This beautiful morning on a hike with my dogs, I passed a couple of women jogging, and this was the snippet of dialog I heard: "She thinks she is going to take my dad to the cleaners. We
hired a really good lawyer, so she can think again."
This was overheard after I had been reading some exchanges in the dog community. Highly competitive dog sports enthusiasts were criticizing the skill level of pet dog trainers and agility trainers. Ring sport (or Mondio) trainers, which I would have to say, are probably indeed the most proficient and elite of dog trainers, have different criteria. This exchange all derived from discussion of a video that was posted by a TV dog trainer, not the one you would naturally conclude. This one likes to wear boots and has a nice accent. Yes, it wasn't the best example of how to teach a dog something. But this is a TV celebrity, trying to convey some principles, not necessarily a dog trainer.
The field is not unlike many, I suppose. A neurosurgeon may think of a general practitioner as less than. But a neurosurgeon is an amazing mechanic, who deals with people when they are asleep. A gp has to deal with a whole person, and needs to have amazing detective skills, people skills. They are as different in their abilities as can be. Comparing top ranked ring sport trainers to pet dog trainers is a little like comparing Lance Armstrong to a fitness bicyclist who is trying to feel good and keep the arteries flowing, or Tiger Woods to a weekend golfer. The amount of time a highly ranked person spends on training their dog in the competition world tends to rule out a great deal of other life activities. The dog one chooses for the competition is not a dog that most regular people actually want to live with. They are not choosing a quiet, reserved Whippet to train. A driven, working dog is very prepared to be a soldier, to work and work, to take constant direction. They are more than ready to cycle 100 miles a day, or to putt 100 different lies on a green, to reach the top of their game. The trainers that work with them are ready to spend every day working, repeating, refining, repeating, driving miles and miles, living and breathing their sport. Very admirable.
Pet dog trainers and instructors have a very different task and a very different skill set than the highly competitive. They have to be creative, have to have patience with people, have to figure out how to help build a happy connection between someone who is only willing to commit to maybe a half hour a day to their dog in their very busy lives. I have trained with a few trainers who are highly ranked, travel nationally and internationally to compete. It doesn't last long, because there can be a tendency to be much kinder to dogs than to people. The focus and perfectionism can be one of the things that takes them to such a proficient level. They are impressive in their dedication, commitment, skill level. But the patience required to help a pet owner who is just trying to get a dog to lie down or not pee in the house is probably not something they would be willing or able to tackle. I have also trained with very competitive trainers who get the top titles, but who don't devote their entire lives to competition. They train the breed they love because they love the breed, they work with people who are learning because they know the people love their dogs. They enjoy people, they have patience with people. They are wonderful to learn from. Thank goodness for all the varied interests and different skill sets.
The divisions will ever be thus, but when it leads to a lack of listening to others, it is not productive. When it leads to one camp being the superior one, it closes the door for better understanding and communication. The "balanced trainers" pull their hair out when the "purely positive" say they use only positive training. I can watch a person with a dog who makes this claim for 10 minutes, and pick out several places where aversives were in place. So honesty and careful word choices are important. I understand the frustration among those that are criticized for using punishment, because they are asking for honest appraisal of the work of those that claim they are using only positive. And when they in turn call trainers "cookie pushers" with derision, it further slams doors. Both camps tend to shut down any chance for exchange, learning from one another. In the end, we all choose what best fits our own style and personality, but listening to others can always add value to our own choices, whether we think it through and discard, or adapt it and use it to benefit our own training. Those who abuse dogs in the name of training are not part of the equation.
Dog training has to be practiced and practiced consistently for one to reach a decent skill level. And it has to be maintained. I would not consider myself a very good dog trainer any longer. I have not maintained it. I have not put the time and effort in. I can still do the big picture stuff that pet people want, and then some, but my focus changed to welfare a number of years ago. I admire those that have excellent timing and are able to slice training to such thin pieces, the ability and interest to pay attention to extreme minutia. It isn't for me, but I sure can learn from it and admire it.
But back to the joggers I overheard this morning.....we are only human, and it comes with a lot of flaws and tendency toward confrontation. We don't seem to be evolving too rapidly away from that tendency, but then again, sometimes growth and new knowledge arises from the differences, and from those that are willing to fight over it. I just know I would hate to be involved in the hiring of the lawyer cited above. I would be much more fond of hiring a mediator, because growth and understanding can result from this as well, and the acrimony can be left out of it. It is one of the reasons I tend to avoid joining the dog profession's organizations. I see a tendency toward so much group think in some of these organizations, limiting growth for oneself, opening the door toward acrimony.
Lately I seem to be seeing more people that adopt dogs from rescue or shelters who seem to be rushing things and to be analyzing and analyzing. Often when I ask clients how long they have had
their dog, they might say 3 weeks, a month, two months. There is a desire to have the perfect dog in that time, to have an ideal partnership. Yikes! That's asking for quite a lot in a short time.
