Animals, including dogs, are sentient, capable of positive and negative feelings such as pain and fear, as well as happiness and pleasure. They have needs and feelings of their own, and if these are not satisfied, they are likely to suffer.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow published "A Theory of Human Motivation" (1943) in the scientific journal Psychological Review, and later in the book "Motivation and Personality" (1954), the pattern through which human motivations generally evolve. Students who came after him used a pyramid to more easily illustrate his "levels", where the basic needs are at the base, the psychological needs in the middle and the self-realization needs at the top, the ultimate goal in human motivation.
But what about dogs? Aren't both humans and dogs mammals and social beings as well? Wouldn't it make sense that they have a similar scale of needs and priorities?
Brilliantly, Linda Michaels, MA Psychology, adapted Maslow's hierarchy to dogs, hence creating the "The Hierarchy of Dog Needs (HDN)"
The base of the pyramid, the biological and physiological needs, is the first priority in every living being. These needs are linked to the "SURVIVAL", and our dogs depend completely on us to provide these needs for them. And of course, the quality of life we provide will be linked to our decisions in all other levels of the pyramid: a good life is not only about surviving.
The next level, the emotional needs, cover other essential priorities that are not physical, but psychological. To me, the most important ones are love, trust and security. Dog, as humans, need to feel secure in the environment where they live. No one can have a quality life under constant threats and unpredictability, and dogs especially appreciate routines and predictability that give them control over their lives.
Leadership as part of these emotional needs, on the other hand, is a wonderful concept which is often misunderstood, unfortunately. Many times misinterpreted as the "need to be in control at all times", we prefer to call it "reference". My mission is to be a good reference for my dog to help my dog to adapt to a human-dominated world… always keeping in mind that on certain occasions, it will be my dog who will be the lead thanks to my dog's much superior skills. For instance, when he is hunting mice in my garden or, very importantly, when using canine communication in social interactions with other dogs, or when my dog is following his nose as a compass. A couple of years ago, I was walking with my dog off leash in a deep forest when I realized I had lost the path. Thanks to my dog, I found it again and made it home before it was dark. Certainly, when it comes to navigation skills, my dog was leading. So Leadership is about recognizing what each one in a team does better and leveraging it to evolve and develop, both for the individual and as a group.
Regarding social needs, bonding with a social group or family is a natural consequence of the previous levels satisfied; however, the need of dogs to interact and have social relations with other dogs out of their social group should not be underestimated. Dogs are hardwired to get to know dogs that are interacting in the same environment, and if we don't allow or facilitate this social interaction (whether they play or sniff each other), then the chances of developing frustration and behavioural issues increase.
In the next level, we see the word "training". Firstly, let me clarify our approach to coexist with dogs. It is not really based on "training" as "training" is generally understood by the public: treats, positive reinforcement, classical and counter conditioning. Needless to say, our training vocabulary doesn't include words like force, punishment and coercion. We, therefore, prefer here the terminology "canine education". Yet Linda Michaels' model is perfectly adaptable to what we feel about canine education, so it still allows us to do a gentle translation on what this hierarchy means to us.
Our view of canine education has more to do with what Linda describes as social and observational learning, because our mission is to help the dog to understand this human world by allowing them to learn on their own, through their experiences, and with our help, managing environment so they can cope while we attend to safety considerations. While managing their environment, we want to minimize (when possible) human intervention and maximize our respect for the species and their natural developmental phases. This is not an unimportant concept. Dogs are an incredibly successful species with impressive adaptation capabilities. They are capable of raising, educating their offspring and becoming mature individuals on their own as many free-range dogs demonstrate.
Cognitive needs. At the top of the pyramid, "choice" has a big role to play in learning and problem solving, as well as in self-esteem. Having choices and making mistakes are part of the learning process in dogs (and humans) towards maturity. For us, realized dogs are the ones who have judgement appropriate a dog's nature, and their judgement is respected, and considered adequate for a proper coexistence with us. The result is a good quality of life.
When your dog has all of these needs generously satisfied, we can say that this is the "super-dog" or the best version of your dog.
When a dog presents behavioural issues, a thorough review of how ALL these needs are satisfied is a must, and our work should be oriented to fill the gap(s), with proper ethical values and without the use of force, coercion or aversive methods… because they are not needed and because dogs deserve better.
You can read more about Linda Michaels' work on her web page:
Many thanks Linda, for allowing me to share your Hierarchy of Dog Needs (HDN).