Each and every puppy class I teach I am surrounded with owners who want what is best for their dogs. Best food, best treats, best training, best play, best toys – and I get it. I also want what is best for their dog, and for them. I am right there with them determined to give them my best, and help them do their best. It is a lot of pressure.
Especially since puppies are not blank canvases, their DNA has been in place since conception, and that DNA will drive who they are, and who they become. But, their experiences help shape that DNA, and that is where good socialization is so important, where creating positive experiences and associations can guide your dog to their best possible self.
But, this post is not about socialization, or DNA. It is about you, me, and the pressure we put on ourselves when we raise a puppy.
Whether we realize it or not deep down I think we all dream of owning Lassie, that perfect dog who saves us when we need to be saved, who is friends to all, and who can walk by your side, never questioning your commands. I know I do, the list of dogs I read about when I was young and dreamed of owning is epic. But they were all fictional, and, the dogs by my side are not.
Jasper was not a perfect puppy, he worried, he was aloof, he did not want to interact much with people, and he gets rough when playing with other dogs. I knew I had to be careful with him, I put a bubble around him and did all I could to control everything around us and give him only the best experiences.
And I failed.
The first incident I could not control was when we were taking a walk and the neighbor’s let their dog out without realizing their gate was open. She silently ran up from behind Jasper and grabbed him by his neck as we were walking by. My husband’s quick reflexes saved the day as he (stupidly but bravely) tackled the other dog and grabbed her collar.
Then there were the new neighbors. We used to have a lovely greyhound next door who would sniff along the fence line and say hi to Jasper, they had a great relationship. He moved out and two new dogs came in, one of those dogs decided the best way to enter the yard was to bark and charge the fence, even if we were not outside. He did his best to eat Jasper, I did my best to manage it. I put up a visual barrier, I put up a smaller fence inside our fence, and then eventually had to put a full fence inside our fence to keep him from my dogs. He still managed to make a hole big enough to shove his head through in the metal fence on their side. Despite my best efforts Jasper learned the joys of barking at other dogs through the fence, he truly seemed to think it was a sport. When the other dogs were let out and he was inside he’d run to the door with his tail high and wagging, wanting to go out and bark back. He also learned dogs on the other side of the fence were dangerous.
The neighbors did their best but we both had dogs who needed to go out, and work schedules, and life happens and the dogs were exposed to each other far more then I would have liked. There was nothing I could besides move, which we did, but, not before the habit was formed.
Then there were the neighbors who felt it was appropriate to let their dogs roam the neighborhood, loose and free, unattended. Their dogs who were intact females, who would dance around outside my fence and drive Jasper wild. More bad fence habits established.
The most stressful moment for me came in a class when Jasper was taking his Canine Good Citizen test. There was a dog in the class who felt it was entertaining to chase after the dogs as they walked by, barking at them. Instead of dismissing the dog, as they should have, the tester decided to make every dog walk by that dog. Jasper did, and he held it together as the dog chased after him snapping at his feet. And Jasper held it together as three other dogs were forced to endure that. But then the dogs in the room started to lose it, they started to get restless from the tension, and they started to bark back at this dog. Jasper is not one to be left out, and he is not one to handle tension easily, and I watched him fall apart. I should have left that class as soon as the other dog acted out, but I didn’t want to be rude.
I’m telling you this not to excuse my dog’s behavior, or to promote the truth in the adage that good fences make good neighbors. But to share that no matter how hard I worked, no matter what I did, I was not going to make Jasper’s life perfect. Life is not perfect, life comes with conflicts. And you have to be prepared. Not by building a fortress around your dog or reading every training book you can get your hands on, but by accepting that you cannot raise a perfect puppy, that life is not perfect, and neither are you, and neither is your dog.
Love your dog, build a relationship with your dog, celebrate your dog’s quirks and accept them for who they are, and where they are. Take the pressure off you, and your dog, and enjoy the journey. You only get one chance at life with your dog and if you spend your dog’s life worrying you are missing out on so much.
I failed at giving Jasper only the best experiences because my expectations were unrealistic, perfection is unrealistic. Where I succeeded was in building a relationship with my dog. Because of that relationship when the imperfect moments happened we could work through them together. We have a connection to fall back on when things get stressful, or one of us gets worried. And that connection was not built just through training, although that does play a role, it was based on having fun with my dog, listening to my dog, understanding what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and respecting him when he told me no, I can’t do that right now, or no, I don’t like that.
When Jasper barks at another dog I know we can work through it together, and that is more valuable to me than having a dog who doesn’t bark. Why? Because while not every dog might react to other dogs every dog is going to have something they struggle with, and if you have a connection with your dog, you can help them through that struggle.