Regardless of the dog's history, whether they came from an unfortunate prior life, or a loving and wonderful place, it is a big adjustment to learn the new people, the new environment, the new
expectations. We are all creatures of habit and our own routines, dogs and people. So to expect a dog to settle in and understand the new rules within a short time is asking an awful lot. When we
make change in our own lives, we have a lot of control over our comings and goings, get to make choices about tomorrow's plans, when to have a meal, when to go to the bathroom, when to get out of
the house. Dogs have none of these choices. They may have left behind a person or persons that they really loved and cared for, requiring time to help get them past that. They may have come from
a situation that did not allow them to experience the world, now being thrust into an enriched world among humans.
A recent visit to a client revealed several books piled on the couch, corners folded, post-it notes marking pages, notes taken. I cautioned that they would be finding an awful lot of contrasting opinions, authors contradicting each other, leading to confusion and possible frustration. I loved the dog they adopted, and suggested that they trust themselves, relax, enjoy the transition and growth, observe how the dog is adapting to new things, help her find her place, but expect some things along the way that might not meet long term expectations. And I would be available at any time to try to answer questions that come up along the way. The desire to make things perfect in a short time, all coming from a nurturing and caring place, puts pressure on the dog, on the relationship, on ourselves. When people feel that they must jump right into formal training, before getting to know the dog, and letting the dog adjust to its new life, that feels to me like unnecessary pressure on both parties.
With all the literature and popular media highlighting dogs nowadays, I can't help but notice that people are failing to trust their own gut. I have often said that the further we all get from any rural roots, the less we seem to be able to relate to other species, so the learning curve is certainly necessary. And there are many people who really don't seem to have much give and take, nor much understanding of others, so they need coaching. But many people seem to be walking on eggshells, afraid to do what might feel natural, afraid that a natural interaction might lead to a dire consequence or disapproval from others.
A dog is supposed to add value and joy to our lives. I don't think there is anything wrong with relaxing, hanging out, getting acquainted, putting the training books down, going for hikes, sitting on the deck, giving the dog and ourselves a break and some time to get to know each other. After all, they don't need to get on the waiting list for the best pre-school as soon as they leave the delivery room. Enjoy, learn from them, marvel at how amazing they are, and be patient with newly arrived household members. They haven't become part of the instant everything internet world yet.
Of course, obtaining a pup vs an adult means getting in there right away to establish acceptable behavior, start with training right away. They are sponges, ready to soak up everything, so the sooner we start, the better. They should be shown the right path from the start, so that they aren't unfairly given new rules after they have gained 30 pounds, and some of it isn't so cute anymore.
Today I was on the roads at prime time. It was a Monday morning, always a tough time for those who had relaxing or crazy weekends, trying to get back into their weekday flow. Teens were trying to
get themselves to school on time, parents were trying to get their younger kids to school, adults were trying to get to work on time. As I came to a 4-way stop, pretty much at the same time as
the other 3 drivers, it all worked very well. Everyone waited to figure out who should go first, and it flowed well. I realized how well this system works, for the most part. There are so many
people out in these huge death machines, and horrible things happen, cars probably being the greatest contributor to deaths (just guessing). But, in general, it works pretty well on a daily
I live in a community with police sitting on corners with their radar guns, or sitting around the corner to follow you with beautiful flashing red colors if you go through a stop sign. Does it play a part in the reason I come to a full stop on a quiet Sunday morning when no other cars are around? Does it play a part in the reason I slow down on a road with a particularly high police presence? Of course it does. I don't want a ticket, I don't want my insurance rates to go up.
The biggest thing, though, I think, is the really consistent requirements, the habit we fall into when driving. We can sometimes get from point A to point B without even remembering the trip. It is because we repeat, repeat, until it becomes our default. If we were told that we could go through stop signs on Sunday mornings, or between the hours of midnight and 4 AM, or something, our muscle memory might fail us when we are driving at 5 PM on a Friday.
It is clear cut, it is black and white, it is consistent in its requirements, and there is a threat of consequences if you don't comply with the rules of the game. These are certainly principles that can be applied to our dogs. If we are consistent with our dogs, they tend to fall into the routine that is designed. We set our dogs up for confusion and failure all the time. It is inevitable and natural. It doesn't have too much fallout with some dogs, those that are confident, secure, mellow, all the things that so many of our dogs are not. For most, we have to fight against the tendency to confuse them, allow them to do something on one day, then get angry with them when they attempt it again. I think most of us retain an image of Lassie, going with us wherever we go, never really needing a leash, able to problem solve on her own. It is a wonderful ideal, but Timmy and family also lived on a farm. Sometimes when I am walking around Berkeley and I see these dogs that don't have leashes, that wait outside of Peet's, that can walk down busy streets and never veer from the sidewalk, I am in a state of admiration. But those dogs are uncommon nowadays, due to so many factors, (backyard suburban life being one of the many). It takes thought and work to help them be good dogs, but it is also fun and supremely rewarding.
