How To Love The Dog You Have (Not The One You Expected)
As a dog trainer, I have a front row seat to the expectations of dog owners. Some expectations are very low...."I just don't want him to destroy anything" and some expectations are exceedingly high "I want my dog who doesn't like strangers to be a certified therapy dog!" Part of my job is to manage those expectations. There is a lot we as trainers can help with but some expectations are unrealistic and what I see a lot is an owner with a breed of dog that does not fit their lifestyle or an owner that is holding onto an idea of a dog that is not the dog in front of them.
You cannot turn your Siberian Husky, your Australian Cattle Dog, or your Border Collie into a 24hr couch potato. It isn't in her DNA. You also can't make your Old English Bulldog into an athlete. Your Boston Terrier may seem super energetic but he's not fit for five mile hikes in 85 degree heat. Your particular Pitbull may never be a social butterfly at the dog park.
Everyone wants a perfect dog. (Spoiler alert: They don't exist.) You may have had the perfectly behaved, lazy, Yellow Lab when you were a kid but this Yellow Labrador you've just adopted is a speed demon who eats poop. Chances are that the perfect dog from your childhood had some issues that your parents were aware of but you, being a child, simply glossed over. Kids think dogs eating things they aren't supposed to is hilarious but parents see an emergency vet visit and a giant credit card bill.
And the perfect dog for one person is another person's nightmare. Some people love giant guard dogs. They actually like the way their dogs growl and bark when strangers approach their house. If you're an extrovert with small kids who loves to throw parties, this type of dog would be a huge hardship for you. Maybe you dislike small dogs while others love to be able to hold and cuddle a dog like a baby. We all have different wants and needs regarding our canine companions.
And this is how we arrive at the crux of the matter, the three golden rules of dog ownership if I could create such a thing:
Research the needs of the breed before you adopt and see if they fit with your lifestyle. If your dog is a mixed breed, research all of the breeds that are suspected to make up your dog. Be honest with yourself about whether you have the time, energy, and the financial budget to meet the needs of this particular dog.
Find out as much as you can about the dog's history, their parents and siblings, and any problem behaviors in the family. (Some of this info may be available to you and some of it may not.) And think about the perspective of each of your own family members and imagine them interacting with this dog. How will your other pets react?
Then, love the dog you have. Not the one you expected to have.
I'm no stranger to strong expectations myself. Twice we've tried to adopt a dog that my son can snuggle with, play with, and will follow him around the house and sleep in his bed. We were told our first dog was "great with kids" when we took her in. It turns out she had never been around children and it's taken a lot of training for both our son and our dog to get along together. Our second dog is super friendly to my son and other dogs. The problem is she would rather spend the whole day outside on her own than with us. That's her happy place.
So, if I were to only focus on my expectations....a dog to play with and snuggle with and be goofy with my son and follow him around, I would say we failed twice. But we didn't!
Our first dog has no intention of playing with my son but will lay right next to him on the couch. She may not lay in his lap but she does allow him to give her kisses on the head and she likes to try to bathe him every once in a while which makes him squeal with delight!
Our second dog is not a snuggler but our son can toss a toy to her for a couple minutes before she gets bored and she will play tug of war gently and respectfully with him. She's also pretty goofy.
Neither dog will follow him around or sleep in his bed reliably but that doesn't seem to matter. In our house instead of concentrating on the dog we wanted, we try to focus on discovering the wants and needs of the dog we have in front of us. Like our second girl, Juju. Who is she? What makes her tick? She loves being outside and sniffing a lot! She's also very social! Let's see if we can get her in a nosework class. I bet that will make her happy. Oh and she's also an escape artist so our front door now looks like an air lock of baby gates. She may not sit next to me on the couch but I love to watch her run at full speed in the backyard when she gets the zoomies. She follows me around the kitchen which drives me crazy and I could train her not to but I'm lazy with my own dogs. She may need to be wiped down every day because she spends so much time outside but I enjoy her fearless, independent spirit and how she loves to say hi to everyone she meets.
The happiest dog owners I know are ones who have shifted their expectations and are trying to please the dog in front of them. Rather than forcing their dog to conform to them, they are allowing themselves to be a little transformed. They are actively finding things to appreciate about their dogs rather than only focusing on the problems. There is a quote I use on all of my outgoing training emails. It's by Edward Hoagland and I find it to be absolutely true.
"In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn't merely try to train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog."