goals.  Every time I set a goal and actually achieve it, I'm happy.  If I do this alot, the happiness never stops.  It doesn't matter much how much stuff I have, so long as I can live a life of accomplishment.  The goals don't have to be big things, activities that take a lot of time - they can be small things like teaching a dog to sit on cue for the very first time.

A dog appears to want happiness in the same way.  Every action a dog takes is in the achieving of a goal.  He sniffs the ground to find food / mates / friends / danger.  A dog chews a stick for stimulation, stress relief, and even for nutrition.  Each tiny behavior has a goal and achieving each of those goals brings a sense of satisfaction and fullfillment.  Isn't that what happiness should really be?

How do you provide an environment that will give your dog a quality of life?  Show your dog how to create appropriate experiments, learn to make approved choices in this mostly flat boring (for a dog) human world, give him a job to do, create goals and purposes for his life that allow him to live stress free in our world.  And most of all, give him a time every day where he can just be a dog doing dog things !!

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