I heard a story yesterday, about an angry guy who was in line to buy an electric collar to be completely unfair and cruel to his little dog who was not housetrained. When I hear these kinds of things, I somewhat understand the pendulum swing that has gone so far to one direction in much of the dog world. When people reject words like leadership nowadays, I assume they are hoping to eradicate this anti-social, inhumane type of behavior toward dogs. But when people who love their dog, want the best for their dog, are told that they can't say no to their dog, it tends to tie their hands, and ends up restricting their dog's life. The pendulum is ever trying to find the right spot, but we all need to sift through everything we hear with a critical ear. Leadership is not a bad thing. We all line up at election booths, at a cost of billions, to designate them. Yes, some are unworthy.
Last week I saw a client who had hired a local trainer to help them with their very aggressive, very fearful dog. This is a guy that has wonderful reviews on his yelp page. They said that one of his pointers was to rub the dog's nose in her pee when she peed inside. I must say, I was dumbstruck to hear that a professional trainer is still giving out such advice. Fortunately, their radar went up, and they will not be seeing him again. Another client was told by their instructor never to play tug with their dog. While I do think that there are dogs one should not engage with tug, this dog was the perfect candidate for such a game. He loved it, he gave up the tug on request, he is a very active adolescent that needs more interaction with his people. I recently heard a trainer say that she didn't want to walk in to her dog's space when he was trying to eat the chickens in the coop, as that was too punitive. Have you seen the social interactions of dogs? Are they so fragile that hearing our disapproval is going to break them? Is the relationship so weak that it will be ruined? If my relationship with my dog is that fragile, there is so much more wrong with the whole picture, that I need to start over completely, probably not live with dogs.
We are constantly fighting the mythology, trying to help people who are sifting through so much contradictory information. I think if we are trustworthy, deserving of our dogs' trust, we have set the foundation for everything else to follow. The guy in the store yesterday likely has no relationship with his dog, will most certainly do some psychic damage to his little dog, and we can all hope that he re-homes the dog sooner rather than later. If he had been really clear about having his dog stop at every stop sign, he wouldn't be where he is now. He clearly had way too many expectations, way too little structure. And now, sadly, the dog will pay the price.
I have been doing a little reflection lately. I have a client who keeps calling and asking me to meet with her. She has a great pup — smart, very interested student, wants to play the game,
learns quickly. I fear it is again one of the mismatches that makes me so sad. The client seems to want to chat, walk, tell stories. This is an older person with a large breed, young pup, always
cause for concern. I am continually trying to refocus her attention on the youngster wanting to learn more things. She has a gem in this dog, but I worry that the gem may find other avenues in
which to challenge herself.
As I think about this, I think about my own focus on dogs. I have been thinking about the dog world and the enthusiasm that we all have for seminars, for more learning opportunities. We attend the weekend seminars, come away with all sorts of new enthusiasm that frequently lasts for about a week or so. We heard something that made us change our view because it came from an author with a reputation as guru. We haven't changed our view because we experienced it ourselves with a dog. Of course, the experience and teaching of others is always very valuable, and a great way to expand our knowledge, our thinking, our resources. But I wonder about the balance between this avenue and actually playing with dogs.
I think of my childhood with lots of kids, dogs, horses. I remember all of the amazing things we taught our dogs, I realize that it was us with our dogs. We weren't at computers, reading books, sitting in lecture halls for 8 hours. We observed our dogs, tried things, abandoned those that didn't achieve results, kept up with those that did. We actually learned from the dogs, the truest source of learning.
When we experience seminar-itis I think we can tend to confuse our dogs: They probably wish they could ask "Why are we doing this now when we were doing something else last week? Can we have some consistency please?" I remember when people were coming up with different ways to teach weave poles. Lots of switching around to the next new method. As it happens, most dogs can learn weave poles regardless of method. And this is true of most things, depending more on persistence, flexibility, willingness to ask the dog, work ethic, self confidence, native ability with regard to coordination and timing.
I think that our eyes and ears are sometimes removed from the 4 legged students we are working with, removed from asking them how they are doing, how they are learning. Instead we look to the newest guru on the block and ask them. I think it can come from a lack of confidence in oneself, in one's ability to choose a path, look for progress and trust that our dogs can learn from us, and us from them.
There are also those that are more creative than us, that come up with a solution that we hadn't thought of, so it is always a great idea to look to others when we get stuck on something. We all have the risk of being too close to a situation, getting caught in a rut. Fresh eyes and ideas can work wonders. I think the sharing of knowledge in the dog world is wonderful and amazing these days. I think it provides people with an opportunity to socialize and network with people with like interests. I think it is always great for us all to continue learning until we are on our death beds. I also think we have to find balance in who we are getting our experiences and lessons from. More often than not, the dogs are the real teachers, and we have to trust that they know what they are teaching. They might even tell us something that is counter to the latest 'thing' in the dog training world.
