Originally posted October 27, 2013


There are very few things that are universally true in any field, but there are some common threads about what every dog needs.  When I am dealing with a behaviour problem, the first thing I need to address is if the dog is having all of his needs met.  If the dog’s needs are not being met, then there is little I can do to address the problem behaviours that brought him to class in the first place.  So just what does a dog need?

The first thing you should consider is shelter.  In Canada we live in a climate of extremes; we can have temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celcius in the middle of summer and we can have equally extreme temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees in the dead of winter.  If you happen to share your life with a  Chinese Crested dog, who has no hair except on the top of his head, then you are going to have to provide appropriate shelter in both the summer and the winter.  Controlling temperature and exposure to the sun are important aspects of living with such a dog.  The same is true if you share your life with an Alaskan Malamute; they don’t cope at all well with the heat and prefer to be indoors with air conditioning when the temperatures rise up above ten degrees.

When folks ask me what shelter is appropriate, I always have to pull out my “it depends” card.  It depends on the climate you live in and the breed you live with.  There are plenty of dogs who live in warm climates who never ever come into the house; why would they?  They are most comfortable out of doors.  The same is sometimes true of northern sled dogs.  A Yorkshire terrier however will be most comfortable in your home where you are most comfortable; they were bred to be indoors with us!


This dog house is insulated so in theory, if you had a dog with a double coat like this one, you could leave him out with access to the dog house for shelter.  Keep in mind that if you leave your dog in the yard for hours on end, unattended, you may be meeting his need for shelter at the expence of some of the other things he needs such as environmental enrichment and relationship with you!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander



The next thing to consider is diet.  What your dog eats will greatly impact how healthy they are both physically and behaviourally.  If you are feeding a puppy a diet that does not have the correct balance of calcium to phosphorus, expect problems like hip dysplasia, anterior cruciate ligament tears and undesired remodelling of the long bones.  On the other hand, if you are feeding a puppy food to an adult dog, you are likely feeding too many calories and you can create behavioural problems like anxiety.  Many of my clients are feeding homemade diets and I feel it is important to work with a vet or nutrition specialist to ensure that your dog is getting the right balance of minerals, vitamins, protein, carbohydrates and fats to keep them healthy.  This is one case where I don’t feel it is a good idea to go out and buy a book and work from there.  If you are feeding a commercial diet, again you must take care to choose a diet that is appropriate for your dog’s age and health and activity level.  When I am looking at a behaviour case, one of the most important questions I have is about diet.


Having criteria for what you feed your dog is important.  At different ages, dogs need different things, and with so many choices out there, you should think carefully about what your criteria are for choosing a food.  Clean water should be available at all times for dogs too.  Without clean water, they cannot properly digest what they eat and they cannot regulate their temperature either.  Photo Credit:  Mark Clarkson


I am often asked what I feed, and again, that “it depends” answer pops up.  Here are the criteria I use to choose a diet.  I start by looking at the age of developmental stage of my dog.  My two year old dog and my six year old dog are both on adult maintenance diets.   My ten year old is going to be switching off the adult maintenance diet soon and onto a geriatric or joint support diet.  I haven’t decided yet which one I will use.  Once I have a life stage and activity level in mind, then I look at the ingredient list.  I want no more than a maximum of three proteins.  I read all the way through the ingredient list; sometimes the dog food will be made out of chicken and whitefish as the two main ingredients and then when I look down further on the list I find that the food also has eggs, salmon and lamb in it.  The record holder was a diet I found with 19 sources of protein.  And here is why I want a limit to the number of proteins; if my dog develops a gastric upset and has a break in the intestinal lining, his immune system will be exposed to those proteins.  If there are 19 proteins in my dog at the time he gets sick, then he will be allergic to all 19 of those proteins.  Then I will be stuck with a dog who is very difficult to feed and I may have to go to a specialty diet such as a hydrolyzed protein or something exotic like Emu or Kangaroo.

