Reality check on expectations - sharing and the 'happy' household

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This blog entry comes about because I've noticed there seems to be some emphasis on presenting a successfully run multidog household by showing photos of dogs sharing resources. I think this can be misleading and perhaps even demotivating to some.

The kind of photos I'm talking about are of dogs sharing a bed or sharing a meal. Often there are captions added to these photos such as 'My perfect pack. Look how happy they are together. Look at how they share food. Look at them cuddled up, together'* and so on.

What we don't see is what is going on behind the scenes in some cases. Sometimes additional commentary gives us a clue: 'They growled at first, but they were swiftly corrrected by me, and now they are fine'*. Fine? The body language in the photos usually tells a different story. 

So I've seen examples where dogs have been corrected for displaying their concern around sharing a resource. In other examples I've seen, it's promoted that the mark of a successful canine household is dogs being controlled by a leader who maintains the peace/corrects 'bad' behaviour. Therefore, it's implied that if a dog growls around a resource, you're not a good enough leader and you need to try harder at being one. I think this is wrong and demotivating to people who are trying their best in a multidog household. 

I do fully appreciate that many dogs *choose* to lie together and on top of each other, even if there are plenty of beds available. Some dogs even *choose* to eat out of the same bowl or to eat a raw carcass together.  The main point I'd like to make is I don't think the situation should be forced or the dogs given no choice in the matter. Also, the implication that someone is a failed leader if they are not able to recreate this sharing comfortably or if their dogs are showing concern over resources is to be challenged, in my opinion.

Toys

I think there is an exception to be made with toys, just as there is with dogs who are ok with sharing beds and food. I think dogs who are that way inclined find it fun to share toys with others. Some even tease and incite play with toys in their mouths. Some play tuggy really well together. This is because it's fun - there is a positive association built up with the 'sharing' game and they are relaxed and happy.  

Giving dogs a choice  - a solution

I think, in the main, dogs deserve, and like us - need good restful sleep, in space they can relax in and the chance to eat calmly in their own space, given the choice. Recently, we assisted a client who had wanted her newly rescued dog to sleep in this intertwined, close fashion with her other dog**. She had seen photos online and wanted her dogs to 'love each other' the same. She saw it as a mark of a successful integration and a happy household if they did. Despite pressure to do so, by being physically placed together on the sofa and not having separate sleeping areas they could call their own, neither dog had wanted this and this resulted in bouts of aggression.  The client initially sent photos of the dogs looking uncomfortable and tense with a note that progress was being made, but that now, things were going wrong. The client sadly saw the resulting aggression and inability to sleep together as a failing on her part that she had not formed a friendly dog household. In addition, both dogs' lives were being adversely affected in other areas because neither could get good sleep.

A photo was recently posted on a raw feeding page, showing two dogs, eating a pig's head. The caption went something like 'My two sharing a lovely pig's head' and 'There were one or two low grumbles from my bigger boy, but corrected promptly by me...' and later a reply 'I love seeing dogs eating together'. Judging from the limitation of a photo, the dogs didn't look comfortable eating one meal and of course, this feeling was probably compounded after being corrected by the human for saying so. But the dogs' need to eat in this case was overrriden by the feelings of anxiety, but this is no way to eat comfortably and healthily.

A question of comfort and wellbeing or a question of 'leadership'?

What's to be gained from having two dogs having no option but to share their meals, given that a butcher could easily cut the said pig's head into halves? What's to be gained from having two dogs having no option but to share one bowl? What's to be gained by not giving dogs separate sleeping areas? Is it for a sense of control over the 'pack'? This notion, we know, is unhelpful and outdated. Dogs are not pack animals (see our links to papers/articles on the Resources page). Is it to maintain or force a 'social order' or an attempt to create or force harmony between dogs? I'd say this is likely to have the opposite effect!

I think differing personalities and sensitivities, and breed characteristics mean it is ok to take a more understanding and flexible approach to their resources around the home. I believe creating a forced or artificial situation based on notion of 'sharing' could create long term stress for dogs. Dogs should be relaxed when they are eating; the effects of stress on digestion are well understood. Dogs should be allowed to stretch out and enjoy deep, restful sleep, alone, if they want to. This is kind leadership. We can also help dogs feel more comfortable in the presence of their housemates, but this is outside the scope of this blog and in any case, many authors have already produced excellent resources to try and help those with multidog households. Please see links below.

Rather than make it an aim, I think it's a bonus if we see our dogs settling down and 'cuddling' each other or sharing a chew, a piece of food or a bowl. It's arrived at naturally and not forced. But I think if we never have dogs who do this, that's ok too. 

Resources

If readers have any other links to useful resources, or any observations or comments in general on this topic, please make a comment below.

* Captions are real and taken from social media sources. 
** Client has given approval for the story to be part of this blog.

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