Keys to Understanding and Communicating With Your Dog, Part 2

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Isla Fishburn holds a Ph.D. in conservation biology and is a holistic dog behaviorist who believes we need to conserve our canine companions
  • Dr. Fishburn believes dogs should be given choices in how they nourish and heal their bodies
  • She recognizes that safety is a fundamental priority of every dog, and believes in empowering dogs in ways that make them feel safe
  • It’s important for dog guardians to learn how family dynamics affect their canine companions, and to understand there is no such thing as a “textbook” dog

By Dr. Becker

Today I'm wrapping up my discussion with Dr. Isla Fishburn, a holistic dog behaviorist who believes we need to conserve our canine companions

In part 1, Dr. Fishburn discussed how she applies her knowledge of animal behavior, zoology, ecology, and conservation to teach a dog's human guardian why their "hairy family member" must be understood to improve the life of their canine companion.

We also discussed the role of nutrition in the behavior of dogs, which is where we're picking up today's conversation.

Giving Dogs Choices About the Food They Eat

As a zoologist and from her experience, Dr. Fishburn has observed that animals make choices about the foods that best serve their individual physiological needs. She has taken that knowledge and applied it in the way she feeds her own dogs.

It's a dramatic departure from the way most dogs are fed. Most dogs aren't given a choice of what they want to eat, and in fact, they don't get to make many decisions at all.

They are controlled and dictated to by their human guardians who typically are telling them, "Don't lie there," or "Don't do that." Dr. Fishburn loves the idea of giving dogs freedom to make their own choices, and that many of us are poor substitutes for a canine adult.

She knows her dogs, given the choice, will vary their diet based on their nutritional needs, which can change with the temperature, for example, or the presence of bacteria they picked up, or even a change in their hormones.

Dr. Fishburn keeps a big wicker basket in her kitchen that contains fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, melon, broccoli, cauliflower, plums and pears. A separate container holds nuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.

The wicker basket is a constant presence in the dogs' lives. They can go for long periods without eating anything from the basket, then suddenly one day, they can't seem to get enough. It's the same with nuts and seeds — the dogs get to choose what they want to eat, and when they want to eat it.

Dr. Fishburn believes it's very liberating for dogs to be given choices.

Dogs Can Also Make Choices About How to Heal Themselves

Dr. Fishburn believes not only in empowering animals to make their own decisions about nourishing their bodies, but also healing their bodies. She advocates an approach called Applied Zoopharmacognosy developed by Caroline Ingraham.

It's based on the theory that animals have innate knowledge about their own health, and a natural drive to feel well.

Wild animals are able to forage based on their health and nutritional needs on any given day, and there is evidence to suggest that animals will adopt holistic approaches to heal themselves (see "Wild Health" by Cindy Engel).

Since canine companions don't have that option, Dr. Fishburn likes to offer a variety of remedies (e.g., powders, algae, clays, essential oils, etc.) based on a dog's particular health or nutritional issue.

She has used this approach effectively with dogs with cancer, skin conditions, digestive issues, nutritional deficiencies, and even behavior problems.

"It's a really, really powerful tool and liberates any animal," says Dr. Fishburn. "My passion is observing animals and learning what they can teach me, I am always speaking with my dog, saying 'You take control. You tell me what it is you need, and I will provide that for you.'"

"After all," Dr. Fishburn continues, "a dog never asked to live with us but we invited them in to our homes, it is only fair to make them feel welcome and provide them with what they need in order to function."

"As a zoologist I am used to learning about the needs of a wild animal given its evolution and taxonomy. I don't understand why we don't adopt the same approach for domestic animals, too."

This is obviously a very different approach from traditional behavior training — even very positive training techniques. Dr. Fishburn's approach comes from the dog's point of view rather than the trainer's.

Safety Is the Fundamental Priority of Any Animal

In her work with dogs and their guardians, one thing Dr. Fishburn always finds herself stressing is the need for dogs to feel safe. Safety is the fundamental priority of any animal — humans, dogs, elephants, etc. Animals want to feel safe, because safety maximizes their survival. All animals want to survive.

If an animal doesn't feel safe, it changes his emotional state, which naturally changes his behavior. A dog who feels safe also feels at peace and loved, which is the emotional state necessary for positive behavior changes.

"Now, sometimes it's really hard," warns Dr. Fishburn. Not all behavior problems are easily resolved. For example, a noise-sensitive dog who is living in the wrong environment, say, in the city instead of in a quiet rural setting, may show behavioral issues as a result of chronic stress.

The dog's guardian hasn't done anything wrong — the dog needs to be some place quiet in order to feel safe; every animal has unique survival needs.

Empowering Dogs

Dr. Fishburn teaches a series of courses and topics called "Listen to Your Dog to Learn, Love, and Live with Your Dog." "It's really all about empowering that animal, empowering that dog," she says. She continues:

"The courses focus on the need for a dog to feel safe, how the different causes of behavior can affect the feelings of safety and how our focus should be on keeping the dog in alignment with its natural self; keeping the dog relaxed and feeling safe.

I want to conserve the natural dog and one step in doing this is to listen to our dog and what s/he is trying to tell us, subtly. If we don't listen to those subtle signs then a dog will have to begin to shout at us further.

