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  • Taryn

Dogs are not Blank Slates

Last week I posted about why there are no guarantees when it comes to working with behaviour problems and I would like continue this, but looking more at the unrealistic expectations that are often placed on dogs (as opposed to those placed on behaviourists and trainers).

There is a strange, but pervasive view that all dogs, at any stage of their lives, can be “corrected” into becoming perfect specimens of sociability and behavioural perfection, and can adjust to any new set of circumstances, with the right training. I am not sure whether it is that we as humans give ourselves too much credit i.e. we think the dog will just fall into line under our expert guidance, or whether we don’t give dogs enough credit i.e. we view dogs as blank slates and whatever was written on them in the past, we can simply erase and then write what we want instead. There is little recognition given to the individuality of dogs and to how their genetics and life experience has shaped them.

The result of this view are completely unrealistic expectations when it comes to having the perfect pet. Whether it is buying a puppy from a breeder or adopting a dog from a rescue, there is a common failure on behalf of dog parents to look at the factors which might influence how that dog will fit into their family and life. Regardless of a dog’s history, there is an assumption that once the dog is brought home, with a little bit of training and “socialising”, the dog will turn into exactly what is needed for any situation. As a result, people fail to care when their prospective puppy’s parents are kept away from them “because they’re very protective” or they fail to listen when the rescue says, “He’s not really good with other dogs”. In my experience a staggering amount of people simply don’t even ask any relevant questions at all and know absolutely nothing about the dog they are adopting or the lineage of the puppy they are buying. They simply assume that whatever problems the dog they are adopting has, they will be resolved in a good home or whatever temperament flaws their puppy’s parents might exhibit, they will simply raise their puppy better.

Of course, training and socialising have an enormous influence on how a puppy develops and on the kind of adult the puppy matures into, but it will not erase the raw material that the puppy comes with. Ignoring genetics and choosing a dog that has been selected for tendencies that do not fit in well with your lifestyle, will likely lead to a lot of frustration for you and your dog. This is not to say that a Jack Russell cannot be raised and trained not to eat the family hamster, but that one needs to know an awful lot and be a pretty skilled trainer to get this right. So too,acquiring a puppy where nervousness is a clear trait in the genetic line, will make socialisation MUCH harder and predispose your puppy to reactivity, despite your best efforts. Again, this does not mean that a lot cannot be achieved, but for the average family who just wants a dog to fit in with their life, this is likely to be beyond their scope.

One of the most tragic areas where we see complete denial when it comes to the reality of who a dog is and how their past experiences have shaped them, is in the adoption of adult dogs from rescue groups and shelters. There is often a total failure to recognise that an adult dog comes with life experience which has molded them into the dog that they are. While there are many stories of remarkable recoveries from the most appalling circumstances, we have got to start being more realistic about the fact that this is NOT the case for every dog. In particular with regards to deficits in early socialisation, there are sometimes problems which cannot be undone. My heart sinks every time a I get an email that goes “We just adopted a 3-year-old dog from (insert rescue organisation) and he needs some socialisation so he can learn to interact with other dogs”. The reality is that this may NEVER happen. If the dog has had no positive social experiences to fall back on, he may NEVER want to be friends with other dogs. He may NEVER be able to play off lead on the beach. He may NEVER even be comfortable in a group dog training class. Furthermore, much harm is often done to such dogs in the name of making them sociable, based on poor advice given by those who believe that “with a bit of socialising he’ll learn” or “he’ll come right with a few corrections”. Just this afternoon, I read a post on a local community forum by a woman with a 9-year-old rescue asking for patience and tolerance from other dog walkers in the community if her dog squabbles with theirs, because this is the only way she can learn to be sociable. She also wanted to know whether anyone else with unsociable rescued dogs wanted to get together so their dogs could all become friends! Really? How did we get to a point where we think this is a good course of action?

There are unfortunately rescues that perpetuate this attitude of denial by being less than economical with the truth or by giving false reassurances as to how a dog will adjust to a new home in order to simply get dogs homed. Those who are honest and realistic sadly often get lambasted for their strict homing criteria and refusal to set dogs up for failure. It is wonderful that so many people these days want to adopt, but it is not wonderful that so many people do so with unrealistic expectations that often result in the dog being returned to the shelter at the end of the day. If you choose to take on a dog with a poor socialisation history, you have to do so accepting that this dog may have limitations that will affect your lifestyle. It is noble to want to work on problems and improve things as much as possible, but it is cruel to try to force the dog into a mould you think they should fit in by any means necessary.

Regardless of whether you choose to adopt or get a puppy from a registered breeder, do so with your eyes open. Do so considering whether you can live with the behavioural tendencies your puppy might come with (and if you don’t know what these are, then jolly well find out!) or the social limitations your adult rescue might have. If you cannot live with these challenges, please don’t set them up for failure. Rather think again.


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