Driving Miss Daisy

Taken in part from a keynote address given at an awards dinner for the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society in Tampa, Florida.

A friend of mine lives with a dog named Daisy, who has more pent-up energy than a nursery school filled with four-year-olds who want to go home and check out their Christmas presents. Now my friend loves driving around with her dog in the car, just so she can call her Miss Daisy, as in the movie. In fact, she plans many of her days with Daisy, who is a four-year-old English Springer Spaniel with a motorboat tail and a constant urge to lick her Mistress’ face and then madly dash through the woods, which are all around her. The woman and the dog are totally bonded to each other in a big-time way and when she discusses Daisy, her voice actually lowers an octave, her body begins to relax, and nothing I do or say bothers her. If she had a choice, she would spend most of her time driving around with Daisy, more than anyone else with the possible exception of her young daughter.

She said to me recently, “In a day plagued with the demands of my job, Daisy’s only concern in this car is to have a good time, to thrust her neck out the window, her ears flapping in the breeze, barking at the wind. She never argues over which CD to put on, or tells me I am driving too fast, or I forgot to yield to the right of way, and never nags me about stop signs. She is the perfect car companion and for this I owe her my sanity. Daisy does not judge me. She accepts me as a perfect person and I believe her.”

Now I know for a fact that when she thinks she is alone she cups the small Spaniel’s face in her hands and coos, “You are the most gorgeous girl I have ever seen. Yes you are! Mommy says you are. And you are the smartest dog in the world. If mommy had money, she would send you to college and let the kid get a job. Those are the prettiest eyes I have ever seen. You can go anywhere and get anything with those eyes. All you have to do is blink!”

The thing is, Miss Daisy has become more than a member of the family, she has become a human, at least in the eyes of her mistress. The question is how to resolve the disparity between dog owners who endow their pets with human qualities (anthropomorphism) and the natural behaviors of dogs with all the ramifications of canine pack behavior?

To me it’s a no-brainer. Pet owners can talk to their dogs all they want and give them birthday parties and Christmas presents if that’s what makes everyone happy. Some people resent being told they cannot view their pet in a human way. But there’s no need for anyone to criticize the relationship so long as the dog is getting all it needs and stays out of trouble. Of course, if the dog behaves inappropriately and is making life miserable, then that’s a different story. Dog training and behavior modification are in order, and a veterinarian can help point a dog owner in the right direction.

Some people say that dog training is unnatural. This is wrong. When done properly it is the most natural thing in the world . . . for a dog. With only a few differences, the fundamentals of canine behavior are quite similar whether seen in wolves or Yorkshire Terriers. Like wolves, dogs are pack animals and are highly social. To a dog, living with one or more humans is just another pack. Part of their natural behavior is to claim and preserve a territory (usually their home) and defend it if they must. In the wild, they hunt to survive. They must capture, kill and eat what they hunt. There must be social order within the pack. Without a leader, the pack does not survive and so a leader of the pack emerges. They form social attachments, mainly for the purpose reproducing but also for pack integrity. It all sounds familiar doesn’t it? If you compare these things to the human family, you’ve got yourself a dog pack.

Effective dog training relies on the dog’s natural instincts for pack structure, the need for social order and acceptance of the pack leader, or alpha wolf, which in the human environment should be the dog owner. There are two important aspects of dog training before starting that makes it all work: the dog owner must create a bond with the dog which means to establish a loving relationship with him and then become the alpha, the leader of the pack. If a dog owner does these things the dog will become trained. He will listen and allow the master (or mistress) to teach him or her each command. In fact, training is the most natural thing in the world for a dog… even if you talk to her like Miss Daisy.

Mordecai Siegal is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and the author of 32 published books about dogs and cats. His next book is “THE GOOD LIFE. Your Dog’s First Year.(Simon & Schuster)” He is available for speaking engagements. His web site address is www.mordecai.com. To use his material posted on www.goodnewsforpets.com, please email him at [email protected].

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