Thursday, October 6, 2011

Unreasonable Expectations

It's been about a year since Maisy and I embarked on the medication journey, and almost three since we began working on her reactivity. In that time, she has made tons of progress. I am very pleased with her current abilities to deal with and recover from stress. And yet, there are still times when I'm disappointed with her behavior.

For example, lately we have been heading over to a local obedience club once a week or so just to hang out. We do some mat work, and I reward calm behavior. Basically, I'm recreating our old reactive dog class in a new environment. She's doing quite well overall, especially when you consider that this club can get quite busy and chaotic, but she still has the occasional outburst.

The most recent one happened at the end of an otherwise excellent session. We were on our way out when she suddenly lunged and barked at two dogs. The handler had her back to us, checking in for her class, and her boxers were standing at the end of taut leashes, staring. Their appearance had already put Maisy on edge (she doesn't like dogs with cropped ears), and on top of that, their behavior was rude. No wonder she reacted.

Even though I understood why she behaved the way she did, I was still disappointed. I don't know about you, but for me, there is something particularly disheartening about a really great training session ending on such sour note. But I also think there might be something deeper at play. I think I might be suffering from unreasonable expectations.

It is unreasonable to expect that a dog will not notice things in her environment. She is a living, breathing individual whose senses not only work, but have been keenly honed to allow her to see a squirrel cautiously moving across an open field, to hear the grass rustling when a bunny moves, or to sniff out a rodent den. A dog can- and should- take in everything around her.

Likewise, it is unreasonable to expect that a dog will not respond to things in her environment. To do so is to expect her to disregard instincts that have evolved over the course of thousands of years. All animals, dogs included, naturally orient to signs of both potential food and potential danger.

It is also unreasonable to expect that a dog will never bark or growl. These are normal, natural forms of communication that allow dogs to mediate disputes and prevent them from becoming bloody fights. To believe that a dog will never vocalize her displeasure is to betray one's ignorance of what a dog is.

It is, in short, unreasonable to expect a dog to be perfect. So why has that been my goal?

While it's true that I personally have a perfectionistic streak about a mile wide, I think that societal beliefs about dogs may have contributed to my foolish quest. Movies and television programs tell us that all dogs should be friendly and outgoing. They should love everyone, all the time. They should be long-suffering and endlessly patient, putting up with ear-pulling and tail-tugging without protest. They should be willing to work for no more than a pat on the head and maybe a kind word. They should definitely be selfless and courageous and loyal- I grew up watching Lassie save Timmy's butt every week, after all.

Now, I'm not dumb. I know there's a huge difference between our real-life dogs and the ones on the silver screen. Still, cultural ideals run deep, and they are what I naively believed when I brought a puppy home almost five years ago. When Maisy failed to live up to my unrealistic expectations, I learned there was a word for that- reactive- and I set out to fix her.

I don't think that was wrong; several highly educated and extremely experienced professionals saw the same anxiety and overreactions that I did. Of course, their expectations were far more reasonable than my own. I clung to the hope that after a bit of training, Maisy would become a “normal” dog, which was really code for “perfect.”

I didn't realize that's what I was expecting, however, until I saw some of my friends' so-called perfect dogs act... well, normal. They barked. They growled. They sometimes even lunged at things when excited (but then, what do you expect a retired racing greyhound to do when he sees a bunny lure?).

In other words, those dogs that I thought were perfect? They're just like Maisy. Well, maybe not just like Maisy- she needs daily medication to achieve the same effect, after all- but the point stands: she is more or less a normal dog these days. The only thing holding her back at this point are my own unreasonable expectations.

While I have always loved Maisy, flaws and all, I have also struggled to accept her inherent dogginess. I need to relax, to stop worrying what others think about me and her both, and most of all, to stop trying to achieve the impossible. It's clear this is the next step in our journey. Well, if I'm honest, it's actually my journey- Maisy doesn't seem to have any unreasonable expectations for me. I guess I'm lucky that way. My dog may not be perfect, but she is pretty tolerant of my mistakes, and she definitely accepts my human nature.

I only hope I can give her the same gift.


Elizabeth said...

I love this. It grounds me. Thank you.

24 Paws of Love said...

If I had a dime for every time I thought or hoped my dogs would be perfect...I think this past year with my dogs has been about accepting them for who they are and what they are. So they don't as pretty as others dogs, that may be out and about, but when I take in everything they have been through, their temperaments and behaviors, I can't change that any more than I can change why I am who I am.

I have been coming to a greater acceptance of that as I learn to accept myself. I have found more times than not that I treat them like wild animals and with just as much respect. And I set both of our lives with that in mind. I still get a little jealous of people that can take their dogs anywhere and have less worry, but I appreciate my dog's life too much to but them or myself through that.

I appreciate how you expressed your feelings and opened your heart. I think secretly we would all love to have the perfect dog, but regardless if they are reactive or not, nobody does.

And yes there is nothing worse than to have a great session with your dog and then have the one bad thing happen to seem to ruin it. :)

katie, Maizey and Magnus said...

Thank you Cystal. It seems this was the night for honest posts about reactive dogs. I just finished my own, though of a totally different variety. Isn't it just amazing how much they teach us? They are simply amazing, inherent "dogginess" and all.;)

Joanna said...

Maisy doesn't seem to have any unreasonable expectations for me.

Well, except for expecting you to throw her ball and give her treats whenever she pleases, right? I think we may need to have a discussion with her about that.

Joking aside, I appreciate how willing you are to publicly talk about your private struggles. I kind of wish I could print it and pass it out to every new dog owner who walks in through the door.

Robin Sallie said...

WHAT!? She isn't fixed by now? Come on, it has been three years! And you two spent much time with the most AWESOME trainer in the world...

Yep. Unreasonable expectations.

I love the photo of her and Beckett Dog.

Crystal Thompson said...

Thanks for the positive feedback, everyone. This is a bit more personal than I usually post, so I was a bit hesitant about it.

Joanna- I don't think it is unreasonable at all for Maisy to expect cuteness cookies. I mean, come on. Look at her! She clearly deserves them. ;)

Robin- I'd say she's "fixed." Just... not perfect. But then, I think you knew about me and my perfectionism/unreasonable expectations the day I brought my five-page plan to get the ARCH in a year! Seriously, though, one of the greatest gifts you gave me was learning how to look beyond performance goals and to start doing what is right for MAISY. I still struggle with not overfacing her, but I'm far better at it now, and a lot of that is because of you.

Ninso said...

Thanks for this post. It's nice to know I'm not the only one out there with unreasonable expectations!

Anonymous said...

I know exactly how you feel.

I think one of the reasons I am disturbed by my dog's reactivity is because I have a very negative response to aggression in general, especially from humans. But also from dogs, and especially MY dog. (I know reactivity does not necessarily =/= aggression, but viscerally that's my response to it.)

I think the more I accept that aggression been a part of nature for millions of years, the more I realize its unreasonable for me to think genetic and behavior tendencies can be merely "trained" away in my dog. The aggression/reactivity's been around a lot longer than my dog, myself, and especially theories about dog training (which is still a very young field.) It's not like humans have unlocked the mysteries behind human and animal psychology, brain function, and behavior--there is still so much we don't know.

In the case of dog aggression I feel I'm trying to debug a program without quite knowing, for sure, what programming language I'm actually using yet. Interesting, for sure, but I have to accept that I'm basically shooting in the dark.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post, Crystal. You always express stuff I would like to say way better than I could ever say it.

I think there is a sadness to the realization that you'll never have a "perfect" dog. Most owners with normal dogs probably never have that moment, but those of us with reactive dogs definitely do.

It was very depressing to me to come to the conclusion that Shanoa will never be "normal." But I think, like you, I've adjusted my expectations to try to give her the best life she can have, and be the best dog she can be. While we continue to work on improvement, I've also accepted some of the things that are just part of who she is. She'll never be a dog park dog. She'll never be relaxed enough to be the dog that goes everywhere. But she IS the dog who adores me. She IS the dog who managed to pass her therapy dog test with Delta and is actively visiting.

I found it freeing, actually, to acknowledge that there are some things that are just off the table. I think Robin said to me at one point that it's okay if she's just our pet. She doesn't have to achieve anything to be a good dog. And that took so much pressure off both of us that it allowed us to figure out what we could do, rather than be frustrated by what we couldn't.

Anonymous said...

Argh! Sorry that double posted. And it was me, by the way!


Crystal Thompson said...

Nicky, I figured it was you when you wrote Shanoa's name! ;) Your last sentence is so beautiful. I am glad that I have been there to see you and Shanoa grow together. Pretty awesome.

Other anonymous person- thanks for your comment. I think you make some great points about how difficult it is to overcome deeply ingrained behavioral and genetic tendencies. Your reference to programming languages makes me giggle- although I couldn't program my way out of a paper bag, I'm married to a programmer, so I find that description both apt and hilarious.

andrea said...

posted lately about my perfect dogs ;)
luckily for me I've lived with the same kind of perfect dogs my whole life so my expectations are low .. reactivity was a whole new learning curve for us though!

great post

Sophie said...

Fantastic post. Thanks, Crystal. :) It helps reading through all your ups and downs with Maisy, whilst I deal with Lola. You guys are a huge inspiration.

Amy said...

This is my first visit to your blog, and I think you knocked this one out of the park. We also have a reactive dog - and I am also a perfectionist, so this post struck a cord with me. Our dogs accept us for who we are - I'm going to work on doing the same.

Crystal Thompson said...

Thanks, Amy. I wish you luck in your journeys- being a "recovering perfectionist" is so hard.

Debbie Jacobs said...

I have 3 dogs and jokingly say my most 'normal' is a border collie, if that says anything about the other two. I have long since given up trying to fit my square dogs into round holes. I was grateful when my parents stopped trying to do the same with me.