The Language of Needs

How do you think about your dog’s needs and behavior?


The words we use matter. They shape how we think about the world around us in surprising ways. 

Over the past  few decades, many animal trainers, animal scientists, and animal advocates have talked about the need for us to be more mindful about what words we use to discuss animals, and our relationships with them. There are so many examples of these discussions, but here are two wonderful ones from the amazing Zazie Todd, PhD: “Animals Aren’t It: Pets, Pronouns, and Choices” and “Manners, Cues, Management, and the Language of a Better Relationship with Dogs.

It’s one of the reasons you’ll hear me (and many other trainers focused on relationship-centric training) use words like cue instead of command, or life skills instead of obedience.

Changing this language isn’t arbitrary – there’s a method here. Language choice is an intentional tool that can start to shift the way we think about the animals in our lives, their welfare, and our relationship with them. 

This is an ongoing journey for me, like anyone else, and I love those little “ah ha!” moments of realizing my language around something has shifted, and with it my mindset. This morning, I had one of those profound little micro-moments with my cat, Duncan.

Duncan is a kitten, a little over a year old, and cuddly as all get out. Like so many lovely cats, he has a pattern of waiting for me to wake up enough so that he can ask for snuggles first thing in the morning. And this is what he did this time. As I tousled a bit in my “not quite awake but definitely not asleep” way, he ran up, sat next to me on the bed, reached over and tugged ever so gently–with no claws but with enough curl of his paw to do the trick–on my outstretched arm. I smiled, and as I moved to scratch his chin, thought “What a charming way to ask for what he needs.”  

And that thought was huge. 

Not “he’s demanding my attention.” Not even “this is attention-seeking behavior.” Just a simple observation that he was expressing his needs for affection in a way that made sense to him. 

Now, years ago, that’s not the first thought that would have popped into my head. Especially in a groggy, sleepy haze. I might have been annoyed, maybe even pushed him away to discourage his “inappropriately demanding” behavior. Not any more, though. My view has shifted. 

All animals, including humans, have a variety of personal needs that have to be met for us to experience good welfare. And lots of the behaviors we do are actually aimed at fulfilling these needs. 

Our needs include the very basics, like food and water, yes. But, there are plenty of less-obvious, but just as crucial needs, like the need for physical and emotional safety, for mental stimulation, for autonomy, or a sense of connection with others as members of a social species. 

This is not breaking news. Psychologist Abraham Maslow put words around these needs in humans and the motivations they inspire back in 1943. (His work, of course, led to the creation of the now well-recognized concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

But, as a culture and society, we are still not excellent at acknowledging that other species have similar needs, or that those needs motivate their behavior. With our companion animals, like cats and dogs, this denial can bring about friction within our families. 

It’s important to remember that just about everything in our animal’s lives–from when and what they eat, to how they move their bodies or exercise their minds, to when they can get affection, and even when and where they go to the bathroom–is controlled by us, their human caretakers. 

Imagine, for just a moment, living like that. How would we do if we had to constantly wait on others to feed us or let us move, or if we had to always ask permission (and get that other to open a door) before heading into the toilet?

This is our animals’ reality. Yet despite this, when we speak about our dogs’ behavior, our language rarely acknowledges that our control over their ability to meet needs plays a role in their actions. 

It’s still common to hear that when dogs do things we don’t love–like “demand bark” before dinner, pull on the leash on their walks, chew on objects other than their toys, or get into the trash when we are out of the room–they do it because they are “bad,” “don’t respect us,” or they’re “being dominant.” Especially in popular online training resources or television shows, it is really uncommon to see any discussion of how a dog’s unmet needs are at the root of these behaviors. 

Instead we focus on “correcting” them with more training, even more control, and sometimes harsh and even violent consequences. The language we use judges the dog’s personality and even their moral character…with the basis for that judgment drawn from human definitions of what is “right” or “wrong,” of course.  

But, what if we flip that script and actually talk about our dogs’ needs first

How does it feel to think “my dog is communicating a need for space and safety” when our dog barks at other dogs on leash, instead of simply “my dog is reactive”? 

Or what about “my dog is asking for affection in the only way he currently knows how” when your dog jumps on you instead of “my dog is rude”? 

Try saying some of these statements out loud to yourself, first the one with a simple needs observation, then the one with judgment language. Does it make a difference to how you feel about the dog you are discussing? Do you think that different feeling might in turn change what training tactics you are, or are not, willing to use with that dog?

Mindful language choices around behavior can increase our empathic responses, help us set more realistic expectations for others, and get curious about why others do what they do. And I really love that. I wish we did it for other animals–including other humans–much more.

Okay, so dogs have needs and it is way more helpful to think of their behavior in terms of seeking to fulfill those needs rather than through some arbitrary human morality lens. But, does all this mean we never get to ask our animals to offer different behaviors if we dislike what they are doing? 

Of course not. Just like my dog has needs for safety and affection, so do I. And my needs might include not being jumped on when I walk through the door, or not being pulled against so much that I’m at risk of being pulled down. Ideally, training can be used as a communication tool to help us show our dogs alternative ways for getting their needs met that also work for us. Healthy relationships always require communication and compromise, and when it comes to our pups, we want to find solutions that work for both ends of the leash. Ultimately, when we do a better job of acknowledging, and then helping our dogs meet their needs, many of the “problem behaviors” ease anyway, and our relationship with our dogs strengthens.

So what do you think? What does your dog need from you today?

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