Dog-sitting: on responsibility and needs

My dog-sitting is getting more and more interesting, as I am getting better in understanding what is happening in the communication and interaction with the little dog I’m taking care of.

(Warning! Long post ahead. Have a funny dog picture!)

Daisy flieg!

One thing I read in Karin Actun’s book is that we can map dogs’ roles as “higher status” and “lower status”. She doesn’t identify a pyramid hierarchy because she observed that dogs interact only in pairs (themselves and another dog), so there is no “boss” of the whole pack, but rather a dog who shows its higher status to any other dog in one-on-one encounters. Her explanation is more complete but I hope this summary is good enough.

The important thing that she underlines is that “high status” doesn’t mean “I can use my force against you, I can make you comply to what I want”. It’s more about “I can use space and resources as I need, and if you are in the way you will make room for me”.ย  But not only that: the crucial part for me comes now. So far I thought of authority just like this: someone who can decide something I can’t contradict. But her observations on dogs brought another important point: who has a high status has also the responsibility to make sure the ones with lower status have their needs met. A good example is parenting: parents and other individuals who take care of younger ones should make sure that these have food, water, rest, protection, play, challenges and so on. If they don’t, their authority is hollow and dangerous for the younger ones, and it’s better that they start to take care of themselves on their own – most likely against the will of the authority.

In my case, as dog-sitter I am responsible for the dog if I make sure he gets food, fresh water, movement, interesting activities, interaction with other dogs, cleaning and brushing, and that I notice when something is wrong and he could be ill. I could not claim respect or obedience if I forget about one or more of these things. That would be the reason for the dog to think: “She is not noticing that I have this need! I must take care of that myself. I will not listen to what she tells me about it, because my needs could not be met and it would be the worst thing ever.” and… he would be right!

I notice quite clearly when he needs movement and fun, as he prompts me to throw his favourite ball by pushing it towards me with his nose and barking at me. I almost see him saying: “I really need to move! I really need to play with you because I was so bored this morning all alone at home!” and I can’t tell him to be quiet in that precise moment, because I see that the need is strong and that he wants to make sure I get it. I’m almost sad that he is telling it so strongly, as if I could not understand. I could work on making myself respected by starting with making clear that it’s my decision when he can run and jump, but it implies that I know when he has played enough, and I have no experience of that. What I’m doing is to give him many chances to satisfy his needs, so that he knows I am actually taking care of them, and in some occasions I decide otherwise – and he will likely be fine with that. I am new to dog-sitting so I need to learn to take responsibility in steps.

I started practising this when we go out for a walk and he needs/wants to sniff and mark at almost every tree. What he used to do is to run as far ahead as the leash allowed, then stop square at some interesting scent and refuse to move on until he was done. I was first pulled by him, then I was pulling him and forcing him to go on – and it was becoming unpleasant for both. What I do now is to be the first to walk towards a nice tree or bush, and stop there for a bit. I make sure to stop in a lot of places, because I am not so good in picking the ones with nice scents! I now see him following me, come to the tree, sniff around intently, marking, and then look at me as to say “Where do you want to go next?”. Sometimes I pick an uninteresting tree and he just looks at me like “We can go on, pick another one” – but he doesn’t rush ahead anymore, he is more relaxed now that he doesn’t have to take care of the sniffing all on his own and even against me.

While focusing on the interest in scents I got the bonus effect that he follows me more often than he walks ahead of me, and he doesn’t pull that much on the leash either. He is even OK when I tell him to go on when he finds a nice scent on his own, he just trots towards me when I call him because he likely trusts that I will give him another occasion soon. I could have got there by using force or punishment, but I would have ignored the need of inspecting scents that is important to him, and I would have given the message that I don’t care about them. I would have become a strong but awful boss!

At this point I am talking of needs as a whole and I don’t know if some are true needs or just habits, whims or anything else. My point now is to show him that I can take care of his basic needs, that I want to listen to him and his requests, and manage them for him. I am learning too! I can’t expect the dramatic changes that an experienced dog owner would obtain in this situation. It’s not even my goal. What I need is to sample as much information as possible and make sure I learn a little bit at every step, while not hurting the dog in the process.


Dog-sitting: first week’s impressions

A friend of mine asked me to take care of her Yorkie for one hour every day of the week, as she started working longer hours and was worried that the dog would feel lonely or need anything while alone in the house. I accepted, and started at the beginning of June.

You have to know that I never had a dog before, and the few times I met dogs was not a great experience. My uncle used to have huge herd dogs at home, and every time we visited I was completely overwhelmed by them! I was a tiny girl and they were for me as big as horses. My family never wanted dogs and I haven’t thought about getting one myself, as I am aware that it’s a big responsibility, for which I never felt ready. Dog-sitting sounds much more feasible (not my own dog, only few hours per week)… so I accepted the challenge.

I wanted to catch up a bit before starting to interact with the dog, so I browsed the library’s pet section and picked up these two books (in German):

I found them fascinating. Karin Actun wrote two unconventional guides on how to establish a good partnership with dogs, focused on observing and developing the inner feeling of respectful leadership, instead of giving exercises or rules and focus on making the dog comply. The second book I read, “Hunde Orientierung geben”, moved me really deeply. Karin’s words made me realise that I could become a good reference person for the dog by setting boundaries, asking and giving respect, all by clear communication, without using force or fear, or letting the dog be the leader. I never saw the way so clearly. I also realised how hard it is for me to make my own boundaries clear to others – both dogs and people. I actually stopped reading anything else and examined a lot of my past, and found so many matches with the situations explained by Karin.

