Many of the people I meet have been conditioned to have an image of dogs as happy go lucky beings who love everything. Life with dogs should be easy, fun, and primarily – add happiness to the human. And dogs should be squeezed into this preconceived notion at any price. This disregards dogs as individuals with their own personalities and desires and needs – which might not conform with the notion of “a dog” that you are trying to superimpose.
“‘Dog Lovers’ - you don’t love dogs. You love what you can get out of interacting with the dog. If you truly love someone, you will love them the way they need to be loved, even if it is not necessarily the way that you want to love them. That is real love to me.” - Alexandra Ortega, Dogs of Pegasus
This usually comes in two extremes. The person who has a dog that they wish was a different dog. An easier, more social dog that fits into the lifestyle the person wants to have. Ok, real talk. If you are always going to be holding a grudge against your dog for not being a different dog, guess who is going to be setting you both back? That’s right, you are. An example of this extreme, the person who desperately wants their dog to be a “breed ambassador” even though this is not who their dog is at all. This is putting a whole lot of unnecessary pressure on yourself and your dog. Because honestly, people are too busy with their own lives to pay attention to yours. So just relax a bit and stop taking things so seriously. Second extreme, the person with the oh-so-fearful rescue dog that has probably experienced *insert example of trauma*. Guess what, the dog is almost always ready to move forward before the owner is. So please, do us all a favour and stop telling us the sad story and start to enjoy life together in the present. Life (with your dog) can be a roller-coaster. You don’t always get what you want. Your needs will not always be met first. Sometimes it takes effort to get to where you want to be. You will not progress if you give up at the first resistance.
Commitment means sticking through even when you don’t want to, even when you are tired, unmotivated, when it didn't fit into your original plan. Commitment is putting your own wants and desires aside to prioritise another being. Commitment is respecting another being enough that you see them for who they are instead of trying to make them fit into your mould of who you wish they were. Commitment is sticking together even when it is not all glitter and rainbows, even when it is hard, even when you’re not having fun, or even when your personal needs are not being met. Commitment is having a bad day but not letting it go out over the other being.
“I want my dog to play fetch at the park, that’s what dogs should do.” – Your dog doesn't enjoy fetch, let’s find another game that you both enjoy. “I want my dog to love everyone and be social so that I can chat with other dog owners.” – You are prioritising your needs over your dog’s. Don’t rely on your dog to fulfill you – enter the relationship already whole, and from that starting point, see whet you can both give to each other. “I don’t want to seem like a bad dog owner, I just want my dog to be good.” First of all, can we just stop labeling for a moment? If you are constantly judging WHO your dog is based on its temporary behaviour at that moment, you are entering each interaction with tension, and creating a gap between yourself and the individual you are supposed to be trying to relate to. Secondly, just as your dog’s worth is not determined by his or her behaviour – your value as a person is not in any way intertwined with your dog’s behaviour. Your dog’s behaviour does not reflect on who you are. Can we please get human ego out of the picture once and for all? “I want my dog to be able to be perfectly behaved and listen all the time, but I don’t really want to put any effort or time into teaching my dog. Oh, and I want to have my headphones in on walks and drink coffee and talk to my friends and scroll through my feed, but my dog should still only have eyes for me.” – Ok, maybe I exaggerated a bit on this last one, but you get my point. It is hard for me to understand how we can have such a high expectation on the dog when we are not willing to put in any effort at all.
"BE AS COMMITTED TO THE TRAINING AS YOU WANT YOUR DOG TO BE." – Siv Svendsen
If anyone recognises themselves in any of this, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been where you are. When we got our first dog together as adults, I had a very clear image of what I wanted. I wanted a dog that was good with everything, that I could bring along everywhere and that I could certify as a therapy dog to be part of my PhD. I was really passionate about dog training, had worked with my previous dog that was reactive, taken courses, read books… I felt well prepared and willing to put some work in. We definitely wanted a rescue dog, and as Staffies and other bullies are so common in shelters and stay much longer, it was a given to adopt one of these. Our family and friends thought differently. I was told that it was a terrible decision to get a rescue dog, “they all have so many problems”, and Staffies are “straight up dangerous”. One family member told us that if we got a rescue bullie we would no longer be allowed to come and visit due to the risk of the dog “mauling a neighborhood child”.
Needless to say, I was determined to prove them all wrong. With our commitment to training and desire to choose a dog with good temperament, I was envisioning the outcome as a superdog.
What proceeded was quiet the opposite. After our first couple of walks it became clear that Fausto was an anxious mess of a dog and extremely reactive to... well anything really! I don't mean to blame the shelter at all, they have very limited resources for evaluating dogs, and I am convinced that he was meant for us. Not just to teach us about dogs, but for the life lessons he has given us. There is no way we would be able to work with the dogs we do today if it wasn’t for him, and there is no way he would still be alive if he had ended up anywhere else. Before anyone freaks out, let me say this – his problems were not representative of the breed or even of dogs in general in any way. He is what some trainers refer to as the 1%. At this point in time I can say that we are lucky to have him in our lives, although it felt like a big burden for a long time. We stuck to our training, and took help from a long list of trainers and spent all of our savings on consultations, hoping that it would get better as he settled in. Most people said that he could not be helped, or that it might be possible to make some slow progress but it would be limited. In all instances, the traits he possessed were ultimately seen as faulty.
As a dog, there was something “wrong” with him - he did not fit into their preconceived notion.
It still took me a while to abandon the idea I had when I went out looking for a dog and to realise that we were not going to be making it into any therapy work. It took even longer to stop caring about what anyone else thought. If I had been wanting to prove someone wrong, Fausto’s dramatic entrance into our life had if anything confirmed the prejudice they held. However, all these wants and desires were just for me, emerging out of my ego, and served absolutely no function for the dog. In order to help him, I needed to move past this and change up my priorities. My second challenge was emotional. To help Fausto with his anxiety, I needed to develop skills to regulate my own, and to channel a calmer and more powerful state of mind to be able to support him at the level that he needed it. Meditation and music have been my absolutely best tools for this. Fun fact: for a whole year I listened to Ice Cube’s Check Yo Self before every single walk, and Headspace is pretty much my best friend by now.
For a long time I still held on to a goal picture of being able to put him in any environment. This was in a way helpful to keep up the spark and keep working and keep pushing training forward. With time I realised that this was to some extent based in the feeling that my dog “should” be able to deal with some things, and ultimately tied up with my sense of self-worth as a dog owner. As a result, measurable progress seemed less important, all comparison to other dogs disappeared, and I started to truly value our individual journey. Nonetheless I kept thinking of him as a “faulty dog” with some good traits. He was so much more extreme, required so much of me, and can switch on in a way I have not seen in other dogs. I still believed that there had to fundamentally be something wrong with him. It was not until I had a consultation with Jay Jack of Next Level Dogs that my perspective changed. All the “faults” were embraced and seen as strengths. For the first time there were no more emotional blockages between us, and I was able to fully appreciate ALL of him – unconditionally. My only regret is that it took me so long.