Dog’s Eye View: From apes to canines, it’s all about empowerment |

Dog’s Eye View: From apes to canines, it’s all about empowerment

Empower: to promote the self actualization or influence of …

A very long time ago, when I was working at a zoological park, an incident occurred every once in a while. A gibbon (one of the smaller apes) would, out of the blue, start screaming and racing back and forth in his large, empty cage. He was fed a healthy diet and kept clean. One might think his every need was met.

When I reflect on this now, I think how good it is that the world of science has brought us all to a much healthier level of understanding concerning the concept of empowerment. One premise of empowerment is to be able to exercise personal control over especially significant environmental events, such as meal times or an invitation for interaction. Additionally, an animal’s ability to thrive in captivity (and in our homes) is greatly improved when they’ve been empowered to initiate activity.

It’s interesting that the word “thrive” is used in conjunction with empowerment. There’s more to living than just eating, sleeping and watching the world go by. Thriving is flourishing and prospering. I think of it as a vibrant, interactive life, filled with enrichment activities.

Of course, the little ape’s behavior was not “out of the blue.” Something probably occurred in his environment that finally set him off. He expressed this in the form of vocalizing and running. Perhaps something was not immediately at hand that he normally would have had access to, or he needed more ways to express his behavioral needs. It’s difficult to say.

Fortunately, today’s zoos (including the one I worked at, which became a leader in this area) have come a long way in creating environmentally and behaviorally interesting enclosures. Many are, in fact, using the most current knowledge of the science of behavior modification in order to keep the animals safe, healthy and free from stress.

Of course, the memory of the gibbon brings to mind our dog/person relationship. How lucky we are to have these wonderful animals with which to share our lives. The sky’s the limit on the creative interactions we can explore.

Following is an example.

Of my dog, Stuart, thinks it’s time to eat breakfast, and I’m not quite ready, he will institute a whole repertoire of what I call, “Let’s see what will work to get mom to the kitchen.”

He’ll sometimes whine at me when I’m still not quite awake. If that doesn’t work, he might race up and down the hallway and jump at the foot of the bed to annoy our senior cat, Albert, who is sleeping there. I will not allow that, so I will get up to interrupt this game. It works for Stuart.

Occasionally, Stuart will drag part of the newspaper to me and, holding it in his mouth, stand and look at me. If I don’t ask him to hand it over, he may start to shred it. This is a behavior he’s figured out that’ll make me stop what I’m doing and attend to him. He always seems to get the sports section my husband hasn’t yet read.

To some folks, Stuart may seem like a naughty dog, but I see him using these scenarios as a way to initiate activity. Why would I crush his creative and, frankly, funny (to me) behaviors? It’s fun to have a dog the feels he can communicate and be understood. He’s an empowered dog.

Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training, LLC, with more than 25 years of experience. She can be reached at

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