Lassie, Maslow, Timmy, and, Well, a Well

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
created by FactoryJoe and shared by permission through WikiCommons
Abraham Maslow proposed a way of organizing human needs into a hierarchy, a sort of if/then logic ladder, and this way of thinking can be  illuminating when considering a dog’s needs and potentials. The levels in this hierarchy of Maslow’s are as follows: the necessary physiological components for survival; the assurance of one’s immediate safety; positive feelings of family and belonging; self- esteem and perceived respect from others; and, finally, self-actualization, or a feeling of reaching one’s potential.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, each level needs to be achieved before the next can be begun, the reasoning being that people (or in this case, dogs) don’t worry about whether they are meeting their potential in life if that life is in immediate danger from a fire, nor do they concern themselves with acceptance in a family structure if they are starving to death.

Applying this hierarchy when considering the needs of dogs can help us to understand dogs better, and can help us to communicate in a way that makes it easier for them to understand us as well. Imagine the classic TV show Lassie, and the now cliché scenes in which Lassie would alert her family that something had happened to Timmy (In fact, no episode ever featured Lassie telling her family that Timmy had fallen in a well). The joke for most of us is how absurd that a barking dog could express so much complicated information in a way discernible by the people; but when the dialogue is broken down into the hierarchical steps, it begins to make a sort of sense.

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: Gosh, Lassie, why are you barking at me? Is one or more of your needs not being met? Hmm Letsee… you have been fed, you have access to water, and regular opportunities to relieve yourself.  Your lush, beautiful coat, the spring weather, and the fact you are standing in my kitchen all suggest you are not freezing to death. Your immediate physiological needs are being met, so why are you barking at me, then?

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: Our house is not on fire, a tornado is not approaching, and we are not in imminent danger of falling off a cliff. Your need for assurance of immediate safety is being met, so why are you barking at me?

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: You sleep in our son’s bed; our whole life revolves around you and your wonderfulness! Your need for family and belonging is being met, so why the hell are you barking at me!? Hey, wait a sec, you sleep in my son’s bed? Where the hell is my son, anyway???

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: Everyone knows you are the smartest, best dog in the whole world! You have saved everyone in the whole town from one sort of calamity or another! You have fought off bears and mountain lions! You have not only the respect, but the adulation, of our family, this town, and the whole nation, plus western Canada and most of Great Britain!!! Your need for self-esteem and for respect from others is being met! Why the hell are you barking at me, and where is Timmy???

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: The only level of need left is self-actualization, or an innate psychological requirement to feel you are meeting your potential – since you are still barking at me, it must be because you want to be meeting your absolute potential. How could you do that in a way that would also explain where Timmy is? Oh, I see, maybe you want me to follow you so I can save Timmy. Let me call the sheriff, grab a rope, and grab a shotgun. Whether Timmy is being held captive by bandits, is cornered by a mountain lion, or has fallen into that pesky well, we will save him! You did it again, Lassie! You have reached your potential! You have achieved self-actualization! You have saved Timmy!!!

The stakes need not be so high as a missing child, and the signals our dogs give need not be so obvious as barking. Dogs offer us many signals, and most of them are never noticed or looked for. The consideration of their needs will help not just in interpreting barks, meaningful looks, or pleading whines, but also in understanding how best to set up our dogs for success when training, or in the practical application of that training. Just as a hungry child will not do well in school, neither will a hungry dog do well in training; nor will it do well if that dog needs exercise, or needs to relieve itself. Ensuring our dogs’ needs are met will help them to reach their highest potential, and this will make them better housemates and more productive members of our families.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s