Then I started taking care of this little dog, and it made for a very interesting set of experiences. It is clear that he is used to lead and to take care of himself, and to ask for what he needs or likes. It will take a while for him to realise that he can delegate a few things to me, and that I’m good at taking care of them. For example when we go out he is on high alert, as any other dog could harm us: when one comes round the corner he makes himself big, growls and barks. I have to show him that I can defend both of us in case of need (for sure from small dogs!), and that he can stay quiet – and it starts working, he is calmer every day ๐Ÿ™‚ On many other occasions I can understand what he wants to tell me. It’s fascinating to see how he start trusting me and how he is trying his best to understand what I want to communicate. I’m glad I got so much information from these books, and from the videos and explanations on Karin’s website, because I can process a lot more information than I would do by simple trial and error. What I see is that there is as little frustration as possible between me and the dog, and I find it incredibly reassuring, and promising, for both.

Stay tuned for more posts about this dog and what I’ll observe during our mutual respect building!


Book recommendation: “Pen and Ink” by James Hobbs

Some time ago, while looking for inspiration on drawing techniques, I found this compact booklet with a lot of drawing ideas, with a one-page explanation next each drawing:


From the 100 suggestions I took pictures of a few, and keep them handy for when I find my own drawings too repetitive:

It’s more a “where do you want to go” than a “here’s how you get there” book, and I find I need both kinds.

That’s it for today – happy doodling everyone!!

How to open doors

Venezia - Riflessi

(Not a door, but a water-taxi access flooded by water, from one of my trips to Venice)

These last days I thought about this analogy for various kind of interactions among people: the door. There are doors that will open when pushed, and others when pulled. A few doors work both ways. I have heard that some people work well under pressure, and others work better when they are in control of the decision-making process. These would be the two human equivalents of the example above. There are of course many variants, also according to time or conditions: some doors open on their own when their sensor detects movement, some doors have a lock, or a button, or a code, or opening hours; similarly, people react very differently to pressure and have developed complex ways to interact with the world.

One can try to push the door that needs to be pulled, and if one is strong enough it will force the door open anyway. One could have only met push-doors until now, and have concluded that all doors work that way. I find it a powerful analogy for human interactions, and it made me think how I have been looking for THE best human interaction, the one that works with everyone, that makes everyone happy – but there is no such thing.

What I do now is to look for signs and have more than one strategy ready. I usually assume that resistance is a sign that it’s not how the door works, or that there is some protection mechanism in place. I am not strong, so I don’t even try to force the door. But even if I were, I would not use my force in this kind of situations. I have seen that this observation-before-action works well with children and usually works well with adults too, unless there are layers of complexity to unveil, in which case it just takes longer – but hopefully keeps the interactions respectful and relaxed.

There is something along these lines in Warwick Schiller’s video “pushing a horse through a problem”, where he explains how the horse would benefit from learning how to address a difficult situation, instead of just making it go through it with force every time:

and “Bits for bolting horses”, where he explains how a severe bit doesn’t control the horse – the horses have to learn to control themselves:

OK, the connection with the door analogy could be weak, but for me it’s like a 3D model coming together by joining lots of pictures from different angles. I hope you enjoy my ramblings and find them interesting ๐Ÿ™‚

Book recommendation: “Rรฉvolution” by Emmanuel Macron

This one is a different kind of book recommendation:

Source: XO Editions

It is awkward for me to write about this strongly political book, because I know very little about the French political scene, and having a vague opinion sounds lame and irresponsible. However, I picked this book with the intention to know more about Macron’s views and his perception of France’s political-social-economical current affairs.

As I expected, this book is meant as a manifesto and as a presentation of Macron’s political persona. There is not much about him, not much about controversial ideas, no debate of course – a series of chapters with his statements about various important topics. Of course if I wanted to hear opinions about him and his actions, I know I have to look elsewhere: books about him written by others, comments from journalists and people with enough experience in the topic under debate, opposition, locals… and consider all these information as pieces of a larger puzzle.

I have to say that I liked the simple, accessible style of the book. I wasn’t moved much, because I know that the book is intentionally written like this, to be readable by virtually everyone. I didn’t feel the urge to agree with him or to support his causes, I don’t know if it was expected or not. I just kept reading, not too fast, and consider his points critically (not knowing the background information for most of the topics forced me to take his word as is, but I know I can make my own research to double-check). I think he packed a lot of statements in such a short text, and it is probably a good overview of his political agenda.

What I would have done differently is reading the book even slower and fact-check everything, but I hadn’t at the moment that much interest. But at least I know something more about him than before.

Drawing update: bird sketching

Today I had to give back this book about budgerigars, from which I wanted to copy a few pictures. I went to the library with the book and my sketchbook, and drew seven birds in funny poses, as suggested by John Muir Laws in his video about drawing birds: front, back and 3/4 views. Here is the result:

Budgerigars are really cute and funny, and loud too! They are very athletic and like to climb branches and trunks using both feet and beak. They like to hang upside down and roll around branches. I had a couple of these birds when I was a kid and I remember how lively they were. Their cage was near the telephone, so people often asked if we lived in the jungle! We let them free almost every day and they quickly learned every corner of the house. Drawing today made me remember them with a smile ๐Ÿ™‚

Bread update: breads from #51 to #60

Yesterday I baked bread #60 in my list, and here are pictures of the last ten breads I baked:

Actually, I have no picture of bread #52, and as you see I have grown a preference for whole grain loaves. I try to keep them interesting by varying the recipes a bit, but I rarely change the shape ๐Ÿ™‚ Making buns require more space to leaven and bake, so it has to be a special occasion!

Happy baking and cooking everyone ๐Ÿ™‚