Why dog empathy is more important than discipline or affection

July 26, 2016 at 9:00 am
dog walking

There seem to be two main camps of dog owners; those who believe mostly in discipline and those who believe in affection.  Either one on its own or used too much is likely to break a dog and make it unbalanced with its own kind and humans. They are important, but not what the dog needs.

This article is really about understanding dog empathy and how it should be the guiding hand in how you treat your dog. To paraphrase Psychology Today, “empathy is the experience of understanding a dog’s condition from their perspective”.

Once you understand where a dog came from and why man befriended and used them, you get a much better understanding of how to treat them with true dog empathy in everything you do from discipline and reward to affection.

Working from a human ‘time poor’ perspective, it is easy for an owner to think that plenty of treat rewards, a nice groom and doggy massage is really all the dog needs.  But much of what us humans do for dogs is to satisfy our own thoughts about what a human wants for their dog, not what the dog needs.

Dog empathy is understanding

  1. Dogs evolved from grey wolves only 20,000 years ago and most of their behaviour and food needs still come from that ancestry. Understand the wolf and adapt to your mini wolf.
  2. Humans evolved the wolf into the dog shapes and behaviours they wanted, mostly for work around the farm and hunting. The vast majority of dogs up until a few hundred years ago still preformed major work functions, even work as simple as keeping a house clear of rats. They had a work purpose which they relished.  If you know your dog breed and what it was created for, then giving it work or play that simulates its reason for evolution can go a long way to having a very satisfied dog. Examples are the sparse use of fetching balls (so dogs don’t become obsessive) and games of tracking rabbits (within safe areas). These are things that specific breed dogs desire and need to do to feel like a dog.
  3. Off-lead dog walks are the main daily discipline the owner needs to have. Proper walks are not ‘on lead’ or standing in one spot in the park. They are actually simulated hunts (including guided off-lead pack walks).  For a dog, walking with its owner gives it time to bond and learn leadership, to sniff and explore and use their brain in cataloguing smells and to learn how to greet all types of dogs. It can be a very intense and very enjoyable thing for dogs as they become truly social. It’s not about you, its what your dog needs.

Dog Dicipline – what’s wrong with it?

All dogs need a degree of discipline. However, the majority of dog trainers and TV vets advocate positive reward training rather than focussing on off-lead walks. That’s mostly a result of money making strategies.

The problem is that often when people get obsessed with dog training they forget to allow their dogs to be dogs with free time outside of the yard. Almost all the dog’s time with the human is spent learning how to behave exactly how the human wants with little about learning how to be a good social dog. All dogs need basic training, but they don’t need to learn tricks or be kept away from social dogs. Another unfounded fear I hear is that dogs in a park will learn bad behaviours – these are excuses not reality.

Dog Affection – what’s wrong with it?

Nothing at the appropriate time.  However, giving a dog affection when it has done wrong or after it has had a scare reinforces unwanted behaviours and can create phobias and instability. Many owners who concentrate almost exclusively on giving affection forget that they are supposed to be the ‘boss’ of the house.

It is very easy to accidently create unbalanced dogs who try overly to ‘protect’ the owner and don’t get on well with other dogs. ‘Over-affectionate’ advocates also rarely seem to walk their dog because they think the dog will get hurt and hate the thought of confrontation. A social dog looks forward to almost any meeting and learns by it. They become more confident and happy knowing that they have little to fear being approached by social dogs of any size or breed.

Some trainers (and most big game dog hunters) don’t recommend too much affection in case the dogs lose respect for their owner or become too ‘soft’.   It is clear that a very balanced approach is necessary for a happy and balanced companion dog. Yes training is important, yes they deserve affection, but let the dog make its own appropriate decisions in the park. You will find that training and home behaviour often radically improve.


It’s not a case of don’t give your dog discipline or affection, it’s about the balance between the two and an emphasis on dog empathy. Dog empathy is understanding that training and affection are often just tools humans use to control the dog, not make it satisfied, happy or healthy. Remember: A social dog will be much easier to train and will accept affection.

If a dog doesn’t get to socialise with other dogs daily and get what it needs, why should it listen to irs owner? How does it have an identity as a dog? Love your dog, but understand they are not human. A dog’s needs are different – they should get most of their joy from other dogs, not from us alone.

BIO:  Bruce Dwyer is a professional dog walker based in inner west of Melbourne Australia. From an original career in Electronic Engineering and Corporate Marketing he chose to concentrate on the dog service industry. His company ‘Dog Walkers Melbourne’ has been in business since 2010 and is based on providing the best dog walking and pet sitting solutions for people in Melbourne. The only two times that he has been away from his own dog, he has used his own company’s 24 hour pet sitters.  His own dog Archie (an 8 year old spoodle), enjoys TWO dog walks per day with many of the images and videos from his daily off lead dog pack walks featured on the following sites:

http://www.dogwalkersmelbourne.com.au/  | Facebook: HealthyDogTreatsShop  | Twitter: DogTreatMan |  Google+ HealthydogtreatsAu1