The Perfect Dog?
In our jobs as trainers, we want to encourage and inspire people to be the best companions and teachers for their dogs. To do this we focus on what we believe is the best or right course of action in every situation and so often refer to previous training successes of our own or of our clients when educating people. Perhaps this creates the illusion that we are perfect dog owners and that our dogs are perfect – in fact, people often say: ”Your dogs must be perfect!”
Just as we are all individuals, shaped by our genetics and life experience to be good at certain things and not so good at others, so too are our dogs. While we may strive to breed dogs with the best genetics and optimum temperaments (and so we certainly should) and while we may attempt to do absolutely everything right from a socialising and training point of view (and again, so we should), we do not have control over everything and we do not live in a perfect world. Stuff happens – stuff that is sometimes beyond our control or which occurs because our knowledge and expertise are never complete and or because our dogs are not robots, but living, feeling, constantly learning personalities that have good and bad days just like us.
I adore my dogs – they are awesome! In our crazy, doggy household we literally sing songs to them about how wonderful, precious and awesome they are (I have given up being normal and just embraced the crazy). Yet, they are not perfect. Perhaps it is time to admit this, in case there are any illusions that they are.
Today Rosie chased a border collie – it was a minor mock charge and there was no intent behind the 2 second behaviour, but this is Rosie’s one little issue, which I have to manage and work on. My initial emotional response was annoyance, disappointment and guilt. There were times when something like this would have kept me churning with self-recrimination for days. However, I have grown up enough to accept that I am not perfect and my dogs are not perfect, so I was able to view the incident rationally and far more objectively: Rosie has a history of being chased, herded and charged by border collies on walks – while I always tried to protect her, there was one particularly nasty incident where the dog came on very strongly and avoidance did not work, so she finally chased the dog off as a means to stop the interaction. She learned that this was a more successful strategy in that particular context - something I would have preferred for her not to learn, but this dog ambushed us out of the blue – a situation beyond my control, other than wrapping my dog in bubble wrap and never taking her anywhere! So, we sit with the result: Rosie is great with other dogs in most other contexts, she is typically non-confrontational, tolerant and downright flirty with anything male. However, in this situation she felt threatened, so she chased the dog away – it was over in a couple of seconds, no contact, the other dog ignored her and she walked back calmly afterwards. While it is NOT a behaviour that I want her rehearsing, because no doubt the relief she felt when the dog moved on was highly reinforcing and so she WILL do it again, given the chance, I do also realise that it was a minor incident in the grand scheme of things. It does not mean that she is a bad dog, “aggressive”, badly trained, poorly socialised or no longer the same dog that visits old age homes with pugs, shelties and even border collies and is the most easy-going of the lot. She is simply a dog, who has learned a coping strategy that is problematic in a particular situation.
Am I a failure as a trainer or dog owner, because this happened? Well, I certainly hope not! I am not perfect, but again, we cannot always control everything. Today, I saw the dog coming and anticipating a potential problem, I stepped off the path to clip the lead on and move out of the way – unfortunately, the border collie was faster than me and darted around the corner in full herding mode (the owner was running and the dog was darting in and out circling the owner in anticipation of something being thrown for him) and I was too late. I did fail to respond in time today and I will definitely try to be quicker next time. It is my job to make sure that I don’t put Rosie in this situation again and that I perhaps do some DS & CC around stalking/herding border collies.
This post is really just a means of “keeping it real”. I am admitting that I am not perfect and that my dogs are not perfect. In fact, if I think about all the dogs in our advanced classes who have achieved so much from a training point of view and have fantastic owners, none of them are perfect. They are all wonderful dogs, but each one has some little imperfection or issue that the owners have to manage or work on: One gets grumpy with golden retrievers for some reason, one doesn’t really like dogs in her space, one does not like dogs near her training bag, one is a bit of a scavenger on the fields if given a chance, a couple enjoy a good bark when they’re enjoying themselves…. But these are actually small matters in comparison to all the great things these dogs can do.
This is NOT an excuse to sit back and do nothing, but a reminder that we are all just human and our dogs are just dogs and that while we may strive for it, perfection is unlikely to ever be attained. One mistake or inappropriate behaviour does not make a bad owner or a bad dog. I think we need to remember this sometimes and as my husband always reminds me (because I am a perfectionist!) “mistakes keep you humble!”