When Expectations Hurt

I see it more than ever now that I am working with either clients or shelter dogs every day: we as humans often have unrealistic expectations for our dogs, and these standards can lead to a frustrating relationship for both parties.

We’ve all been there. “But I know she knows this cue.” “He shouldn’t be afraid of this, he should just get used to it!” “She should be able to do this by now.” “Why is he acting this way? He is fine at home.” “How come she doesn’t understand that what she did was wrong?” “I want her to change her behavior, but I want the solution to be easy!” “He should do it just because I told him to.”

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These high standards usually stem from the fact that dogs and humans are two entirely different species, and therefore have completely separate ways of communicating, playing, surviving, etc. What is acceptable and desired in the human world is usually quite foreign in the dog world. For example, being calm and quiet for, oh, 23 hours a day. Dogs are generally wired to be active, and yet we prefer them to sit on the couch, stay in their crate, sleep on their beds, whatever, when we are not exercising them. And vice versa. Dogs are supposed to bark and chew and pee wherever they want, and yet we ask them to curb most of those behaviors and to actually act very non-dog like inside our homes. Until an understanding is met between human and dog, the two worlds can collide in a chaotic, frustrating and sometimes dangerous way.

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That is where understanding of dog behavior comes in. Certified trainers and behaviorists (and a lot of really awesome book authors, seminar-givers and youtube channel makers) are there to unite human and dog – to show the two that they can in fact live harmoniously, once a form of communication is established. What I find most frustrating – and, to be quite honest, heart breaking – is when I watch dog owners toss aside the needs of their dog. Explaining to them that their dog is barking out of fear or destroying their furniture because they are bored out of their minds, and then hearing their owners still demand a “simple fix,” is always hard to swallow. In an era when the solutions are often found at the end of our fingers with our smart phones, folks have a tough time realizing that behavior does not change over night.

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I’m not saying we should be making excuses for our dogs. I hold Paco to very high standards with his behavior – but they are also reasonable. I am not going to expect Paco, an 11-month old puppy, to be able to sit still at my house for three hours. That’s just not fair to him. I’m going to be sensitive to his needs and adjust accordingly.

One of my favorite takeaways from our #367 experience was a phrase we heard often during the week when working with the dogs: meet them where they are. This strongly applies to the victims of trauma we met at that temporary shelter, but is also applies to every dog waiting for a home, transitioning to a new home, or currently living in a home. See the dog you are working with in front of you – make note of their strengths, weaknesses, and needs – and interact with them accordingly. Expect of them accordingly. Set goals that reflect the progress they are capable of making. Celebrate the victories they make without dwelling on their failures or shortcomings. Realize that they are a dog, they do not speak English and they do not read minds. Be understanding. Be compassionate. Communicate to them what you want in a positive and clear way, and if they are not responding then work like heck to figure out how you can improve your message to them. I believe we owe it to our dogs to do so.

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15 thoughts on “When Expectations Hurt

  1. “Meet them where they are” reminds me of two things: 1) Novice teachers who enter teaching armed with lofty ideas and amazing lesson plans that completely bomb because you can’t decide what you’re going to teach before you know who you’re students are, and 2) Changing public perception about animal welfare issues. I remember the Humane Education Dept Director at Best Friends Animal Society telling me a story once about how they were kicked out of a Utah school district for talking about spay/neuter because they didn’t realize how intensely religious that community was and that their religious views included the belief that you should not control a living creature’s reproductive activity. It took them years to get back into that district, and when they eventually did it was because they were willing to meet that community where they were at the time and go from there.

  2. I often have to tell this to people when they come in with excuses for their dogs’s behavior…”well, he was rescued/abused/hurt/neglected *we think*, so that’s why he does ____”. Forget what you think/know happened, and meet the dog that’s HERE. Work with what you have in front of you RIGHT NOW. The past does change what the dog is, but you can’t change the past…so let’s talk about this dog right here.

    • Melissa

      BRILLIANT response… and I’m guilty of doing this with my rescue pup. Once I quit doing that, it’s opened up a whole new world of progress.

  3. Awesome post. Brilliant. I just had this conversation with my boyfriend the other day. We are working on some things with our male pitty, Rio and it just takes time…and consistency…and repetition. Thanks for posting – sharing far & wide :).

  4. A heartfelt, informed, and important blog post! I think this resonated the most with my experience as a dog owner and trainer: “Communicate to them what you want in a positive and clear way, and if they are not responding then work like heck to figure out how you can improve your message to them.” Kudos to you for placing the responsibility on the human half of the equation!

  5. So well said. I have to remind myself in the moments when I’m most frustrated to “fake it until I make it” and use a positive voice and body language. We never see good training results come out of frustration. It’s also so easy to compare oneself to the dog and dog owner we walk by on the sidewalk. “Why can’t my dog walk that calmly?” or “See how well he responds to his owner’s cues?” We have to remember that everyone has been on their own unique training journey and everyone is at a different place than you are at this very moment.

  6. Such a good reminder. I know I have high expectations for my dog Ace but I’ve learned to be very patient and to take things at his pace. He actually catches on very quickly, and he’s definitely taught me to be more patient and creative. If one thing doesn’t work, try something else!

  7. Carla Braden

    Really enjoyed this post and wish more people who interact with dogs understood it. Part of the message applies to people, including kids, of course, too. Thanks for writing!

  8. Pingback: One Step Closer to the Stars | Peace, Love, & Fostering

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