Everyday Ways to Practice Compassion with your Dog
Imagine spending a year in a high security prison. Your cell is a dim gray room with a hard bed and no windows. Day to day, the prison operates on the same schedule, which you have no say over. In the morning, a prison guard slides a chunk of stale bread and a plastic pitcher of water into your cell. Ten hours go by. In the evening, a second chunk of stale bread slides in. The two pieces of bread together don’t seem like they would make up an entire loaf; this second chunk of bread is the last of the food you will get today. The prison guards seem to speak some English, but never talks to you. They strike you if you say anything to them. You only see other prisoners in passing in the halls now and then. A little while after you have received your second chunk of bread, you are let into an indoor track where you are allowed to walk around the loop once - a quarter of a mile - and then brought back into your cell. If you try to run around the track, or try to pause, you forfeit the remainder of your track time. You get no phone, no computer, no pen or paper, you are simply alone in your cell with your thoughts. The rest of the evening hours pass, and eventually you fall asleep, and wake up to stale bread again the next day.
In our day to day lives, it’s easy to get lost in the world of human concerns–jobs, school, games, TV, friends, and hobbies can leave us pretty booked up. But it’s important to remember that if we own animals, then those animals are not just under our possession, but under our care. Whether they feel like this makes them princes or prisoners is on us to decide.
If you have a dog, this article is meant to cover a few key ways that you can make sure their wellbeing needs are being met.
Most dogs, especially younger dogs, love to have things to do. A puppy chewing on her leash is probably just looking for an outlet for all of that wild puppy energy, and would be even happier to grab a toy and whip it around, or to jump and grab a little ball and gnaw on that until getting you to throw it again. In general, it’s good to try a variety of activities with your dog, and see which ones he or she responds to the most.
I’ve known some dogs whose favorite thing in the world was to play fetch: they could chase a tennis ball and bring it back for an hour if you were willing to play with them that long. Even if you don’t have an hour every day though (which is understandable), it might mean a lot to them that you took them out for even ten minutes and let them run and retrieve a stick for a while. It could be a good thing to build into a routine, such as always making time to play for a while right when you get home from work.
Some dogs get super happy to be given new toys to figure out and play with. Whether that’s to figure out how to make it squeak or whether that’s to figure out how best to immediately chew the toy apart may depend on the dog, but both impetuses are valid: the toy is their toy to have fun with however they want to have fun with it.
For dogs who like to go out on walks, a huge thing you can do for them is let them choose the pace of the walk, and let them choose the directions that the two of you go. In the same way that humans often use their sense of sight to see beautiful things like sunsets or paintings, dogs often get emotional fulfillment out of smells. They get a lot out of you letting them pause to sniff a patch of grass, or zigzagging across the path with them to let them follow the scent of some other critter who may have passed by.
A good cornerstone of giving a dog a fulfilling life is to treat them well in terms of what you give them to eat. If you give them nothing but dry kibble, they probably will survive. All the same, I think most dogs would feel very privileged and loved if you cook up some chunks of beef just for them every once in a while.
Obviously there are certain limitation. You should not give a dog chocolate or anything you know that they’re allergic to. If weight is a concern, you should be mindful that you’re not overfeeding a dog to an unhealthy degree. But within these considerations, it can also mean a lot to a dog to have their meal seem like something more akin to “human food” (effectively, food that someone cared about the quality of). Often I have found that dry kibble mixed with something more flavorful and nutritious like a packet of wet meaty dog food is a good balance.
Dogs are pretty smart creatures, and I think it’s pretty frustrating to a lot of them to have to go through life with so many humans ignoring what it is that they have to say.
If you aren’t used to ‘listening’ to what your dog has to say, one place to begin could be when they whine to tell you that they need something. If your dog is used to hearing words like “walk” or “hungry”, then you can say these things to them one after the other, and try to gauge whether they have a more excited reaction to any of them. For example, if a dog wants food and you say “hungry?” to them, they might lick their lips, trot in place, wag, or go over to where they expect the food to be. If a dog doesn’t know these words, you can go around from place to place touching things–the front door, the food bowl–and see what gets a reaction that way.
Dogs can also be downright conversational if you make a habit of talking to them on a person-to-person level. They won’t necessarily want to talk about the news or anything, but if the two of you are sitting around outside watching nature pass by, you can ask what they think of that squirrel who just ran by in the distance and get a pretty good read on what their answer is. I think it’s important not to “talk down” to them like they’re a stupid impressionable child. It’s perfectly okay to be excited about things with them, just don’t do it in a way that makes it sound like you think they aren’t clever. Don’t lie to them, essentially. Treat them with emotional maturity and respect.
Dogs are amazing creatures, and it can be a wonderful experience to help them get the best out of life, and getting to watch them revel in their well being. Treat them with love and care to the utmost best of your ability. Be the best friend to them that they are to you.
Article written by an anonymous author (November 2022)
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