She sat calmly by her owner’s side as he chatted with a friend. It was a bright sunny day and summer sounds filled the air. The dog, a black Labrador Retriever, stared off into the distance, occasionally sniffing at the air. She did not look at her owner. She did not look at her owner’s friend. A mother and her two children, not more than 5 or 6 years old, came over. Without permission, the two children squealed with delight and began petting the dog with excited hands, giggling all the while. The dog, with lowered head, tolerated this unexpected attention. As they left, the woman was heard to say, “What a good dog!”
What a good dog. A dog that quietly endured her children. A dog that did not pull against the leash to go and sniff the children. No investigation of the owner’s friend. No barking at strangers approaching. Quiet acceptance of anything and everything that happened around her. And when it was time to leave, she quietly plodded along next to her owner on a loose leash. What a good dog.
I am fascinated by the expectations of people regarding dogs and how we live with them. Many families have an idealized view of what life with their dog will be like. They may take a fancy to this or that breed for it’s looks or advertised personality. Perhaps they want a dog like the one they saw on their favorite TV program or in that movie they found so touching. Frankly, such romanticized versions of dogs do not paint an accurate picture. When was the last time you saw George Clooney or Sigourney Weaver bending to scoop up dog poop on screen?
Dogs have daily needs that go beyond the simple need for food, water, and a place to do their business. Different breeds will have different requirements for activity and mental stimulation as well as genetic tendencies to display certain behaviours. For example, herding breeds like Border Collies will need lots of exercise and activity while guarding breeds may require an outlet for their bite instincts and regular mental stimulation. Some breeds may also have special health needs that must be tended to on a regular basis.
New owners who choose a dog because of looks or how what they have seen in movies and TV are not necessarily being realistic. These owners can easily become frustrated, overwhelmed, or worse, when their expectations are not met. What starts as a vision of a well behaved pet companion that is pleasing to the eye turns into a struggle to contain the chaos the addition of a dog brings. Homes that were hoping to add that regal Collie or that adorable little Chihuahua may find themselves more angry than content that their new dog can’t “just behave” because that’s what was expected.
There are lots of reasons that people get dogs. Some people think they are just being practical. Some families decide to get a dog as a playmate for the children. Other homes get a dog to guard the house or to help them feel safe. Still others get their dogs to go running with them or help them increase their physical activity. While dogs can fill all of those requirements very well, they don’t arrive at our door knowing what their job is to be.
Dogs also provide a wonderful conduit into various social activities. Walking a dog at the park is likely to get you at least one conversation each week, more if you regularly attend a dog park for off leash dogs. Dog sports and organized dog activities provide additional social opportunities. Dog agility, obedience, trick training, scent detection, lure coursing, and other organized dog sports can provide owners with social time with like minded people while giving the dogs some much needed activity.
Getting a dog to address something in your life isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But new owners should be prepared for the reality of owning a dog. Having a dog might improve your social life or make the kids happy but it isn’t going to come without it’s costs in time, energy, and money.
The sad truth is that there may be unexpected difficulties and these keep the dog trainers in business. If you ask any local dog trainer what their days consist of, most will tell you that they are solving one problem or another for dog owners who have called them for help. Most of the clients dog trainers deal with have found that owning a dog is different, and perhaps more complicated, than they expected it to be. It might be that they expected a docile and low-maintenance companion or a happy, focused dog to play their favorite dog sport with friends. Whatever the case, the actual reality turned out to be something for which they weren’t prepared.
Life with their new dog turns out to be picking up one chewed up valuable after another in between cleaning up accidents the dog has had in various places in the house. Walks are a struggle as they are pulled from bush to patch of grass along the way. On those occasions that they decide to trust the dog off leash, getting them to come back becomes part seduction, part pleading, and a whole lot of exasperation as they call “Fluffy! Come!” in various tones of voice, sometimes offering a cookie or treat that they may or may not actually have.
What these owners find is that they would like to have a dog, they just want the dog they imagined.
Fast and easy remedies
There are ways to fix almost any dog behaviour “problem” that owners might have. There are tools and techniques, collars and classes, people and promises out there to help. Most often it is about getting rid of some unwanted behaviour in the dog. Stop jumping up. Stop pulling on leash. Stop barking at strangers. Stop digging in the garden. And many other problems. There are books and articles and web pages out there full of ways to stop dogs from doing most anything you find annoying.
There is only one issue I have with all of this. When you are finished stopping all of these unwanted behaviours, what is left for them to do? It must seem to a young, untrained dog in some households that they can do nothing right. Each time they decide to investigate or try something out, they are scolded with a loud “NO!” and moved away. If that sounds annoying or scary, that’s because it is supposed to be. The whole concept behind many of these quick and easy solutions is that the dog needs to “Stop doing that or ELSE!” It is the very real threat that “Or Else!” carries that will make the dog think twice the next time they consider that behaviour.
But here’s a question: which behaviour do we mean? Oh, we know which behaviour we mean but does our dog understand us clearly? The slightest error in timing and we could be telling our dog that we don’t want them to be sitting down instead of sniffing at the plant they were investigating a few seconds before. It can be even worse if we come home after work and decide to scold them for getting into the garbage while we were away. We think we are scolding them about the garbage but the dog only knows that you came into the house and started yelling. Perhaps they think there is something wrong with the way they greeted you.
Making a “good dog”
If you scold a dog enough times and your timing is just bad enough, you end up with a dog who is reluctant to do anything unless they are absolutely certain they will not be scolded for it. A dog that will sit patiently while you chat with a friend. A dog that will not bark at approaching strangers. A dog that will tolerate being petted, poked, prodded, and pulled at without reacting. A dog that doesn’t pull on their leash. A dog that does all of these things and more not because they want to, but because they want to avoid the unpleasantness that they have come to expect as the alternative.
Fortunately, there is more than one way to get a “good dog.” Using punishments, scolding, and “corrections” can get you the kind of dog you may want. But modern training science has shown that you can teach a dog to sit quietly because they WANT to do that, because they get rewarded for sitting quietly. You can train a dog to walk with you without pulling and reward them for it. You can teach a dog to come back to you when called because it is a rewarding experience.
What stands between these two different approaches to getting a “good dog” is mostly expectations. There are those who would have you believe that your dog wants to be difficult and that they have to be “corrected” and scolded until they become the dog you want. Other trainers will tell you that there are ways to teach dogs to do all the things we want them to do so that they don’t have an opportunity to do the things we find annoying or upsetting.
We need to redefine what we believe being a “good dog” means. The traditional view that dogs should remain quietly out of our way unless we want them to do something is outdated and undervalues what our dogs are capable of. If we instead start to think of a “good dog” in terms of what they can be taught and how much they value cooperating with us in our lives together, so much more becomes possible for both us and our dogs.
Until next time, have fun with the dogs!
The NEW Canine Nation ebook is now available –
“Relationships: Life with Dogs”
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