I always tell the human students I am teaching that they have to work out decisions between themselves and the dog at some point. I am not going to live with them. They need to think, need to make choices about what is best for their dog in a situation. Observe, observe, and observe some more. Then do. They are to be commended for asking for help. That is why we are here. We can help them with so much. But they also have to learn how to see, how to make choices for their dog, how to think through problems.
I need to do the same! I think relying on lectures can slow us up. I think relying on the ones with tails and expressive ears can provide us with real progress. And we can always believe them.
It was just one of those days guaranteed to make me wish it were tomorrow.
We know Luke is a special needs boy. He tries really hard - his obedience is impeccable when his brain is actually functioning at maximum potential. The problem is that his arousal level is not actually under his own control, and when certain things happen, well, he just can't keep it together. These days the most common problem is imminent close proximity of another, uncontrolled, dog. We have been assiduous in keeping him safe, and he can walk right next to other dogs without turning a canine hair. But that doesn't mean he can handle a "friendly" straight on approach from another dog. He needs a careful, slow introduction to make a good friend.
We have an arsenal of alternate behaviors for him. Quick turns, watches, find its, etc. At this point, I think he counts on us to get him out of a tricky situation. Yesterday, there were two. The first was on a neighborhood street. A man was walking his two dogs - one on leash the other off. We turned a corner and saw them. As the off leash dog joyfully advanced, Luke and I immediately turned to go the other direction, and I shouted to the man that "this dog is NOT friendly." As usual, he didn't quite get it, but my rapid retreat probably hastened his understanding. He started following his own dog, trying to get him (or her) back. An onlooker would have seen a somewhat amusing situation - a middle aged woman walking rapidly with her black and white dog, followed by a chocolate lab, followed by a man dragging a Golden Retriever on leash. I stopped and tossed treats to the lab, who seemed to think that Christmas had arrived. Luke was a bit nervous, but held himself together well. We played games all the way home, so he could cover up that memory with other ones.
Then, later in the day, we were walking up a hill near our home. This time I had our three dogs. A woman with her dog turned a corner, heading towards us. She was on the phone. The dogs and I turned around, and she waved in a desultory fashion and kept coming - plainly not seeing what was going on, even though I shouted at her that this dog wasn't friendly. It probably complicated things no end that the other two dogs obviously were friendly. Again, there was no aggressive incident, and the rest of our walk passed calmly enough.
When you have a dog that doesn't deal well with strange dogs, life on the outside can be fraught with anxiety and peril. No corner is safe, every open garage is suspect. Instead of enjoying a relaxing time with your canine companion, you're constantly on the lookout for "friendly" dogs. And indeed they are friendly, and social, and sometimes downright rude. For a dog with space issues, they are invasive and scary. It's as though a person you don't know and who looks a bit intimidating rushes towards you to give you a big, friendly hug! We humans probably wouldn't like that at all.
There are many dogs with space issues, probably more than you suspect. And all we would like is for other people to look around them, checking the environment for oncoming dogs. If they see one on leash, the polite thing to do is leash their own dog - that gets rid of potential problems quite nicely. As an adjunct to that, I actually hold up my leash to show the oncoming person that my dog is leashed, and hopefully to communicate that there is a reason for this.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.
Most of my cherished and salient memories of my childhood involve those that revolve around the many animals we had in our family. We had dogs, cats, rabbits, chinchillas, horses, snakes, rats,
birds, mice. It was a family of four kids, me being the one most obsessed with the animal companions. I just had to get the book to look through all the breeds of dogs, I had my heart set on a
kitten, I loved getting up early before school to feed the horses, always thinking it would be better to stay home and go for a ride rather than go to school. I never left the obsession
When I was in high school, my summer job was to be the assistant riding instructor at a local weekday program for kids ages 5 and up. I loved the kids, loved watching them develop, seeing them take an interest in caring for the horses, listen to their stories and dramas, coach them on interacting with the horses. In fact, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a teacher at this point, so intrigued by human development and so fond of kids.
This all brings me to my experiences in the world of dog consulting and matching families to dogs. At the shelter, we often heard from families complaining that we didn't have enough dogs that were suggested for young kids. I explained that the ones that we knew were good for families with young kids didn't last but a day or two, were adopted very quickly. And we did tend to err in favor of being conservative, for the sake of the kids, those little faces so close to the mouths with teeth. If we had a dog that was suggested for families with older kids, but a family with young children was interested, I was always happy to go out with the dog and the kids to see if it was a match. If the parents had the time and energy to be expert supervisors, the dog was tolerant and friendly with the little ones, it was definitely worth a shot.
Of course also at the shelter, there was no shortage of people who didn't like kids, didn't approve of us sending dogs and cats home to families with young kids. There was a tendency for some to be very protective of the animals, assume that kids had no idea how to treat the animals. It was a constant puzzle to put together.
