By Sara Sokol, Mr. Dog Training
"Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? What about your parents? Did they have something they wanted you to be when you grew up, or a goal they wanted you to achieve, like graduating college?
I started ballet classes when I was 3 years old. By the time I was 10, I was working hard, dancing 5 days a week with a clear vision of becoming a professional ballerina in my future. I was lucky. My parents wholeheartedly supported my dream, even when I moved to a different state to attend a performing arts high school at 15 and dropped out of that high school right before my senior year to get my GED and start dancing professionally with a ballet company. Never once did they tell me that I was making a mistake or that my dreams weren’t going to take me anywhere or make me any money (although money isn’t the reason anyone becomes a professional ballerina).
Shall we pivot to dogs?
Like many human parents, quite a few dog guardians have goals or things they want their dogs to achieve or become. These goals are often set long before these dog guardians even find a dog to call their own.
I hear it all the time in my work as a dog trainer…
- “I want my dog to go to work with me.”
- “I want to take my dog to outdoor restaurants.”
- “I want my dog to go for group hikes with my friends and their dogs.”
- “I want my dog to become a therapy dog.”
- “I want to take my dog to the dog park.”
- “I want to be able to walk my dog in crowded places or take him into stores.”
And the list goes on.
But how many dog guardians ask their dogs what they want? Sit and take that question in. There seems to be an unspoken list of expectations that most humans have when it comes to things their dogs “should” like, such as:
- Petting and human touch
- Playing with other dogs
- Greeting new people
- Taking walks
- Going for car rides
When dogs don’t like these things, their guardians will often rush to “help” or “fix” their dogs so that they can be “normal”. The truth is that, just like humans, there is a wide range of activities dogs may or may not enjoy, and just because they don’t enjoy one of the above activities, or something similar, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them.
I personally prefer an evening in rather than going to a crowded sporting event, bar, or concert. Does that make me introverted, possibly? Does that mean there is something wrong with me? Absolutely not, and I’m glad that my husband doesn’t try to force me to do those things because that’s “what people do”.
This is not an excuse to not help your dog feel better about things that occur in his daily life that you can’t avoid, like vet or groomer visits, noises that are specific to your home, or the noises or sight of your neighbors; yes, work with your dogs to feel better about those things! But the avoidable things like dog parks, daycares, walks in busy neighborhoods, group hikes, or cuddling or hugging at home can absolutely be avoided and replaced with different activities that your dog will enjoy more.
So maybe Instead of showing your affection through petting, if your dog's head turns, lip licks, or becomes stiff during that touch, you play a fun game with your dog and then enjoy each other's company sitting in the same room together but not touching?
Instead of a trip to the dog park or a day at daycare where your dog is getting into scuffles with other dogs or isolating themselves while there, you take your best friend for a walk or play some Noseworks?
What if instead of long walks where your dog becomes worried and reactive towards cars, people, or other dogs, you do some backyard agility or parkour?
Maybe instead of loading your dog up for a car ride while you run errands where he will pant and drool and bark at people and other dogs out the window, you do some extra mental stimulation or a walk with your dog before you leave and let him enjoy a quiet nap at home while you are gone?
And if greeting other people makes your dog uncomfortable, what if you told those people that you were in training and not taking pets that day while tossing a handful of treats in the grass for your pup to sniff for?
Respect is one of the most important building blocks when developing any relationship. So the next time you find yourself creating expectations for your dog(s), take a moment to ask yourself what your dog wants. Really ask, think about it, and learn your dog’s body language so that you can answer that question without any influence from your own expectations or that of others.
The relationship you build with your dog from this day forward will be stronger for it.