A hierarchy of needs

My clients are good dog owners.  Their older dog is delightful: Healthy, happy, friendly and easy going.  The dogs get walks every day, play in the house and in the yard, attention and affection, clear rules clearly enforced, a good diet, and good vet care.  But the younger dog is not so happy.  He’s inclined to charge the front door aggressively, reacts with agitation and barking to dogs he sees on walks, and has lunged and nipped at people who approached to greet him.  My clients note that while he seems excited to go for a walk, his tail is tucked for most of the walk and he has never, not once since they adopted him over a year ago, urinated while out on a walk.  When he gets home, he rushes into the backyard to relieve himself.  But, they have worked hard to socialize him by taking him out, hanging out at cafes, and taking him to dog parks (until he got too aggressive there).  What’s going on?

Those who have studied psychology will have bumped into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

Now, I have never formally studied psychology, so I’m simplifying here and trying to avoid a level of detail I am not really qualified to discuss!

Maslow proposed that all people have universal needs, and that these needs must be met for an individual to grow and develop and eventually reach a state he called “self-actualization.” (If that phrase sounds familiar, this is where it came from.)  The hierarchy is represented in pyramid form, with the most basic needs at the bottom.  Here is Wikipedia’s graphic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs#/media/File:MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg):

First and most basic needs are physiological: Food, water, shelter.  If these needs are not met, the person is forced to disregard the “higher” needs to make sure these basic physiological needs are met.  Next: Safety.  If the person has enough food and water, then safety is next; avoiding steep cliffs, angry mobs, and saber-tooth cats all rise in importance. For modern humans, financial security and some kind of safety net against dire happenings are parts of this level.  A sense of love and social belonging is next.  This is a real human need, but a person cannot afford to attend to it unless safe and fed.  Above this are esteem — the need to be esteemed and respected both by self and others.  At the very top, self-actualization is the need to fulfill one’s potential.  A lot of people never have a chance to make this journey because their lives are consumed with meeting basic needs such as food, safety, or some degree of financial security.

The Maslow hierarchy is widely accepted and used as a model of understanding people and helping them improve their lives.

What I’ve noticed is that we can apply a similar concept to dogs, and a lot of the problems my clients have with their dogs is that they are focusing on the higher levels without taking care of more fundamental needs.  Now, it would probably be a strain to try to wedge dog needs and experiences into the human-termed Maslow hierarchy, but it’s pretty easy to see similarities, especially at the base the pyramid.

That’s one way of looking at what’s gone wrong with my clients’ dog.  They have done a great job of meeting many of his needs.  He has food, water, shelter, security in his living situation, and good physical health.  They love him, he receives affection and play, and he has a good dog friend as well.  But what he does not have is a basic sense of physical safety.

The tucked tail is familiar — it tells us he is afraid on those walks.  The inability to eliminate on walks tells the same story; he’s just too vulnerable out there to stop and let down his guard while he pees or poops.  The increasing pattern through adolescence of defensive aggression suggests he has not been able to escape intrusion on his space by dogs or people.  While no one is out there beating him with a 2×4 or holding a gun to his head in exchange for his wallet… he feels about that scared when he is out and about.

His people had the information in front of them, but they know themselves to be good dog owners, and they also believe they have been doing the right thing by getting him out and socializing him.  This belief has obscured clear vision.  Once we identified what is actually happening, they could see it.  This (really charming) dog is now feeling better with greatly reduced walks and some basic training in coping skills.

I see this a lot: The dog is super well taken care of, but is scared.  And failure to meet this one primal need, for basic physical safety, is blocking everything else.  The owner says “he knows how to sit! He knows watch me! But he won’t do it when there’s another dog across the street!”  That’s because a socially cooperative activity like following a command is always going to take second place to trying to ensure monsters don’t kill you and eat you.  (Yes, we know intellectually that the chihuahua behind the fence is not actually going to kill and eat our fearful 80 lb Shepherd mix, but our Shepherd mix may still feel that way.)  Until we meet that need for a feeling of safety, there will be no easy response to obedience cues.

This brings us to one of the major flaws of some of the popular “dog psychology” dogmas.  The most damaging is this:  “If my dog recognizes me as pack leader, everything else will fall into place.  He won’t disobey or misbehave, because he knows I’m in charge.”  Listen — a wolf attacked by a bear, or a human, is going to fight, regardless of whether he is or is not an alpha, or lives in a pack with an alpha wolf, or respects that alpha wolf or is in constant conflict with that alpha wolf.  Social structure is not going to prevent him from engaging a direct external threat to his bodily safety.  Likewise, no matter how much your dog respects and trusts you, if someone is hitting him with a baseball bat, he’s probably going to fight back at some point.  And from your dog’s point of view, if he is afraid of men in parkas, he’s going to try to threaten men in parkas to make them go away because that’s a simply more fundamental need, in that moment, than obeying you, his questionable “pack leader.”

And here’s another situation where a hierarchy of needs can get us into trouble.  Food!  The need for food is even more basic than the need for safety.  Thus, a dog will put herself into danger to get food.  If she’s starving, she’s going to try breaking into a yard with a nasty yard dog patrolling to see if she can steal some of its food.  But since dogs are scavengers, they act as if they are always pretty desperately hungry, and that means even a happily plump dog will creep up to a scary stranger for an offered treat.  The imperative to obtain food overcomes the requirement to stay out of reach of those scary hands.  This is why I never want a scared dog offered treats by strangers; the dog will probably take the treats, but it will still be scared, and if the slightest little thing goes wrong, the dog is now close enough to bite.  (Slightest little thing could be the person talking or standing up, or worse, reaching for the pup’s head to pet “because now we’re friends.”)  It’s much easier to understand how this happens so often if we refer to a hierarchy of needs.

One final example of how disregarding this type of hierarchy gets us in trouble.  It’s this:  “Fluffy is very scared in the shelter, but all she needs is some love and she will blossom.”  I will leave it to readers to work out the flaw.

In the past, I’ve seen a proposed hierarchy of needs for dogs.  I can’t find it right now.  It would take some study to validate one for dogs.  But, the Maslow hierarchy can still provide some insight into knotty behavior problems.  Hope it helps.