Parents with young kids will say that they want to get a puppy so they can bring each other up, they can mold the puppy, ensure that the pup will love the kids, the kids will have a friend to grow up with. If they know that they are adding another toddler to the household, and one with very sharp teeth, they might wisely rethink it. And some who insist on doing it do come to their senses within a week or two, suffering from fatigue and stress, and return the pup so that he can find another loving home. "The kids don't want to have anything to do with him. He bites them, jumps on them and knocks them over. It's exhausting."
There is an age at which kids don't really comprehend, don't know that there is a sentient other looking them in the eye. Toddlers explore the world with their hands, they readily stick pencils in their mouths, fingers in electric sockets, fingers in eyes. Pretty much anything that is novel and interesting is something to explore and learn about. If there is a dog within reach, let's grab some fur, try that pencil in his mouth, pull on an ear, bite an ear! This is just their way of finding out about the world around them. And a dog might be liable to bite or scratch. Puppies don't know that chewing on the screaming little child is not just part of the fun and excitement of being a puppy.
On the other hand, I recently had a client family that I wish I could clone. They introduced a pup into their family. In this family is a sensitive young girl of 12. She is fearful of dogs, having been attacked by a large breed dog when she was 4. The wise family is not pushing her, not insisting that she instantly love this little pup. She has initially been tentative, reserved, but is now opening up to the joy and wonder of the very sweet and trainable puppy. This is opening up a whole new world for her, one that will bring so many rewards. She will be able to share confidences with this dog as she goes through this difficult age, stories about the boy she has a crush on, the teacher that picks on her, the girls that she has fun gossiping with, the parents that don't understand her. It will be a wonderful and lasting memory for her when she reaches adulthood.
Timing is critical when adding a pet to your household. Toddlers need some time to become more cognizant of the world, able to accept instruction and guidance, able to understand that their dog has feelings and reactions. If it is done too soon, rushed to complete the family, it can result in sadness and stress for all. And when the child is ready for a companion, it can be the greatest thing ever.
I used to live next door to a woman who played the Bassoon. She was in the local community orchestra, in quartets and quintets in the community. She had been playing the instrument for many years, now semi-retired and getting much satisfaction from her involvement with the local groups.
It was very common for me to hear her practicing, doing scales, playing bits of movements from the next Sibelius Concerto or whatever that they were going to be performing. This is a person who has played for years, is quite accomplished, yet she continued to go back to basics, refresh and remind the fingers, the mouth, the mind, of the early things learned. (Of course, as a double reed instrument, one does need to maintain practice just to be successful at making it sing.)
When you or I took guitar or violin or piano lessons as children, we were reminded that we needed to practice each day between lessons. Those of us that didn't hear this soon gave up the lessons for other pursuits. The flute or clarinet was returned to the rental store, the guitar went back to the closet to gather dust.
But again and again I hear from people who took their dog to a puppy class or to a beginning obedience class and then expected their dog to know how to behave from then on. When I explain that reminders and practice and new skills are good for all, there can often be some resistance. Shouldn't that one 6, 8, or 10 week class have taken care of the rest of the dog's life? Shouldn't he then know to come when called, keep off the furniture, refrain from jumping on people, stay when asked?
We lead busy lives. It takes time and effort to communicate formally or even with concentrated focus with our dogs. It also brings huge rewards that make every minute of doing so worth the time. It builds our relationship, it allows for more freedom to the dog to join us in more activities, it becomes something that our dog very much looks forward to each day, the joy of interacting with us, and using his brain. It has all upside, the only downside being carving the time out of our day. It allows us to learn and understand more and more about our dog.
It doesn't need to be much time. Even a couple of 10 minute or a few 5 minute focused attention slots in our day will be a huge advantage to both dog and person. When we put the guitar away in the closet or close up the piano, there is not much cost. But if we do this with our dog, there is a big cost. They pick up habits that displease us, they lose beneficial privileges because of unruly behavior or a lack of self control. We may even begin to resent them a bit. Some investment in teaching them, communicating with them would bring the exact opposite result. We grow to love them and appreciate them so much more when we actually put time and focus on tutoring them in desirable behavior, teaching them fun tricks, or finding that they have amazing aptitude, well beyond what we could have imagined.
And yes, we need to continue to practice our scales throughout their lives. They may become very proficient at many things, but refreshing and renewing the basics will always come in handy. The more we engage with our dogs, become active participants in their lives and in communicating with them, the more we appreciate them and they us. We can't just take them through one beginning class and call them done. And the more we ask of each other, the more amazing our partnership becomes.
They can't be put in the closet. And we don't want to give up on what could be a profound and wonderful relationship, just because we neglected feeding it or nurturing it. If we start out right, prevent the things that aren't so cute when they are adults or not so newly adopted, but more established in our homes, watch their joy as they learn new things, it can only result in a beautiful thing. The investment pays off exponentially. And they don't have much risk of being surrendered to a shelter or rescue, their lives upended.
