What does my dog need to be happy and healthy?
We all want our dogs to be happy and healthy, but how do we know what to provide for them to make sure they're as healthy and happy as they can be?
The Hierarchy of Dogs' Needs
You may have heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in your Psych 101 class, but have you heard of the Hierarchy of Dogs Needs? They are similar in that they have 5 levels like a pyramid. This hierarchy explains not only WHAT your dog needs from you, but IN WHAT ORDER you should prioritize each need. Without addressing the first level, your dog cannot succeed at the next level. Working from the bottom up guides you what your dog needs for holistic wellness and contentment.
How to interpret this visual representation of The Hierarchy of Dog's Needs
The orange on the left side of the pyramid are the stages leading to holistic wellness. Starting from the bottom and moving upwards, they are physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, esteem needs and problem-solving needs.
Inside the pyramid in black, you will find what you should focus on for each stage.
On the right of the pyramid in blue is the outcome of success for each stage.
Stage 1: Physiological Needs
The first step to a dog's wellness is the basics: food, water, shelter, healthcare, and protection from imminent danger. This is the baseline. They are essentially stuck at Stage 1 until their physiological needs are met. Even if they are met consistently, it is not enough to develop into a healthy, content, well-mannered, trusting, and independent dog. For example, a dog in a high-volume animal shelter may have their basic physiological needs covered, but they may be fearful of other animals, humans, or new experiences. They may resource guard. They may be described as "crazy" or a "bad dog." They may lack obedience training like how to walk on a leash. They may not be able to be off-leash. These are all things that are addressed in the next 4 stages AFTER their physiological needs are met. Fulfillment of the first stage results in the dog surviving, and that's it.
Stage 2: Safety Needs
This includes literal physical safety from harm, but also knowing that their resources (food, toys, people) are not going to be taken away or disappear. If they are insecure in this area, you may see resource guarding develop or reactivity. In this stage, it is important to provide your dog with a lot of structure in their daily lives. Structure, in simple terms, is basically setting boundaries and setting expectations for your dog, as well as having a routine. This provides the dog with comfort in stability. Without structure and feeling safe, they will not succeed in the next steps! Ways to create a structured environment would be a whole different blog post, but some examples are: crate time, sitting at thresholds, waiting for their food, regular exercise schedule, and so much more. Once your dog understands they are safe, they will have a solid foundation for socializing and training.
Stage 3: Social Needs
The third stage is often misunderstood. Although it involves the dog bonding with humans and other dogs, there is a lot of responsibility on your part to provide appropriate and safe interactions to develop positive experiences. This includes meeting new people and new dogs regularly. This socialization doesn't have to be full on wrestling with another dog or sitting in another human's lap. It can be on leash or even from a distance at first.
Many people often tell me they socialize their dog at the dog park, which is often expected to fill the need for canine socialization. What many people don't realize is that off-leash dog play must be monitored and it often involves a lot of human interruption and redirection. If you are too busy talking to other dog owners instead of actively supervising and engaging with your dog during off-leash play, your dog park visits are doing more harm than good. If an off-leash dog is bullying your dog, invading your dogs space, chasing them when they don't want to be chased, stealing their toys/treats, barking in their face, or a ton of other inappropriate behaviors seen at dog parks, your dog's poor socialization is only going to set them back in the long run. (Pardon my preachiness here.) The key off-leash play is first YOUR education on dog body language including signs of stress and discomfort. If your dog is getting into "tiffs" at the dog park, this is a tell-tale sign that you are not doing your part. You are responsible for educating yourself through online training programs, as well as regularly watching dog behavior videos and interpretations by certified trainers online. For example, if you don't know a dog licking his lips is a sign of stress, or that a dog hovering his head over the back or shoulders of another dog is bullying (not hugging...), imagine what else you don't know!
Once your dog's social needs with humans and other canines are adequately met, they will look to you to protect them and will trust you with their lives. This is the perfect way to begin your training and building your dog's confidence.
Stage 4: Esteem Needs
This stage includes obedience training -- not just sit, stay, and paw, but real obedience. Instead of teaching your dog cute tricks, focus on essential skills such as loose-leash walking, waiting at thresholds, and, of course, recall! You should also try to do some confidence building activities, such as beginner's agility. If you don't have access to agility equipment, that's no problem! You can teach your dog to jump up onto a rock or a short retaining wall while on your walks, or you can introduce them to water and see if they like swimming! Your dog will build their confidence knowing that they can accomplish so many things that were once scary or nerve-racking to them.
Management is also essential in this stage. Management refers to controlling situations and environments when you can, so that you can can avoid triggering inappropriate behaviors. For example, if you know your dog will sit at the window and bark at squirrels all day, remove their access to the window - this is management, not training. If your dog is reactive on leash and you see another dog approaching a few blocks away, you can manage the situation by turning around and walking the other way. If you dog begs for food at the dinner table, you can put up a baby gate or have crate time during meals. These are just examples, and management looks different for everyone. It's also important to note that your management techniques may change over time as your dog progresses in their training. Good management sets your dog up for success!
It's very important to celebrate accomplishments with your dog, which can be lots of praise, or a "jackpot" reward of multiple small treats in quick succession.
Things you can work on in this stage are non-reactivity to other dogs and other impulse control activities, cooperative care which is when your dog is an active participant in handling such as at the vet or during a nail trim, or an intro to agility course!
Stage 5: Problem Solving Needs
This stage is also referred to as Cognitive Needs. Dogs feel the ultimate fulfillment after they feel safe, secure, and confident enough to make good decisions on their own. This is when your dog (and you!) believe in your dog's full potential! If your dog is always jumping on people and you say, "That's just my silly Fluffy-poo! She is a jumper!" then you are not believing in your dogs true potential. Instead, after practicing not jumping on people, your mind set in this stage might sound like, "Now that Fluffy-poo knows how to stay off of people, I'm sure we can work towards our next goal of sitting in front of strangers for pets! I know Fluffy-poo is capable of learning this!" Oftentimes, I hear people describe their dog's changeable behaviors as personality traits, and it's important to remember the old phrase "TRAIN, DON'T COMPLAIN!"
One key to success in this final stage is allowing your dog enough freedom to make choice on their own instead of constantly giving them cues to follow. If they are accustomed to being told what to do at every moment of the day, they won't be able to exercise their ability to make good choices. Micromanaging with many cues throughout the day works in earlier stages to get into a routine, but does not allow your dog to figure things out on their own.
Problem-solving is often thought of as figuring out puzzles, which are a great activity! But there are other situations that also involve problem solving. For example, if your dog is scared of thunderstorms like one of my dogs is, they might bark or shake when they hear thunder. If you get your dog to Stage 5, the same dog might seek out a small cave-like place, such as their crate without even being prompted.
This might also look like your dog making a good choice on a walk, such as looking at you instead of barking at another dog, or deciding to slow down instead of pull harder when they feel tension at the end of the leash.
It's most important to figure out what YOUR DOG personally enjoys. You might imagine your pup fetching a frisbee at the park, but maybe they enjoy swimming and dock-diving more! Don't forget to let your dog explore what makes them happy, just like humans do with their hobbies! In a way, the last stage is the ultimate pursuit of happiness for a dog.
What stage is your dog currently part in? And which stage do your think your dog needs to work on next?