I also want my dog’s food to have a grain in it, but I don’t want more than three grains.  I have a few reasons for wanting grain in my dog’s diet.  Unless my dog has a health problem already such as an allergy, then grain provides a good long lasting source of energy.  If the carbohydrate source is  sweet potato, carrots or peas, then the dog will burn that energy fairly quickly.  If the carb source in the food is a grain, then the dog will have that energy to burn for a longer period of time.  If you want more details on how this specifically works, look up glycemic index and learn about the difference between carb sources.  I don’t want more than three grains for the same reason I don’t want more than three proteins.  I also don’t want rare and difficult to obtain grains like quinoa either because this means that the manufacturer has to rely on an ingredient with an unstable supply source, and if they cannot get that source, they may substitute with another grain, meaning the diet will change regularly as supplies are available.  Read the whole label too!  You can often find weird sources of carbohydrate in your diet.  Recently I read a dog food label that claimed that you should feed your dog like a wolf without grains.  The ingredient list included alfalfa though.  I have never ever seen a wolf eating alfalfa, spirulina, kelp, or lavendar; all ingredients found in some of the novelty dog foods.  Which brings me to my final concern about dog food.

There is very little hard research into the effects of botanicals on dogs.  I have seen everything from alfalfa to lavender to rosemary and spirulina and beyond in dog food, but I have yet to see a study showing what the effect of these things are on dogs.  I don’t want botanicals in my dog food.  If I want to supplement my dog, I want to get a good source of the supplement and administer the dose myself.  I very rarely use botanical supplements on my dogs.

When a client comes in and has a behaviour problem with their dog, then one of the things I will have a long chat with the client about is what they are feeding.  If they are feeding a sound, well thought out diet, then we will stick with that, but if they are feeding a diet that is inappropriate for their dog’s age, developmental stage and activity level then I will usually recommend that they go to a fairly mainstream diet that will meet their dog’s needs.

After nutrition, we have to consider veterinary care.  If you are living anywhere in the “developed” world, your veterinarian is going to have at least 4 years of post secondary education and most of them will have more like 8.  Veterinarians are licensed by a governing body the way that doctors are, and they are required to keep up with continuing education on their own after they graduate from vet school.  The important thing about choosing a veterinarian is to interview them and find out if they espouse the same values you do.  If you and your vet are on the same page about your values then caring for your dog is going to be much easier because they won’t ask you to do things you consider to be frivolous or outlandish.  I will add that if you have a dog who is active and participates in dog sports, or if you have difficulty setting aside money for future veterinary bills, have a good look at the medical insurance that is now available for dogs.  Many of these insurance schemes can really make a difference if you need to obtain emergency care for your dog.

widget at vet

Finding a vet you can talk with and work with is important for the health of your dog.  It is more important to find a vet you can work with instead of looking for one who is popular or trendy.  Also, it is important to find a vet close to you.  In an emergency you don’t want to have to drive an hour to get to your vet.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander


After medical care, we need to think about exercise.  If you have a Great Dane, she is not going to need tons of exercise.  If you have a chihuahua or a toy poodle, she will actually likely need more exercise than a Dane.  Why is this?  The smaller breed dogs are often very active because they derive from dogs who made a living hunting rats and other vermin all day. The giant breeds often derive from guard dogs who were intended to work intensely but for very short periods of time.


And what should exercise look like?  Again I will reach for my trusty “it depends!”   My ideal exercise regime  for medium sized to large breed dogs with normal conformation is off leash in the country in areas where the dog will be able to sniff and run and explore, preferably in the company of other dogs.  Where I currently live in Breslau, there are over 40 hiking trails to choose from that are appropriate for off leash work with your dog.  If you live in downtown Montreal or Tokyo, you are not going to have these options and you may have to work fairly hard to find better solutions for your dogs exercise needs. Small breed dogs can often get their exercise needs met indoors if you are willing to be creative about things like hide and seek in the house but you do have to be careful that they don’t hurt themselves by falling down stairs.  Giant breed dogs do very well with leash walking and off leash exercise, but you have to keep in mind that they are larger than average and more prone to problems such as hip and elbow dysplasia.


At thirteen weeks, slow careful walking up and down the stairs in the house constitutes heavy exercise.  What exercise, how much and how often depends a lot on the age, fitness level, breed and experience of the dog.  You can exercise a small breed dog indoors if you are willing to be creative.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander


I am not a fan of any activity that involves rollerblades and dogs; even if you have very highly trained dogs, the risks outweigh the benefits.  If your dog is injured or there is an accident you are stuck taking off your skates to be able to get help.  If your dog has a brain fart and pulls you into traffic you could both be killed.  There is a lot to be said for cycling, if it is carefully taught and you are working your dog with forethought and preplanning.  If you just get on your bike and go as fast as you can, you will likely injure either yourself or your dog.  When I teach a dog to run with a bike, I teach him to work at the trot and we do timed runs the way you would if you were beginning a running program.  There are ways to teach a dog to pull you on a bike or skis and if you are interested, do your research beforehand and teach your dog to engage in this activity safely.