We have to find balance in our relationships. We need to work to help our dogs live comfortably with us and our chaotic human world. This takes time, practice, patience, observational skill, a
willingness to work at it. If they are uncomfortable with other dogs, get worked up when on leash, are fearful of new people, new environments, we work on helping them to work through these
things. We want them to be comfortable, reduce the stress and anxiety that they might feel. We want them to be comfortable so that we can take them more places with us, enjoy their company in
We also need to know when to accept who they are, to be willing to change our expectations of them. If they don't want to meet lots of other dogs, we need to accept that. If they don't want to hang out at the coffee shop while we sit at the table visiting and drinking our caffeine, we need to accept that. If we have a dog that really gets no enjoyment out of agility, we need to question why we might be insisting.
As with people, there are introverts and extroverts in dogs. There are shy dogs, there are driven dogs, there are dogs that love to meet everyone and anyone, there are dogs that prefer a small circle of friends only. So we work on making things better as much as possible for them, minimize the stress, maximize the comfort, then we adjust the environment to fit with who they are.
When someone calls me to say that they don't want to have to make any changes in their own lives to meet their dogs needs, one of my tasks might be to reset their expectations. If one's daughter decides that med school or law school is not for them, a good parent supports that decision and understands that the love of another avenue is a perfectly fine thing for their child.
I have one such dog that has limitations. He likely had distemper as a pup and he has some issues that make him a bit limited in his ability to do things that the other dogs can do. He can't go to as many places as the other dogs, but we have made concessions, made his life work for him and for us. We have learned to appreciate who he is, have not pushed him beyond his ability.
We have to compromise in our human relationships. If one is not fond of endless holiday cocktail parties with people they don't really know, their partner, who might love such gatherings, understands that it might be pushing to expect that one after another might be too much to ask. They come up with a plan where the more introverted attends a few of them, the extrovert attends a greater number independently, or skips some of them. This is how relationships work and thrive.
Wouldn't it be great if we made our relationships with our dogs work that way too? Wouldn't it be to great to help them to be comfortable in our world while not pushing them beyond their innate abilities, understand that they might have preferences, might have limitations. Just imagine if your parents insisted that you go to medical school even though your dream was to become an artist. Our dogs are just as individual as we are.
When I hear someone state that one should unfailingly commit to a dog for life, I find myself in conflict with that notion. I have seen so many mismatches lately and it causes me to have so much
sympathy for dog and person. There are the obvious ones: senior citizen that forgot how much work it is to have a young pup of high energy and intelligence; the dog that doesn't like kids that
lands in a household with 3 kids under 5. There are some that are less obvious — a dog that is extremely responsive to dog language living with a person who doesn't seem willing or able to learn
dog language; a type A dog with a type A person that results in both being overly reactive; a type B person with a type A dog that results in very slow and delayed communication; a type A person
that wants a sport dog, living with a type B dog that has no interest in all that activity; an overly dependent dog with an overly dependent person; an overly dependent person with a very
independent dog, and so on.
I can think of some really lovely dogs that would be so much better served by being re-homed, placed in a home that is a better fit overall. After all, we bring the dogs to our homes without asking them, without giving it a trial run to see if we are compatible. Sometimes it just doesn't seem fair to everyone to insist that it should remain that way. I understand that this is something for which everyone has different opinions. For instance, with regard to our own species, some people think that a marriage should last forever, regardless of whether or not the parties are still happy or fulfilled. You said 'til death do us part', so you should honor that until the end. But this was a choice made by both parties, both of whom have made a decision to enter into this contract. Dogs have been put into the arrangement and don't have a lot of choice but to adapt to what has been thrust upon them.
When I was involved in horses, it was not unusual for people to have a 'try out' period, to see if this was who they wanted. If not the best fit, the owner goes back to the drawing board to find the right match. I talked to someone today who has working dogs. He placed a dog with someone on a trial basis. "If it doesn't work out, if she isn't what you are looking for, send her back. I will find a better match." This seems like such a better approach to me.
Now look at a scenario where a person has decided to get a second dog. What if the first or second dog doesn't find it to be a fit, to be to their liking? What if they fight or what if one is bullied or cowed by the other? Do we insist on keeping the commitment even if the dog or dogs don't find it to be a comfortable situation? Dogs are generally the best in the world at adapting to what is presented, because they don't often have any choice. But is it okay to impose that on them? Do we insist on keeping them in our 2000 square foot house together even if they aren't content or comfortable with each other?
I have known of situations where dogs were re-homed to homes that are a better circumstance, only to see the dogs blossom. The people who have re-homed the dog are better able to lead a life that is better suited to them, the new dog guardians are happy with the dog. Seems like a win-win-win.
There are obvious problems with this conundrum. Is it fair to have dogs bounce around? Well, they are the most adaptable and flexible species that I know of. Is it not reasonable to have people put forth some effort, to compromise, attempt to meet the dog's needs? Absolutely. Someone who gives up on a dog because it wasn't house trained in two days or because it sheds, or for any number of frivolous reasons shouldn't have a dog anyway of course. But if there are some issues that might be more substantive that still require effort and dedication from the person, should the person try to figure out a solution? Absolutely. But if there is just a real issue with real conflict that seems unresolvable....?
