There’s free therapy at your local dog park

I recently moved to a new part of town and started taking my two labs, Beaumont and Marshall, to the Link Piazzo Dog Park in Hidden Valley.

Last Sunday, I made my ritualistic trip there with the excitement starting the minute I picked up the dog leashes. But as I entered the confines of the park, I became quite aware of the various antics of my dogs and their interactions with the other attendees, both human and canine.

Routines

They had their own ritualistic routine.

Beaumont immediately takes off to sniff and relieve himself on every bush and bench. Then, exhausted, he searches for the right people to be his family for the outing and lies down at their feet.

Some might be offended by this behavior, but as a fellow park-goer pointed out, “It’s great that he is so sweet and social.”

Marshall, on the other hand, instantly begins his quest to find the perfect canine playmate.

In his mind, all other dogs, and their toys, are fair game and he knows no enemies. But he regularly checks back in with me, I suppose to be sure that I am still there. As a rescued dog, he knows the pain of abandonment.

It doesn’t take long for them to feel satisfied and fulfilled. They have successfully maneuvered and mastered the park, at least for the day, in their own unique ways.

Their confidence is soaring; their energy is waning; and they are ready for the quiet comforts of home.

Time for reflection

Back at home, I reflect on the experience. Nothing makes me happier than to watch them both have fun, but it’s also fascinating to see how they interact and react within this canine social network called a dog park.

They approach others with assertive curiosity but appropriately retreat if not welcomed. They stand up, firmly yet politely, for their rights when dogs breach their comfort zone.

I watch in wonder and think how great the world would be if people could master these same basic skills.

I highly recommend a trip to your local dog park. I guarantee that it will be entertaining for you and your canine companion, but maybe even a little therapeutic.

And if you don’t have dogs, just pause and observe — I believe we could all learn a thing or two from man’s (and woman’s) best friend!

Nature versus nurture in animal behavior

“Why does Samson hide when guests come over?” “Why does Rita get so agitated when she meets another dog?”

While we accept that physical traits are hereditary, the debate over behavior — nature vs. nurture — rages on. Does Lola lower her head when someone tries to pat her because she was abused, or because she is genetically predisposed to shy away when something, even a loving hand, is coming at her?

Many of us meet our pets for the first time when they are adults, so often we cannot know their experiences or their genetic makeup with any certainty. In our efforts to understand their behavior, it’s tempting to make assumptions and most often we tend to focus on environmental factors. One thing we do know; a kitten or puppy born of shy, aloof, playful or vocal parents is likely to exhibit these same characteristics.

Young animals undergo the most intensive learning period of their life in their first weeks. Both mom and siblings respond to rough play with a growl, a swat, or in some cases, simply by leaving. These earliest lessons teach young cats and dogs to behave in socially acceptable ways. If they are removed from their litter before eight weeks of age, they miss out on this critical training and are more likely to exhibit inappropriately rough behaviors with other animals and sometimes with people.

Socialization with humans also has a short window so it’s important to handle, caress and play with puppies and kittens from a very early age, as it will define their relationship with humans for the rest of their life.

Some behaviors are so innate that we should not attempt to stop them completely. Dogs bark and they crave the security of a pack; cats scratch and are driven to stalk small prey. We can redirect them into acceptable channels. Training, exercise and social activities work wonders for dogs. Providing a scratching post and interactive toys often meets the needs of cats. Exposure to a variety of people, places, and things helps dogs succeed in our human world.

While it is certainly possible to overcome genetic predispositions and early experiences, it is a bit like swimming upstream — it takes more work. For some people, winning the trust of a shy animal or transforming a challenging pet into a model companion, can be a very rewarding experience. But for others, finding a pet that already is a natural fit for their personality and lifestyle is more appealing.

Whether the cause is nature or nurture, animals come with such varied personalities that it’s easy to find a furry companion at your local animal shelter that will be a great fit for you.

The yin-yang of pets

Several weeks ago, the Nevada Humane Society hosted a cat convention, where 100 cats were staged for adoption at a local casino. As I took one last look around the room before we opened the doors, I saw all of our cats calmly and quietly nestled into the bedding of their individual cages. What struck me was how “cat” this was and this would never be the same scenario if they were dogs.

This made me reflect on my own life as a pet owner — specifically regarding cats and dogs.

Over the years, I have usually had both species as part of my family, but there have been times when that has not been the case. And at those times, I have always felt out of balance.

Each type of animal enriches my life, but in a unique way.

Cats tend to be more independent, calm, sophisticated creatures. Being around them gives me a sense of peace and helps me feel centered. I admire their ability to get comfortable and relax in a variety of situations. They bring peace and harmony into my life.

Dogs are usually more dependent, active and very loyal. They need others to teach them social graces, but the return is a strong commitment and bond. They enjoy being involved in human activities, whether it’s just a car trip around town, a hike in the countryside or a game of fetch in your backyard. They are my play buddies and give me a sense of being needed.

Life balance has always been important to me, and I am attracted to things that provide a yin-yang effect. Yin and yang has been defined as complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system.

Cats and dogs are the yin-yang of pets. Most of us animal lovers gravitate a little more to one species over the other.

But for me, I don’t feel complete unless I have both in my life.

Right now, I have two wonderful dogs that are an integral part of my home life — my yang.

I spend the bulk of my day hours in an office that is a temporary home for some of our shelter’s special needs cats — my yin.

I have certainly made some broad generalizations here and do not at all want to take away from the individualities of specific dogs and cats. But my experience as a pet lover has led me to conclude that I feel more complete and well-balanced when I have both species integrated into my life.

If you haven’t already, consider giving it a try!

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