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, after all, 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
As any Italian grandmother will tell you (after she pinches your cheeks until they’re blue), the act of providing a meal is about far more than just calories. It engages every psychologist-beckoning motivation you can think of, from a sense of worthiness to a need to nurture. When some people set out a meal, they’re not just saying, “I care about you,” but rather, “Here’s exactly how much I care about you …”
But what you feed your dog – while certainly important – is not the ultimate barometer of how much you care about her. Don’t get sucked into the politics of dog food – and, yes, they exist. Really study your dog and see what food she thrives on: What makes her eyes sparkle, her coat shine, her breath smell fresh? Experiment a bit (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.) 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
I don’t agree with everything that Cesar Millan says or writes, by any stretch, but I do see wisdom in his observation that we anthropomorphize way too much. Dogs are dogs, not humans in fursuits. Sure, what does it hurt to bake your dog a carob-and-oatmeal birthday cake, or dress her up for Halloween? (Though there are a few Dachshunds I know who would argue, if they could, that those hot-dog costumes officially cross the line.) In fact, many of the rituals we share with our fellow two-leggers aren’t appropriate for dogs.
Consider, for example, the Hollywood goodbye. 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 – logically, “Crate” – dispensing a Milkbone when she complies. As I ready my keys and check that I have my iPhone, the adult dogs just sigh, hop up the couch and settle in with a grunt.
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.
To know him is to love him – literally
Dogs are like fuzzy snowflakes – no two are alike. And while the dogs that 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 throw herself on the ground in a fit of apoplexy. (Saluki, anyone?)
And of course, even within breeds, all dogs are individuals. 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 OK 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 is intensely dog aggressive, despite having done everything “right,” just accept it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try some training and counter-conditioning with a qualified behaviorist, but if the process makes you both miserable and uptight, then consider what’s best for the dog – not for your idealized version of who he is.
Some people have loved a now-gone dog so deeply and thoroughly that any subsequent one is always held up for comparison, oftentimes in unhealthy ways. If your grief or unresolved mourning makes even the idea of a 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. Oftentimes, 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, AKC Scent Work, 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 your love for the counter-surfing, Frito-foot-scented mush at home represents something bigger – a love of the species as a whole. Perhaps you are devoted to a particular breed. Or maybe your heart belongs to a certain – and you’ll pardon the pun – underdog. (Black-colored dogs are as much in need of boosters as their feline friends. So are three-legged dogs, and blind dogs, and deaf dogs … the list goes on and on). But the point is that your stewardship of your dog, how you teach her to behave in public, with strangers who may not be as understanding of canine rituals such as the nose bonk or submarine crotch sniff, makes an impact on how the species as a whole is perceived. Whether that impression is a positive or a negative one is entirely up to you.
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. But at the same time, through the seamlessness and immediacy of technology, our society has come to expect a degree of unparalleled perfection in everyday interactions. Being animals, dogs come with a degree of unpredictability: Sometimes, when we don’t want them to, they pee, they poop, they pull, they bark, and, yes, they sometimes bite.
If you truly love your dog – and dogs in general – you’ll never knowingly put your dog in a situation that makes him feels insecure, or that he’s unprepared for. You’ll work hard to ensure that he’s properly socialized, calm and well trained. In short, you’ll give him the tools and the confidence to be a model canine citizen. Because when it comes to those who are just looking for reasons to limit what our dogs can do and where we can take them, that’s the kind of dog they love the most.