Work with the dog you have

4 dogs lying down and looking at the cameraI am tempted to say ‘work with the dog you have until you have the dog you want’, but realized that not only might it be a bit trite, the outcome of working with the dog you have, may not lead to having the dog you want. On the other hand, it might end up that you want the dog you have.

The latter, and a smidgen of the former have been the case for me. In some instances a dog only needs the opportunity to learn and grow to become the dog of our dreams or expectations. This is true of adolescent dogs who test their owners’ patience and training skills. And we know from the population of dogs found at shelters that dogs in this age group are often not the dogs their owners wanted.

I was speaking with a trainer friend about a client I was going to meet to help her find ways to work with her fearful, and sometimes aggressive, mastiff. My friend made the point that it may be necessary to ‘normalize’ behaviors for owners in relation to their dog and breed characteristics. In the same way it is ‘normal’ for an adolescent dog to behave like a knuckled-headed brat, it is also normal to have a dog bred for guarding be suspicious of new people or animals entering their territory. It doesn’t mean that a dog bred for particular traits cannot learn to be tolerant, flexible and compliant in relation to those traits, but in some cases, if the training for this did not begin early in their lives, or fear is added to the mix, it might require an owner to reassess their expectations for the dog.

In my mind I have a picture of what a confident, fearless but not reckless, dog looks like. I have lived with many. When I watch my dog Sunny I can see behaviors which do not fit with this picture. A dog with the right balance of caution and inquisitiveness will explore their environment. They may startle at novelty but within a short period of time (seconds in most cases) should approach and assess the new object or person. Any overt displays of aggression or wariness should end as soon as the neutrality of the novelty is established. Even after living in our home for over 5 years Sunny will often avoid or move away from novel objects placed in his environment, objects which other dogs barely notice. However his negative responses to novelty are not as grand as they were and he may also tentatively approach and check out new objects.

I had to ‘normalize’ Sunny’s responses to novelty in my own head. He behaves the way a dog that was not exposed to novelty as a pup, and perhaps one on the more wary end of the genetic spectrum, might behave. As much as I want him to stop being this kind of dog, I cannot force him to. What I have been able to do is give him skills for dealing with situations that cause his heart to start beating faster, whether it means going to a place he feels safe, or running to find a frisbee and even sitting quietly until the needle is withdrawn from a vein.

Sunny makes me work harder than my other dogs when it comes to getting behaviors that I want from them. I don’t need to work to get my border collie Finn to be happy and confident with new people. Indeed I have had to work with him to tone down his exuberance when potential frisbee tossers appear on the scene. For years I have lived with Bugsy an old cocker spaniel that I will, with some embarrassment and regret, admit that I have done little to no training with. Bugsy just seemed to seamlessly fit into our lives. He’s got his quirks, but none were enough to warrant effort on my part to change, instead I accommodated them.

I never would have thought I’d want a dog like Sunny but one evening in a training class, watching other owners with their dogs Sunny gave me the head toss that had tagged along with the click he got for eye contact and I thought “I wouldn’t trade this dog for any of the dogs in this room.” Both Sunny and I have been able to change and that’s a big part of why I want the dog I have.

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16 comments so far

  1. honeysjourney on

    I really didn’t want the dog I have, it would have only taken a phone call and I would have been rid of her…..
    But when my wife and I returned from having Chinese food Saturday evening and Honey was waiting at the front gate, when I walked up the drive she ran around, jumping, barking and acting like a goof ball, I know I have the dog I wanted.

  2. Crystal on

    Oh, I love this idea of wanting the dog you have. Maisy is not the dog I want, exactly- I’d love a performance partner, an agility dog, someone who is bombproof with kids and unpredictability. And yet… I don’t want any other dog. She has her flaws, sure, but oh! Her strengths more than make up for them.

  3. Deborah Flick on

    Wonderful post. How do the words go—If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Indeed.

    And (please don’t kill me) I gave you a Stylish Blogging Award 🙂 http://bit.ly/gyK9Vf

  4. Ettel E on

    Both of my dogs are dogs that I want. Sure they both have their idiosyncrasies and issues, but that’s what makes them unique, right? A problem I see arising far too often, which is something you touched upon, is when people get a dog for all the wrong reasons, and aren’t able to “normalize” the dogs behaviors, or are unwilling to accept/live with that dog’s behavior. I really wish I would stop getting calls from people who fell in love with a little terrier puppy then want to kick them to the curb when they start digging up the garden, chasing/killing small animals, and well, acting like a terrier.

    • Crystal on

      Oh, Ettel, I so agree. Sometimes I think people don’t want dogs at all, but humans in little dog coats. I know someone who has been using a shock collar in an effort to stop all the little terrier behaviors her dog does… If she didn’t want a dog who digs and chases animals and such, why did she get a dog? Or at least a different breed? It breaks my heart to see dogs be given such unreasonable expectations.

    • KellyK on

      I agree with this too. It’s sad when people pick a breed because they’re cute and don’t read up on their personality and know ththat’s what they want, or at least something they can work around.

      I’m sure there are ways to get terriers to do terrier-like things in less destructive ways. Giving them their own corner of the yard to dig, balls and other non-living things to chase, treats to find, etc. My dog loves the “treats hidden in a blanket” game, and I think it fills the dig/find stuff instinct for her. But, she’s a mix (shar-pei and, we think, pit) and pretty laid back, so I don’t know that the same approach would work with a Jack Russel.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Your comment makes me think of people choosing other people to partner with because of an attraction to the outside package. Hard to get past. But at least when a person gets dumped they don’t end up in the pound!

  5. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    From the very beginning I knew I wanted Buster. He was a mess when we found him, but he’s the sweetest boy and because of the time I’ve spent with him I’m a better person.

  6. fearfuldogs on

    Hearing from all you folks reminds me that both dogs and the human race stand a chance given the compassion in this room.

  7. didiwright on

    You’ve made a really good point with this post. I think people very often forget that it takes two to tango: i.e. they have to put something into their dog if they want to be rewarded with the results and behaviour they hope for. It’s a bit like a human-to-human relationship, it only works if there are efforts made by both parties and both parties involve mould each other’s behaviour.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Most dogs are so flexible and resilient that it’s easy to forget that it’s not just about us!

  8. Donna and the Dogs on

    This is a wonderful post. Each of my three dogs have their issues, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I do make an effort to try and work around their strengths and weaknesses, although I have admittedly made mistakes as well. As for your Bugsy, I also rarely worked with my senior girl, Leah. She was from a shelter and came to us very obedient, with some minor fear issues which we have (mostly) overcome. However, it wasn’t until I got a dog that needed a lot of work (an over-enthusiastic Labrador) that I became interested in training and dog sports. Just recently, I decided my Leah might enjoy a job too, if only just Mommy and me time, and have been taking her to Nose Work class (which I highly recommend for a senior dog) and she has been having a lot of fun!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Good points Donna, old dogs can learn new tricks. I have recommended to folks with old dogs that they feed the dog by hiding food around the house, or any room they can keep other dogs out of. Gives the old brain something to think about!

  9. Tracy on

    Wow – love this. My first dog was a coonhound cross with severe separation anxiety and some fear aggression. I couldn’t completely make Solo the dog I wanted but what I learned from her about training, accepting the dog that she was, and patience (an incredible amount of patience 🙂 ) was even better. Plus, she was a pretty rocking dog in her own right!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Tracy. Many of do end up completely enamored with our ‘challenging’ dogs. I know I am!


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