There was a time early on in my dog training career when I wanted to be perfect. And I wanted a perfect dog, too. At the time, I was volunteering at a service dog organization, and was obsessed in my interactions with service dogs who were bred and born to be working dogs. They started training at 8 weeks old, were trained every single day, attended class once a week for 18 months with their puppy raisers and then had another 6 months of dedicated training by advanced trainers.
Whew! That’s a lot of training… And these amazing dogs, seemingly, were perfect. They never barked in public, they never bothered anyone, and no noise, distraction, crowded mall or cramped space seemed to phase them ever. (Of course, as you might wonder, they did have the opportunity just to run and play and “be dogs” when they weren’t working, too.)
But naturally, spending a lot of time in that environment, I, too, wanted to train a perfect dog. So I tried with my Aussie / Blue Heeler / Lab mix, Ozzy. I tried, and tried and tried and tried. No matter how hard I tried, he still pulled on lead, he still barked in the yard, he whined endlessly in class and embarrassed me completely out of the organization’s therapy dog program.
Ozzy is 9-1/2 years old now… And it wasn’t until relatively recently that something dawned on me. First of all, it was important for me to realize that the service pups were bred and born into this world for a specific job and purpose. How many dogs are lucky enough to have a job to do every day? There are countless frustrated shepherds that aren’t herding, spaniels that aren’t flushing and pointers not pointing. And then there are the countless millions of unwanted litters that are born and end up in overcrowded and under-resourced shelters, whose unfortunate “job” is just to survive until the next day.
It also dawned on me that I was adding way too much pressure to my dog. If I am truly to have a “relationship” with my dog, then how is it fair to expect him to be more perfect than any human that I’ve ever known? My husband isn’t perfect, and neither are my friends and family. Oh, and by the way, a dog’s brain capacity is one-tenth the size of a human’s. Now really, is that fair?
And was perfection what I really wanted, anyway? If I had a well-behaved, but stoic, robotic and completely silent husband, friends and family, life would be oh-so-wonderful at times, but completely boring at many others. You can probably tell by Ozzy’s Heinz 57, kitchen sink shakeup that he likely wasn’t the result of a purposeful breeding. He didn’t have a predefined job to do when he came into this world, and he didn’t have the benefit of being well-molded and socialized as a pup either.
How to Cope:
Please know that I’m not trying to make excuses for bad behavior. It took a long time for me to see things as they are in context. So, when it comes to your own pet dog, you should absolutely try to mold your dog into the best that he or she can possibly be. But understand that there will be challenges, setbacks, quirky behaviors and moments of sheer frustration. These are the times to take a deep breath, fill the Kong with peanut butter for your dog and then escape to a hot bath to prevent a total meltdown. And looking back, those service dogs weren’t perfect all the time either. Some of them had prey drive issues, barking issues and food obsession issues, all which had to be managed by their trainers and owners.
In dog training, we want to set our dogs up for success by making training sessions short and productive. We don’t set the bar so high that any given task is unachievable. So why would we set ourselves up for failure by expecting perfection? The real reason is because we’ve been told that how well our dog behaves is a reflection of how we “perform” as dog owners and trainers.
Sarah, this is one of the best yet! LOVE this post – well-written, thought-provoking and honest! Way to go and keep it up!!
Thanks so much, Erin! This blog entry seemed to resonate with lots of folks, which was my goal. Too often people think they need to have a perfect dog. There's no such thing as a 100% perfect dog, even one owned by a dog trainer.
Much needed wisdom – especially as I begin training my sweet, playful, exuberant Charlie!