I’ve been training dogs and working more with shelters and rescue groups over the past few years. I used to think animals only wound up in shelters because of over-population (no spaying or neutering) or severe behavior problems. Upon meeting many of the dogs in shelters I realize that a lot of them are just victims of bad circumstances. People often get a dog as a puppy or adult and get them home and realize how much work it is to own a pet, decide its too inconvenient and either drop them at a shelter or try to find a new home for them. I am completely alarmed by people’s willingness to dispose of a pet. I consider pets family members and even though family can occasionally get on my nerves I wouldn’t disown them.
Don’t get me wrong; I understand in cases of safety if a dog is aggressive towards you or others that is a difficult situation that sometimes has difficult solutions. But that isn’t the case with most of the dogs I work with. Mostly, they have quirks like trying to eat food off the sidewalk, go after squirrels, or get in the trash—these things are not extraordinary to me. Dogs do not naturally know how to live in our world, it is up to us to teach them what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. Imagine going to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and the rules and customs are different from your own. That is what our pets face every day living in homes with us.
My own dog and cat are from situations like this. People got them thinking they were cute and then realized they had their own personalities with their own needs. My dog Phoebe is an amazing creature. When she came home from the shelter she was very scared and growly. I worked with the owners and showed them how to work with her to help her feel safe and know what was and wasn’t appropriate behavior in their house. They and she did well for a while and then they had a baby and her training and walks went by the wayside and she started getting growly and possessive again. I understand they had fears about her with a small child involved, however she’s done marvelously in our house so it is possible. She tried some of her nonsense when she moved in—chasing the cats, guarding us (sometimes from one another) etc. She got time outs in the crate anytime she did any of this. We addressed it immediately and she very quickly learned that behavior wasn’t going to get her anything good in our house. Behavior that doesn’t add anything to a dog’s life usually extinguishes on its own. She’s learned to get our attention she needs to be polite, to sit and do other tricks. We give her long walks and chew toys to keep her busy and stimulated. Can you imagine how bored and into getting in trouble you’d be if you spent all day in an apartment and only got out for a few short walks to pee? I’d personally lose my mind. Yet people expect their dogs to be okay with this.
A lot of people wait to give attention to their dogs until they misbehave. They ignore the dog sitting around calmly and pay lots of attention to it yelling at it or whatever when it jumps up or gets into trash. Dogs learn the way to get attention is to misbehave. I believe in catching my dog exhibiting calm, good behavior and rewarding it instead of just paying attention to her when she pisses me off and she does sometimes. For instance, Phoebe thinks the cat litter box is a buffet. I can either get upset with this or clean it more often which makes the cats happier. This is a small example but it serves a larger theme. The problems we encounter are opportunities for growth. Sometimes we have to grow as people to deal with the responsibilities in our lives. There is no better feeling than stepping up to the plate and manning up and helping train a dog who’s been having trouble. I’ve had some of the most shut down dogs learn to trust me, and that trust is gold as far as I’m concerned. A dog that trusts you will do anything for you. They don’t want to piss us off or cause trouble, they want a stable home where they know the rules, it takes the pressure and stress off them as well not getting yelled at all the time. It usually doesn’t take all that much effort from us either. A little bit goes a long way. For example, I carry treats on walks to help my dog focus on me and feed her in food toys and she stays out of trouble for the most part that way. Little changes like this in your routine can help.
Basically, our pets want a relationship with us. They want us to be present, not chatting on the cell phone on walks and spacing out. They want to walk with us and be engaged. This is the Zen of dogs and we can learn a lot from it. Dogs are not disposable, they have needs just like we do, and when we meet them we grow and become better people for it.