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.