Good dogs are suffering from a lack of needs being met with insistence on making it work, on committing to the dog. An example: If I had not been in a position to spend a lot of time getting out to the multiple acres and lake water available to me when I had a high drive sporting dog, bred for her unending drive and obsessive work ethic, it might not have been fair for me to keep her. Because I had the resources and the ability to meet her needs, it worked. It wasn't easy, but everything lined up in a way that worked out. If I had gotten her when I was older or when I was working 60 hours a week, it could have been a disaster for her and for me, leading to frustration for both of us. And yes, she was completely dedicated to work, and work some more. I see this more and more with breeders trying to create high drive dogs for their chosen sport. First, not everyone is as dedicated to doing sports with their dogs day in and day out, every weekend. So where do the pups get placed? Then there is the illusion that we can control genetics. Sometimes that desired high drive tips over to no self control at all.
It is an interesting dilemma. When I was at the shelter, I rarely objected to someone returning a dog. If the dog and person didn't get along, then it wasn't good for anyone. If they weren't ready to put in the time, then it wasn't good for anyone. If two resident dogs didn't get along, then it wasn't good for anyone. We know that the more of oneself one devotes to building the relationship, the more good it does, the more solid the bond becomes. Amazingly, many dog people have the most love for the dog that required the most effort, the dog that was the biggest problem. But when I see that people can't give that effort or time to a dog that really needs it, it makes me wish the dog could be with someone who can provide. Sometimes it is as simple as a high energy dog that needs a jogging partner, but who lives with someone that can barely make it around the block once a day. Although it is simple, it can be real, and the fallout is sometimes palpable.
There are people, very few, that I do not trust at all. My choice is to not spend any time with them. If I have to spend time with them, there is no relaxing, no level of comfort. I have the option not to spend time with them. Trust is what I feel is THE biggest thing with our dogs. I know that good dog lovers would wish that a dog they feel is neglected and/or abused should be pulled from a home. So how about a home that is perhaps less black-and-white, but where the dog is still suffering, needs unmet? There are people with whom I feel completely relaxed, that I know I can be myself. Wouldn't it be great for dogs to have that same option?
Today my dog Boo and I visited with my ex-husband. We are good friends, with too little time to visit frequently, and Jim misses and loves Boo tremendously. Boo is a dog that doesn't vocalize
much in general. When he sees Jim, he whines and howls in excitement. He jumps on him, he howls and dances and groans with a great display of animation. He doesn't do this with anyone else. We
haven't lived together for at least 5-6 years. Yet every time Boo sees Jim, he can hardly contain himself. When we part company after our visit, Boo doesn't want to get in the car, and he stares
out the back window at Jim, howling as we leave. It breaks my heart. On the other hand, after our visit, Boo has a smile on his face, and appears to be very grateful for this visit. When Jim used
to visit us at MHS, for the following 3 weeks, Boo would try to seek out any man that he saw from afar to see if it might be him, pulling hard on the leash, something not usually in his
DeeDee was another of our dogs involved in this change of family make-up. There was never any doubt that she would stay with me. This was my heart dog, and certainly too much dog for Jim to take on. She loved Jim, and when we visited with each other, she said hi with great enthusiasm, then came back to find me, knowing this was her spot.
Ella was another of our dogs that came to us after we fostered her and her pups that were born in the shelter. The pups got adopted, Ella stayed. She never needed a leash, as she never had any inclination to venture far from our sides. Of course, as I was the primary dog person, she was with me most of the time, never taking her eyes off of me, usually tripping me due to her desire to stay right next to my side. When JIm and I separated, Ella stayed with me for a bit, but then she went to live with Jim. This was a perfect match since Ella was so low maintenance and a great fit for Jim, a regular pet owner, not inclined to want a project. When we visited after our split, Ella would say hello to me, but in short order, found her spot next to Jim. She never made much fuss over me once she knew who her real person was.
At the shelter, adopters ask if the dogs would learn to love them. I used to tell them that dogs are very adaptable and that they learn to love their next phase in life, will attach to someone who provides them with all the right stuff. And most do so with great skill and enthusiasm. It is the only option, of course. What else can they do? And some don't adjust. Some shut down, some reveal a lack of trust in their new life, showing behaviors that aren't acceptable when cohabiting with us. Some become so dependent on anything resembling security, they can't find it in their ability to be left alone for any period of time.
I found myself becoming more and more sensitized over time to seeing them in kennels in a shelter. What are we doing to them, taking them away from their lives they know, housing them in noisy kennels, with random people coming to take them out for short periods, then putting them back to spend their nights alone, curled up on their beds? We are doing the best we can, but for some it isn't enough. And for some, it is a temporary hiccup that they endure and overcome when the next wonderful family finds room in their hearts for a new family member. They find that they can get through this period just like so many of us do when our lives get turned upside down.
