Expectations for our dogs have to be realistic

A number of years ago I read an article written by a well-known local dog trainer. At the time the article really caught my attention, and I still think of it often.

Basically the point of the article was to highlight some differences in behavior that the author had noted in dogs on a trip she had made to Europe and those which she saw here in Toronto.  Essentially the premise of the article was that maybe we had a tendency to ‘over manage’ our dogs, and perhaps this might not be understood by our dogs in the way we intend.

That trainer was Gillian Ridgeway. Many Beach residents will remember Gillian’s Queen Street store, Paws for Thought, which became the starting point for ‘Who’s Walking Who’, one of the largest and most well known dog training organizations around.

I have often recalled this article when I observe dogs both in my hospital and when I’m at the beach or park with my own dog. I sat down with Gillian recently to discuss this, and it was very interesting to hear her observations since that time. We both have noticed a steady increase in the number of dogs presented for a variety of anxiety related behaviors, separation anxiety and obsessive compulsive behaviors especially. While there is certainly a great deal of genetics involved (we see certain issues far more frequently in some breeds than others), we both wonder if having unrealistic expectations of our pets is a contributing factor. Is the shift in how we relate to our pets creating an undue amount of stress and anxiety for them?

A great deal of emphasis has been placed in the last 10 to 20 years on the power and strength of the human – animal bond. A 2005 survey by Ipsos Reid found that 57% of families consider their pet a full member of the family, and 26% consider their pet the baby of the family. It is a wonderful thing that our pets contribute so much to our joy and enrich our lives to the extent that they do, but have we crossed a line when we forget that cats and dogs, while sharing and enriching our lives, are not small furry people? Are we in fact, despite our best intentions, doing more harm than good, forgetting that they have very unique needs, behaviours, and ways of understanding?

My own experience with this dilemma occurs as often at the dog park as it does at my clinic. I see some owners who will simply not let their dogs play, worrying that they just came from the groomers and will mess up their do, or more commonly thinking normal play is too rambunctious and perhaps dangerous.

Most new dog owners go through a period of alarm when they first see dogs at play off leash. It can be a bit frightening to watch until you realize what normal play behavior looks like.

Of course there are instances of inappropriate behavior and true aggression at the dog park, fortunately though these are few and far between. I see very few dog park injuries to be honest, and the majority of those are sprains and strains and the odd torn nail or cut paw. Injuries sustained from other dogs that are inflicted deliberately are fortunately rare.

On the other hand, just yesterday I saw a man throwing a ball for his dog to chase down the bike path. “Good dog,” he exclaimed when the ball was chased down and retrieved. Ten seconds later the same dog was chasing a cyclist on the path. “Bad dog,” he was told this time.

I couldn’t help but think what must be going through this dog’s mind. “I love chasing things… my person is happy… I love chasing things…my person is mad…I love chasing things.” Should a dog be allowed to chase cyclists? Of course not! Has this dog been trained to a level where he can differentiate good chasing from bad and be trusted in that setting…apparently not. This was not a ‘bad dog’, just a normal dog who should a) not have been off leash outside the fenced area (no dogs should be) and b) been taught what things are inappropriate to chase. This won’t happen automatically and it certainly won’t happen by trying to ‘reason’ with him.

As Gillian says, “If you have very high expectations of your dog, you had better be prepared to spend a significant amount of time working with them in the correct manner.”

When I asked Gillian what she thought constitutes a ‘minimum’ acceptable amount of obedience in a dog, she had a very interesting point of view and separated ‘obedience’ – dogs doing what they are told, and ‘manners’ – dogs knowing what to do without being told.

“Dogs with good manners know how to interact properly with other dogs and people, they know not to rush out the door or to bark at everything that moves, they know not to jump up and not to be a pest during a dinner party…to teach a dog manners is all about being consistent and showing them what is expected without being angry at them”.

Obedience is different, it involves teaching a certain expected reaction in response to a specific command, at the very least a minimum amount of obedience for the safety of the dog and the public would be coming when called and being able to walk on leash without pulling or trying to dart off.

Whatever your expectations are of your dog, it is vital to always remember that they have a very different way of viewing the world than we do, and between them have very different ways of interacting, they cannot reason or draw conclusions the way we do. Teach your dog “good manners” by setting clear boundaries and being consistent, but never angry. Remember it’s normal for a dog to want to sleep on your new couch, it’s not a “bad” behavior, it’s just not acceptable for us. To keep your dog and others safe, teach them at least to come when called and how to “heel” on leash. Beyond that, let them be dogs, and love them for it!

Dr. Nigel Skinner

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