Maintaining perspective and keeping expectations realistic when it comes to our family pets is one of the toughest challenges facing dog owners today. In a society that has come to expect everything NOW it's often difficult to keep things "real".
We have expectations of behaviour for our dog that we would never dream of having even for ourselves. We want them to react calmly and respond predictably regardless of the set of circumstances that are being presented to them. We want them to be BOMBPROOF. Never react to anything no matter how scary or exciting it is - just always be calm and well-mannered all of the time. If I thought for a second that even I myself could accomplish this, then maybe, just maybe I could expect it from someone or something else.
Usually, when I enter into someone's home to conduct an initial behavioural assessment, I start off with one single question and then get comfortable for the onslaught that will no doubt ensue. Regardless of the behavioural issue that we are dealing with, I ask, "What do you want your dog to do?". This is followed by a 10-20 minute description of all of the things Fluffy does that they need fixed. The answer usually sounds like this, "Well I don't want them to jump on me and my guests. I don't want them to take food off of the counter. I don't want them to eat my socks. I don't want them to tear down the Christmas tree. I don't want them to pee in the house." Etc. Etc. Etc. This list is usually well rehearsed and goes on and on. In preparation for my visit, the family has usually given a lot of thought to all of the things Fluffy does that are unacceptable by their standards. When they are finished and can't possibly think of another thing that Fluffy does wrong, they stop. It's at this point that I ask them again, "Okay I hear what you're saying but you haven't yet answered my question.... what DO you want Fluffy to do?". Then we sit in awkward silence until the response comes back.."I don't know. I never really thought about it". Now we're getting somewhere!
We put so much energy and effort into looking for all of the ways Fluffy is showing us that they are a "bad dog" that we, as the dog's owner, don't realize that this all begins with us. Once WE know what we WANT Fluffy to do and what that looks like, and then we have a responsibility to identify the most effective way to show the dog what that behaviour looks like and even better yet, what it feels like. Sometimes it's very apparent and with more difficult situations you might need the assistance of a trainer to establish the most effective way to show Fluffy how to respond.
Keeping the expectations surrounding Fluffy's learning within the realm of reality is the key! Fluffy is a dog and dogs learn a bit differently than humans do. Do not expect more than they can give. They need time and more importantly they need someone to teach them. That's you! We also have to understand that sometimes their outbursts are normal physiological reactions to an intense emotional stimulus over which they have little to no control yet we are asking them to behave in an unnatural way. Let me put it this way, if I gave you some absolutely terrible news about your family such as the death of a parent or a child and followed it immediately with "but don't cry or be upset" would you consider this to be a realistic expectation? No. However, we do it all of the time with our dogs. They have been waiting for 9 hours to see us return from work, but don't be excited - and even if you are excited, pretend not to be. Don't react. Stay dull and calm and I will tell you when and how you can be excited. Now I'm not saying that we should allow the dog to tackle us as we walk through the front door of our home but what I am saying it that the perspective is key. You need to take the time to show them what your idea of an appropriate greeting at the door would look like and practice it over and over. All the while, you as the human must have the understanding that they are "over the moon" excited to see you. You are teaching them how to keep their emotions under control in a way that is not natural to them and it takes time and effort on our part.
Time, understanding, perspective and keeping expectations realistic is often all the requirements you need to curb some of these unwanted behaviours. First, get it straight in your own mind what you in fact them to do in a given situation. Show them how it's done with training via consistent repetition and practice. You are a team and together you can conquer almost anything.
Until next time, keep those tails waggin',