The modern family unit is complex and often includes members not connected by blood or marriage. Same-sex parents, grandparents raising their children’s children, single mothers and fathers raising children with the help of their tightly-knit community. All of these families are held together by a force greater than biology: Love.
Not surprisingly, the status of the dog as a member of the family has risen within this evolving structure. However, my dog Harley is not my son. He is not a furry human who walks on all fours — but that doesn’t make him any less a member of my family. To think of him as a small human would be to strip him of all the dog-ness that makes him his own special being.
Like any other family member, he must contribute to the success of the family through support, love and communication. All of those things are possible only if I understand and accept that he will contribute in his own ways, in ways driven by his own evolution, by his rules of communication and his methods of expression.
As you build and grow your family, there are a few things to know that will help you better understand how different your canine family members really are and to be more open to giving and receiving love on their terms.
- Dogs experience the world differently than we do. Their primary sense is smell, not vision. They use their mouths for a sense of touch and scent. Their sight lines are much closer to the floor than the ceiling. They hear pitches well above and below what we experience. The world is a smelly, noisy place to a dog. Be aware of how you contribute to the din and plethora of fragrance.
- Dogs express affection differently than we do. Humans love hugs and kisses. Being primates, we love being face to face, cheeks brushing gently, chests together. We can still see each other clearly at about three inches. Dogs, on the other paw, prefer some space. Their vision blurs at about 13 inches and chest-to-chest contact is considered invasive and overly-assertive. Take the time to learn how your dog wants to give and receive affection. Don’t just assume he loves that kiss between the eyes or on the nose. Be patient and respect his wishes. And make sure others do, too.
- Dogs are thinking, feeling beings. Because they rely heavily on reading body language, dogs are sensitive to human emotions. They don’t need to understand our conversations to know that we are grieving, elated, defeated, unsure, happy, comfortable, sick or tired. But this is a two-way street. Take the time to check in with your dog. Note changes in his eyes, the way he holds his head and tail, his activity level, his appetite, his general demeanor. Be sensitive to your dog’s moods and feelings. He might need a kind word from you once in a while, too.
Functional families require effort, patience, understanding and love. If you take the time to consider your family from your dog’s perspective, you might just find ways to strengthen the bonds that hold your family together.