Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Can't Fix It All... And That's Okay

 Photo courtesy of my friend.

A few weeks ago, one of my friends- a fellow reactive dog owner- emailed me, distraught over an incident she'd had with her dog while hiking. As far as things go, her dog's reaction was pretty reasonable (she lunged at a group of 25 or so high school kids hiking with cross country ski poles), but my friend was still upset. To her, it felt like a huge setback after a period of steady progress, and she thought that her dog's behavior was a reflection of her shortcomings as a trainer.

So what caused her to feel so bad? Personally, I think it's at least partly due to the societal belief that with enough love and training, it is possible to “fix” every dog. The problem with this, of course, is that it simply isn't true.

Look, I'm not saying our dogs are lost causes, because they are all capable of making progress. With some time and effort, all dogs can behave better and feel more comfortable. But each dog is an individual, and as such, the outcome for each dog will be different. The ultimate training goal will not be the same for every dog, and we should not measure our dog's progress against others.

In her email, my friend wanted to know if she should keep trying. She wanted to know if she should keep training to overcome the issues her dog still has. She wanted to know if she had failed her dog in some way because, despite everything, her dog still doesn't enjoy things like hiking and going to pet stores. She wanted to know if she was a bad trainer because her dog still isn't “fixed.”

Of course not.

We need to accept that dogs are not all the same. It is not fair to force them into a one-size-fits-all box. Instead, we need to be realistic about their unique personalities. As I emailed in response, my friend's dog is happy and comfortable with the activities they are doing. My friend is happy and comfortable with the activities they are doing. Maybe these activities don't involve the things society expects of dogs, but that is okay.

What my friend really needed was permission to accept her dog as she is. She needed to feel like it's okay that her dog isn't “fixed.” The truth is, though, that her dog is just fine: what I haven't told you is that my friend's reactive dog has been certified through a well-known national organization as a therapy dog. This is a very impressive accomplishment, and it is a testament to my friend's dedication to her dog and, yes, her skills as a trainer. Maybe her dog can't do everything society expects our dogs to do, but my friend has found something her dog is both good at and loves doing.

So, friends, I'm here to tell you that you can't “fix” everything about your dog. It's an impossible goal, and it will make you crazy trying. Find things you both enjoy doing together, and give yourself permission to let go of what others think your dog should be and do. Because your dog may not be perfect, but he's yours. And you know what? That's okay.


Urban canines said...

Great post on keeping prespective!

Amy said...

I once had a friend that told me she would be embarrassed if she had a dog like my Chico. I'd actually never been embarrassed by Chico's reactivity, but I often found myself feeling disappointed because he was reactive. Once I accepted Chico for who he is I was able to focus more on realistic goals. Instead of: I would love to take my dog to the farmers market. To: We walked down the street with no reactivity! Society is full of keeping up with the Jones' and their dogs. Keep sight of what's really important, and even when things feel helpless we need to stay true to our dogs and keep trying to help them work through their fears.

"By the love of those I've been privileged to rescue, I have been rescued."
Annette King-Tucker
Follow the True Dog Blog.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Oh, Amy, great point: Society IS all about keeping up with the Joneses, dog or not. I have occasionally been embarrassed by Maisy, but I've never stopped loving her. :)

24 Paws of Love said...

I am in tears. I needed to hear this so badly. I have known it, I have said it, I have felt it, but it seemed like no one else was saying it. I always feel so much shame because my dogs aren't like all the others. Reactive or not. I'm so tired of explaining and feeling like no one would give me the permission I needed. It always feel like everyone else can do it and I can not. Which makes me always feel like such a failure. Some days are better than others, but it is those others when I feel like I no matter how much I try to muster it up, I can't do it. Not only my dogs individuals, so I am and we are so much alike.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your friend and you for helping off the hook. I'm am bookmarking this page so I can read it again and again.

p.s. I have tried to comment before, I hope this goes through. :)

Thank you so much for your kind, kind words.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

24 Paws- I keep trying to respond to your comment, but I just don't know how. I'm glad you found this post helpful, and I hope you can relax and enjoy your dogs without the pressures of external expectations.

mlb said...

I am living your friend's life as well with my fear aggressive Pit Bull. I have felt it all - failure, shame, embarrassment, frustration, despair... I think I have been the biggest problem - no one comes up to me to say how awful my dog is...I put that on myself. I wanted a dog to go camping, hiking, cafes, farmer's market, therapy dog, fetch. My Sierra can't do any of that. It has taken YEARS to accept that! But, at long last, I have. We still have some bad days when my energy is low and her needs are so big BUT the good days far outweigh the challenging days - and that is good enough:)

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

I'm so glad you've found that, mlb. Or at least, that you've found it most of the time. :)

DancingCavy said...

So true.

I often find myself comparing Risa to other dogs' progress and wonder if I'm doing enough. If she's ever going to make such amazing progress and why she hasn't yet.

But, for the most part, I accept her for who she is and know she is never going to be 'perfect.' Despite my dreams of having a dog I could bring anywhere and do anything with, I don't have that dog. I've known that for a while and have accepted it. She's still an amazing dog who has made great progress. Risa is not the same dog I brought home from the shelter 5.5 years ago. A dog who would have raced out the door terrified if I brought her to a dog show not take home ribbons and titles.

It's not easy. But if the dog is happy, that's all that matters. Dogs don't need to go to Petsmart anyway. ;)

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Well, to be fair DancingCavy, people are usually quicker to brag about their accomplishments than the times they fail. The day after I posted my blog about Maisy being SUPERAWESOME at the pet store, we went again and she had three separate outbursts. I didn't post about those, so the impression left is that Maisy has made SO MUCH PROGRESS. (And she has, it's just that she's not perfect, either.) Which is why it's silly to compare your dog against other dogs, of course. :)

Robin Sallie said...

Your friend has a lovely dobe. Kiss her on her pointy little nose, please. (The Dobe. I miss them.)

Eliz said...

As someone whose dog is called if anything ...unreactive? I wanted to say that people who I've met with reactive dogs are often their own toughest critics. They expect so much from themselves.

The standards, goals, and commitment they have is nothing less then truly inspirational. However, I imagine without support and perspective could be emotionally draining for anyone no matter who you are.

Speaking of which, thanks for being such a great support for not only reactive dogs, but dogs everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding story, my Devon loves to dig holes at the dog park. He doesn't care about playing fetch or chasing other dogs. So I let him and don't care about what other owners think. Plus he gets enough play time with his sister Molly, who at the dog park spends her time chasing other dogs away from me. They're happy, I'm happy and all is well in our world.

Heather said...

I wasn't embarrassed about my reactive dog years ago when I didn't know that I should be. He was just a dog. He got alot more freedom too. Things I would never allow him access to now, I had no qualms about back then. And if dogs had words no one freaked out. Now if he barks at someone I feel bad that I allowed it to happen. Kind of sad how things have changed really. He's actually more reactive now that I keep him away (he's retired from sports) so that he does not rehearse naughty behaviors. Good reminder to not be lazy and to get him out with some awesome cookies. Sometimes ignorance isn't so bad. But I also wonder if I would have raised him differently if he came to me as a puppy again today.

ForPetsSake said...

Beautifully stated - my own GSD is reactive to people and other dogs. We've worked quite a bit with her and take tiny baby steps, but it's very much a work in progress. I love her with my whole heart, though and appreciated reading this to remind myself that it's ok she's not perfect. I'm not either, but we love each other just the same!

Unknown said...

I think therapy dog testing needs to a bit more particular...certifing a dog that lunges at groups of people is not reassuring. And yes I know what the testing entails...I have a dog who is therapy dog certified who would never do something like that.