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A Canine Hierarchy of Needs

Those of you who know me well, know that in addition to working with animals I also work with computers. In specific I train dogs and program software for computers.
In the software world, even more so today with web programming, there is a hierarchy of “needs” when developing software. That hierarchy looks something like this (lowest to highest):
• Core Functionality
• Reliability
• Usability
• Design
• Experimentation
This hierarchy is not based on the needs of the programmer, it is based on the needs of the client the software is being written for with an eye on the eventual users.  
In the world of human psychology there is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and several people have taken this hierarchy and tried to apply it to dogs and dog training. I have never been satisfied with the different iterations of Maslow’s work. The main reasons are that the needs of the “humans” are mixed in with what should be the needs of the dog. Training and methods used in training, bonding with humans, temperature control, grooming, health care (health yes, health care not), helping others, off leash freedom; these and others indicate needs that humans consider dogs have or are intimately intertwined with living with humans and fulfilling humans needs via the dog.  
What about the dog? What actually does a dog (or most any animal) need? Without mixing in human control, emotions or considerations; what can a dog achieve past basic survival?
These questions led me to a possible needs hierarchy that more closely resembled what a dog, or just about any animal, would actually have as needs.
• Energy – that which is needed to fuel the body for survival
• Safety – security of body and resources, an understanding of the body and the environment to ensure the acquisition of resources, confidence that one can respond appropriately, effectively and efficiently to outside forces of change and create a new balance
• Connection – survival as part of groups, family, procreation and the raising and education of young, ensuring the survival of the group and the species. This would include developing a mode of communication that makes connection possible.
• Cognition – Confidence that one can achieve the survival goals of life, ensure appropriate and meaningful mental and physical stimulation, be willing and able to perceive and resolve problems, be resilient to change and understand the need for a predictability of response
• Potential – This is where one achieves the freedom to flow with life challenges, to make choices based on exploration and curiosity for greater abundance of resources and connections, and the mastery of one’s life.
Why do we need a Hierarchy of Needs for our dogs? What purpose does it serve?
I deal mostly with behavior and much less with teaching tricks. With behavior issues it really helps to know where a dog is in regards to his own survival. What emotional responses can one expect in working with each individual dog? What drives the behavior and what reinforces it? Is it avoidance or attraction that motivates the dog when confronted with a trigger?
There are many “tools” one needs in working with the emotional responses and subsequent behavior of a dog. This hierarchy is one such tool and provides the trainer with questions that can be asked about the dog and his behavior and responses. Questions such as:
• What is he concerned with/worried about
• What does he respond to / gravitate toward
• What does he avoid
• What is he indifferent to / appears to have no meaning for him
• How does he respond when attracted
• How does he respond when avoiding
Answering these questions while moving through the definitions of each level of the hierarchy will give a trainer answers as to what currently may motivate the dog being worked with, what can be used to reward and/or reinforce a dog’s learning patterns, and what will demotivate a dog or send him crashing emotionally. These answers will also tell you how effective the dog is in handling himself and the environment and what methods he could choose to ensure survival or if he is overwhelmed enough to just succumb.
This hierarchy also helps us understand what motivates our dogs and to understand their potential. Too often both in the past and in the present, a dog is view only for his aesthetic value or as a companion and otherwise only thought of as an “animal”. Applying the hierarchy and answering the above questions with the hierarchy as the model also leads us to see what is reinforcing a dog’s behavior and what may be preventing (punishing) them from doing as we wish them to do.
Working your dog’s behavior from one end of the hierarchy to the other, looking for reinforcers, motivators and punishers and you will then have the means to quickly and efficiently help your dog become the dog of your dreams.