What Love Means to Your Dog

A Valentine-inspired primer: Court your dog with good food, lots of attention, comfy beds and a big heart.

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When it comes to love, dogs offer all of the devotion with none of the guile. They won’t sign up for a secret account on Match.com, or see another owner behind your back. And that flirtation with the pet sitter … well, it’s harmless. After all, there’s a reason dogs have a reputation for being faithful friends. Reciprocating, though, can sometimes be a challenge. Dogs, you remember, approached our hearth; it has been in many ways a rather lopsided arrangement in the love department since the dawn of time. And with our busy lives and competing priorities, we humans have altogether too few opportunities to return that cupidity in kind – although, given how utterly and completely most of our dogs rely on us, that’s a tall order under even the best of circumstances.

But we can at least try. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here are some thoughts about how to share the love with the dogs in your life:

Food is love; provide good food!

dog hugs

As any Italian grandmother will tell you, the act of providing a meal is about far more than just calories. Whether you feed a conventional kibble diet or organic, home-prepared fare, study your dog to determine what food she thrives on: What makes her eyes sparkle, her coat shine, her breath smell fresh? Experiment a bit: Don’t buy into the scare tactics that you’ll create an intestinal avalanche if you mix things up. (Of course, if you know your dog has a sensitive stomach, or a medical condition that requires a specialized food, don’t start offering a buffet.) Try different foods, and keep track of what you feed and how she responds to it – write it down!

Once you know what works for your dog, feed it. If your budget can’t support the very best, then feed as high a quality food as you can afford. Don’t feel guilty, and don’t get behind on the mortgage so your dog can eat organic chicken necks. Dogs are generally hardy souls; what’s most important is that you stay healthy, stable, and positive so you can continue to provide the loving home that your dog needs most of all.

Love means never having to say goodbye – literally.

Dogs are dogs, not humans in fur suits. Many of the social rituals we share with our fellow two-leggers aren’t appropriate for dogs. Amping up arrivals and departures as if you are dropping off or picking up from the first day of kindergarten isn’t a display of love to your dog. For many, it’s a great way to seed and feed separation anxiety. If you love your dog, save your displays of affection for another time – one that’s more spontaneous, sporadic, and less likely to become a trigger for a behavioral consult.

I never make a big deal when I leave the house, whether it’s for a snappy errand or an afternoon-long meeting. I crate the puppy, with just one word – “Crate!” – dispensing a treat or chewie when she complies. As I ready my keys and check that I have my iPhone, the adult dogs just sigh, hop up onto the couch, and settle in.

terrier lure coursing

To know him is to love him –  also literally.

Dogs are like fuzzy snowflakes – no two are alike. And while the dogs who came before helped shape you into the competent, caring owner that you are today, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that what works for one will work for the other.

I come out of the dog-showing world, where the mark of a great handler is being able to adapt your style to the dog at the other end of the leash. This dog lives for liver, but that one would much prefer a squeaky toy. This dog can handle a little tug on the leash to indicate a change of direction, that one will respond by throwing herself on the ground in a fit of apoplexy. (Saluki, anyone?)

And of course, even within breeds, all dogs are individuals. Sacrilegious as it sounds, there are Labrador Retrievers who hate water, Border Collies who couldn’t care less about sheep, and Jack Russell Terriers who are the very portrait of mellow. (Well, maybe we can’t go that far . . . .) You might acquire a purposefully bred dog because of a certain physical or temperament trait, but that’s no guarantee, and you need to be okay with that.

The greatest act of love you can offer your dog is to accept him for who he is. He certainly does that for you. Don’t get caught up in preconceived, and often romanticized, notions about who he should be. If you always wanted a dog you could take to the dog park, and wind up with one who really doesn’t enjoy being exposed to the attentions of other dogs, continuing to take him there is bound to result in misery, sooner or later; chronically stressed dogs are more prone to behavior and health problems.

dog walking in public

Some people have loved a now-gone dog so deeply and thoroughly that any subsequent one is always held up for comparison, often in unhealthy ways. If your grief or unresolved mourning makes even the idea of new dog a piercing reminder of the one who is no longer, do yourself a favor and wait until the wound has healed a bit. Often, opting for a dog of the opposite gender, or a very different physical appearance, can give the distance your heart needs to open just a sliver. That’s all a dog needs to wiggle his way in.

Love on the run.

We love our dogs so much that there’s a temptation to keep them from anything that might hurt them – to cover them in cotton batting, away from any sharp edges. But dogs are hard-wired to want to interact with the world – sniffing, poking, running, jumping, dodging, and otherwise shaking it up in the biosphere.

Suburban dogs, in particular, often live their lives behind a picket fence and on a comfy couch. Enrich their lives as much as possible with car rides, visits to the dog-friendly teller at the bank, walks around the neighborhood, romps in a fenced field, and play dates with other friendly, well-adjusted dogs. Let her indulge any of her ancestral instincts: While most Borzoi no longer course hare, and a good number of terriers have never gone to ground for a rat, there are organized sports – such as lure-coursing and barn hunt trials, respectively – that can simulate it for them. Dock diving, scentwork, agility, rally . . . there is an ever-growing list of dog sports and activities that you and your dog can do together.

After all, what do dogs love – besides us, that is? They love life, and it’s our charge to give them access to it. And if we can strengthen our bond with them in the process, that’s the champagne truffle in the chocolate sampler.

The Big Love.

If you’re really a “dog person,” then you would be happy to see more dogs mingling with humans almost everywhere you go. On some days, it seems like we’re getting there; never before have we had such a progressive and welcoming attitude toward dogs. From puppy kindergarten classes to therapy dogs in hospitals and nursing homes, our culture has come to regard dogs as social partners, as a source of comfort and solace like no other. That’s the good news.

At the same time, our society has come to expect a degree of unparalleled perfection from dogs in everyday interactions – and no one has yet managed to inform dogs everywhere of this new requirement and obtain their consent! The responsibility for your dog’s good behavior in public is yours alone; whether the impression she makes is positive or negative is entirely up to you.

If you truly love your dog – and dogs in general – you’ll never knowingly put her in a situation that makes her feel insecure, or that she’s unprepared for. You’ll work hard to ensure that she’s properly socialized, calm, and well trained. In short, you’ll give her the tools and the confidence to be a model canine citizen – the kind of dog that even non-dog-lovers love the most.

A regular contributor to WDJ, Denise Flaim raises Rhodesian Ridgebacks in Long Island, New York.

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