For me, domestic animals are the route to conserving all wildlife; they and we are all connected. It is about co-existence and the beauty of this. If we want to optimize our dog's well-being, then we need to listen to our dog and understand what its requirements are as a species.

Listening to our dog will create this co-existence. In so doing, we can learn from our dogs while at the same time our dogs are taught, based on their needs. We can live with our dogs through co-existence and partnership, through an understanding that their needs, values and emotions count too.

We can love our dogs, the most powerful emotion and feeling that can cement any partnership. A dog simply knowing that s/he is loved will instantly improve how safe they feel."

Empowering a dog means we need to recognize the different causes of behavior. Some causes are quite well known; others might be quite not so well known. Dr. Fishburn places huge emphasis on stress and trauma. "I love trauma," she says. "I also love understanding group composition, identity and social networks as well as diet and how scent and diet are related as well as scent per se and safety!"

How Family Dynamics Affect Dogs

"Now, one of the things I focus on is something called surrounding family dynamics," says Dr. Fishburn, "which really is who does the dog live with in terms of in the house, but also other human parties, the other humans that the humans of the dog live with."

"This is really, really important, because again dogs are social group animals. They include us — their interaction, their emotions, how they're feeling, and including how we're feeling as well."

"The example I give is, say, there's a man who has a dog. It's just him and the dog. The man just clearly hates his job. The man sleeps upstairs, the dog sleeps downstairs. He gets up in the morning. He's really despondent like, 'Ugh, I'll go to work. I hate my job.'

The dog's tail is already going, because the dog has heard his human guardian is up. He's about, 'When is he going to come downstairs?' He's really excited. He really anticipates for his human guardian to come downstairs. The man comes downstairs really slowly.

He says to the dog, 'All right, son. I got to go to work. Have a good day. See you later.' He leaves the house. The dog sees this man leave the house very, very despondent.

The man then comes home and his dog is really excited to see his human guardian. But, the man enters his home angry, bitter and full of contempt because he has to get up and do the same thing again the next day. Now, this bares relevance on the dog's survival.

Why is the man so depressed? Why is the man so hyper-aroused when he walks through the door? What is behind the door making the man feel like this? For a dog to feel safe they need to make associations about A and B and humans do the same too!

So, let's now say that the man's dog is a nervous dog. A nervous dog who has now learned that whatever is behind the door is cause for concern … and survival! When the time comes for the man to walk his dog, the dog may refuse, hide in a safe place, be hyper-vigilant when outside.

And, all because his human guardian's emotional state is affected by his job. Of course, we could also see a dog becoming more protective, scent orientated, displaying aggressive behavior that is not typical of the dog. Other behaviors could also be observed because of our daily emotional states. This is just an example to illustrate the importance of surrounding family dynamics."  

She adds, "For the record, my dogs sleep upstairs with us. I find this to be really important for a dog's learning and emotional safety. I've got reasons for why my dogs sleep upstairs. It's a really cool, lovely bonding and interactive coexistence. But hey, that's just what I like to do."

There's No Such Thing as a 'Textbook Dog'

"Another thing I really love looking at is the identity of the dog," says Dr. Fishburn, "because this is really important to understand when we look at a dog's well-being, when we look at a dog's diet, and when we look at why is every dog different."

"This is why I say there's no such thing as a textbook dog. We can't expect every dog to perform at the same level as any other dog, because that is not natural. Not everything can be the same, in nature everything is unique, no matter how minute this uniqueness may be.

There's a late wolf biologist named Dr. Gordon Haber, and he termed the wolves that live in a group (although, of course, they're living as a family), as having functional characters.

They have a function. They have a purpose that allows them to support one another as that group size; each individual has a function and these functional roles complement one another and so they co-exist as that group. I am absolutely certain that dogs, to this day, still have it. I guess it can be considered as their personality, but I much prefer to refer to it as functional character.

For me, that's really important. It's a massive thing to look at when we look at group composition. Why some dogs will co-exist as a group and others won't. Of course, there are other things to consider, but functional character and group composition is one of them.

Competition is just a natural ecological feature. It's just something that happens and it does happen in dogs.  

That's why we have some dogs that are very independent, very aloof. They have a much smaller social network. Their interaction is very, very different. Their reaction when we're teaching them something is very, very different. Compared to a dog that might be a peacekeeper and who naturally attempts to diffuse tension and conflict.

There might be another dog that is really shy, nervous, and suspicious, even though it had a great mother, even though its human guardian has got everything right for that dog's socializing, because it's the natural functional character of that dog. Recognizing these functional characters is important if we want to optimize our dog's well-being.

This is something that I really, really focus on, because it really helps me explain and understand the dog's behavior. Now, of course, this is just one component and we have to assume that all else is equal. That's why when we look at dog behaviors, we really need to look at everything else. It's a big umbrella of subjects that affect behavior itself, at an individual level."

Many Thanks to Dr. Isla Fishburn!

Dr. Fishburn is covering topics, ideas, and viewpoints that traditional positive dog trainers don't cover. I think it's due to her focus on biology in addition to the emotional and mental aspects of canine behavior. It's quite fascinating!

Many thanks to Dr. Fishburn for joining me today!