Whenever Boo and I visit with Jim, I am reminded of how much we underestimate them; their memory, their affection for special people in their lives, their desire for consistency, their amazing adaptability to the lives we impose on them. We had a great visit today. We walked, we caught up with each other. Boo was in heaven and is now happily back home, at my side, playing with Aspen, initiating a game of fetch, not something he generally does. I think he is happy for the day he had.
They are amazing beings, and I am very grateful for their presence in our lives. And I always strive not underestimate them, or to take them for granted.
You just acquired a new dog – maybe a youngster, perhaps a bit older – and you’re in love. Let’s call your dog Dolly. You were drawn to her in the shelter or rescue, and now you have her home. She is wonderful, with just a few tiny exceptions.
For instance, when you pet her, she leans into you, putting her head on your knees. This feels great to you, but other people aren’t getting the same response. Sometimes she shies away or won’t come close to them, and occasionally you’ve heard a barely audible growl, almost under her breath. If she is lying on her bed or in her crate, she freezes when people come over to pet her. Sometimes she stares at them suspiciously. This worries you. When she meets dogs, she seems friendly, though less so when she is on leash than when she is off leash. In fact, over the three weeks you’ve had her, that behavior – like the others – has deteriorated rather than improved.
This is actually not that unusual – the dog you meet when you adopt is often not the dog you see weeks or months later. Like humans, dogs don’t display all their behaviors upon first meeting. In addition, they change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not, depending on the environment they find themselves in.
The first thing you loved about Dolly is that she seemed to bond to you instantaneously. The desire to bond is strong within dogs – they need a family (pack) to survive, and they know it. Most are above all things, social. Even dogs that are not particularly sociable will bond strongly to one or two people, and the speed with which they do it can be amazing. In shelters, dogs often bond closely with the first person who takes them out of the run, or sits with them in it. Once that bond has been formed, the dog feels a certain amount of security – enough that she thinks her new human (that would be you) will protect her, should danger threaten. She will also form a strong attachment to her new home environment – her territory. If it is “invaded,” she may become very suspicious. Thus, the friendly dog you met becomes the suspicious dog you now have, who is wary of strangers and defensive of her territory.
All is not lost – there are many things you can do to help Dolly. However, most of them will take more time than you wish, because what you will be trying to do will be to build trust. Unlike bonding, trust is earned, and cannot be rushed. Training of course will help immeasurably, but it is secondary to trust.
What is trust? For your dog, it is the belief that you will keep her safe. But how do you convince an animal who must learn through experience, particularly when her previous life was either unknown or not happy? You cannot tell her, since she won’t understand. Petting shows affection, but nothing more than that. And training obedience will tell her what you expect but not what she can.
I think it is shown by consistency and predictability. If a dog can reliably predict the outcome of a certain set of circumstances, she will learn to trust that the next time that circumstance occurs, the same outcome will too. For a dog adopted in adolescence or adulthood, this means that you must be very careful. It’s easy to make meals, attention or bedtime predictable, but encounters with other people or dogs might not be so easy to manipulate. If a friend of yours comes to visit with you and – with the best of intentions – frightens your new dog, she may decide that that friend is more of an enemy. More, she might decide that all friends of yours are potential enemies, or that all male friends or female friends are. If she meets one dog that responds inappropriately, she might generalize that behavior to all new dogs.
This is why many dog form strong attachments to the people and animals they meet in the first days or weeks of their new home life, and then try to make any new acquaintances go away by barking, snarling or snapping. You can help to avoid this, although the dog’s temperament and learning may make it difficult to completely do so.
First, make sure that you are reliable and predictable, to the best of your ability. There may well come a time when you will need to be unpredictable, but that time is not now. Make sure you set rules of the house, so that she knows what is expected of her. Feeding times, rest times and play times are all important, as are the locations where she eats, rests and plays!
Secondly, try to insure that all of her first experiences are calm, slow and friendly. If she has shown a tendency to be shy with new people, have all new people behave slightly aloof at first. It’s generally best to have guests come in, ignore the dog, sit down, and then wait for the dog to approach. When she does, the guest should not pet her for more than three or four seconds at first, since prolonged petting can produce anxiety. The dog will let the person know when she would like more interaction. If the person is to be a regular visitor, tossing treats is a great idea. If the person is a one–time visitor, then allowing a few sniffs and then bringing her back to sit with you is likely to be preferable.
Introductions to dogs should also be done carefully, if your dog appears to be nervous. Parallel walks generally work well, with the more fearful dog initiating any interaction. Anxious or fearful dogs generally do not like to be followed by other dogs, and usually want to sniff the rear end of the new dog first to get a quick introduction without the intimidation of eye contact.
I’d suggest continuing with this pattern for weeks and possibly months, depending on how quickly your dog shows relaxation in new situations. Allow time for latent learning – don’t have new experiences follow one another too quickly. She will become overwhelmed, and the learning will stop. Patience is key.
As your dog learns that you are trustworthy, experiences that would have frightened her previously will stop. She will look to you for guidance…and of course, that’s what true leadership is.