Updated: May 19, 2021
What is required for a dog to reach their full potential? Full potential being the actualization of the dog we daydreamed about before deciding to bring baby Fido home. At the risk of triggering a déjà vu moment from many past conversations with my mother—it’s knowing the difference between what is a want and what is a need.
You’ve probably heard of the well-known human motivation theory in psychology called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This theory suggests that all humans are motivated to fulfill different types of needs based on a defined order (levels) that is often depicted as a pyramid. The first level consists of our most basic needs for survival and it is only once those needs are fulfilled that we then become motivated by the components in the next level.
So how does this translate to our dogs and why does it matter?
From an evolutionary perspective domestication has both helped and hindered our dogs in a variety of different ways – one hinderance comes in the form of significantly diminished agency. The freedom to fulfill their own basic needs is non-existent; they are fully dependent on us for survival.
Dr. Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., Biologist, Ethologist, and Behavioural Ecologist asserts that “ample research shows that dogs are deeply thinking and feeling social beings…(it) might surprise people to learn that numerous companion dogs who are fortunate enough to share their life with a human are highly stressed, but when you think about it, they're always trying to adapt to a human-oriented/dominated world in which their wants and needs are secondary to those of their own and other humans”.
Maslow’s model was adapted for the needs of dogs and released in 2015 under the name The Hierarchy of Dog Needs.
By referencing this model, we can identify the various needs of our dog, where they sit in order of necessity for reaching their full potential, and then reflect on the reality of the life we are providing Fido to see if there are any gaps which we can work to fill.
You’ll notice that training is located near the top of the hierarchy – remember the model is read from the bottom up. Many good meaning pet parents are told that training is the most important thing when you bring a dog into your life, but this is a flawed piece of advice. If time and attention are not paid to deliberately ensuring that Fido’s basic needs are correctly identified and met, then there will be limits to the benefits that can be derived from training.
“Research shows that when biological needs, safety, and belongingness needs for social animals are met, they are far less likely to display abnormal behavior.”
Linda Michaels M.A., Psychology, PCT-A, creator of the Hierarchy of Dog Needs®
Unfortunately some dogs will be battling medical and/or psychological conditions their whole lives and in these cases it’s important to acknowledge the situation. For example, if our dog is underweight despite doing everything we can think of to get some weight on, then let’s not stick our head in the sand and maintain that “he just isn’t all that motivated by food”. We should seek help from certified professionals who can help navigate the situation and work towards meeting this biological need to the best possible level. Many behavioural issues stem from undiagnosed medical conditions so if something just doesn’t seem right with Fido then speak to your vet, and if you aren’t satisfied—go back, or seek a second opinion.
Whatever the underlying motivation for the behaviour of our dog is, trust that it is always much more innocently and innately driven than society has been (mis)lead to believe. Check out this blog from VCA Hospitals which discusses many of the top behaviour motivation myths that are unfortunately still being perpetuated.
If you have a new pup, set them and your relationship up for success by learning about The Hierarchy of Dog Needs. And if you have an adolescent or adult dog with whom you are struggling, I encourage you to do the same. Reflecting on how well Fido’s needs are currently being met at each level just might reveal a key piece of the puzzle you’ve been struggling to find.