After exercise, you have to provide your dog with sufficient environmental enrichment.  Consider what it would be like to live in your home if you weren’t permitted to touch anything in the house.  Environmental enrichment is broadly everything we do to amuse our pets.  Some environmental enrichment can be achieved by giving your dogs items such as Kongs or other chew items to amuse themselves with, but by far the more important enrichment is that which we do with our dogs.

I love games with my dogs, but you have to be aware of what you are doing here too.  If you throw the ball over and over and over and over again, you can create problems in two areas; it is physically hard on your dog’s shoulders and elbows and sometimes on his spine and hips, and it is behaviourally hard on him to race and grab and return and drop and race and grab again.  I have seen dogs develop unhealthy obsessions with balls, Frisbees and sticks to the exclusion of the relationship that these items play in their interactions with their people.  When the dog becomes obsessed about the toy instead of about the game that he plays with you, then you are actually damaging your relationship through play.  When I play ball with my dogs, I ask them for a behaviour and then I throw the ball and walk on.  I try and find challenging places for the dog to look at when they are looking for the ball; dense cover, water or behind a building all serve to make the dog think and to practice locating me, the object and the obstacles in space relative to one another.  By walking between interactions, the obsession becomes about the game and the relationship and that makes me very happy.  I got dogs because I like doing things with dogs, not because I wanted to cater to an animal or because I enjoyed watching them; I got dogs to do things with and this is how I structure my games; so that we are doing something together.


Games that are relational produce an offshoot that is highly beneficial.  When I have to ask my dog to do something he doesn’t want to do, like get his toenails clipped or come in from play, he behaves as though this is quite alright with him.  By giving him what he needs; games that are meaningful to both of us, then he is willing to do things that need to be done even if it is inconvenient to him.  Giving my dog things that are intellectually stimulating to him is part of fulfilling his needs, and it has huge payoffs.


When training, a food dispensing toy and a game come together, environmental enrichment is an assured success!  Environmental enrichment is everything that we do to improve the environment that the dog lives within, and can be a lot of fun for both the dog and the handler.  The best environmental enrichment for dogs includes not only things that the dog finds interesting but things that improve the relationship between the dog and the people they live with.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

 Part of environmental enrichment includes training.  I think of training as my dog’s education and the structure that we use to create relationships with our dogs.  Training is the process by which I teach my dog both manners and skills.  By the time my dogs are adults, I want them to understand that they are not to steal things off counters or jump on people they are meeting.  I want them to understand that they should be quiet  and calm in the house.  I also want them to learn things like coming when called and sitting and staying and lying down if told.  Training for the very most part should be pleasant and fun for both the dog and the trainer.  When training involves pain or a great deal of difficulty, then the dog is not going to be willing and eager to learn, and besides that, why would I want to spend most of my life doing things that are not fun for me and my dog to do?  As far as I am concerned, training is a necessity for a successful relationship with my dog.  Not only that, regardless of if I plan to do it or not, training happens.  When you leave food on the counter in the company of a puppy, if you aren’t there to supervise, he learns that jumping on counters is a profitable endeavor.  It is so much easier if you are available to guide and direct your pup when he encounters situations where he might make the wrong choice.


The payoff for meeting your dog’s needs is the enriched relationship that develops between you and him.  I meet the needs of my service dog and he in turn is tuned in to what I need in our relationship.  Not every dog is going to do the same work or be able to go to the same places, but when you meet your dog’s needs, he will enrich your life.


Dogs need a lot of things if they are going to live successfully with us.  Getting a dog is a choice that people make, but the dog doesn’t usually get a choice in the matter.  When we get a dog we have a responsibility to provide the things that he needs to live successfully within our environments, and to develop healthy relationships with us and the other dogs they meet.  Often that means making sacrifices to make that successful for everyone concerned.  Start by seriously thinking about what a dog needs so that you can end with a companion who will fulfill your every hope and desire over the course of his life with you.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s