Most of the posts I have on this site are instructional, a collection of “how to’s” if you will. I’d like to change gears a little with this post and make it mainly an informative one. I’d like to talk a little about realistic expectations, or maybe unrealistic ones. Many people get a dog and put very little thought into the decision. They see a breed that looks cool or appeals to them in some way and that’s about as much thought that goes into the acquisition. There are SO many other things that should go into this decision. First, why do you want a dog? Some common answers to this question are for my kids, for protection, to breed puppies, or because a certain breed is “cool” or some how strokes the persons ego. These are poor reasons to get a dog. The kids will lose interest, a home alarm system is much more practical for protection (even if you have the time, money, and patience to provide structured protective training), breeding puppies is just not practical if you are not in the breeding circle, and doing anything because it’s cool or because it strokes your ego is never a good thing.
So, considering these common reasons for people wanting a dog, is it any wonder that behavior problems are the number one cause for euthanasia? That’s right, NUMBER ONE, more than all other disease processes combined. It is unrealistic to think that your kids are going to be able to, much less want to, give this dog what he needs in order to be happy and healthy for it’s lifetime. The same really goes for all of the above listed reasons that many people use to justify getting a dog. All of these reasons have a “honeymoon” period that will wear off. It is unrealistic to think that you will remain happy with a protection dog if you never go through obedience training and protection training with him. Dogs have genetic predispositions to be protective, depending on the breed, but controlling this behavior requires training. It is unrealistic to think that you will make tons of money breeding dogs. Good breeders breed dogs because they love to, not to make money. Puppy mill type breeders make money, but is that what you really want? If it is, chances are you will not be reading this post because these type of people care very little for the dogs in their “care.” There is a lot of time, money, and effort that goes into dog breeding. Breeding is simply not for the average owner and should not be taken lightly.
It is unrealistic to see a certain breed in a movie and expect that this breed will behave the same way in your home. First of all, the dog you are seeing in the movie is HIGHLY trained. Many people think that what they see is their natural temperament, when in fact it is likely anything but. 101 Dalmatians comes to mind here. Dalmatians are a working breed. Think about it, where did you normally see this breed before that movie? In firehouses and in Budweiser commercials :-). After the movie, however, there was a boom in the sale of this breed, and many of them ended up in shelters or pounds. When people take a working breed, bring it into their home, and expect it to be a couch potato, they are being unrealistic, plain and simple.
Which brings me to the most unrealistic expectation of all, lack of exercise. Many people feel that having a big backyard is enough to have a properly exercised dog. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Having a large yard, even acres, is not the same as going for a walk with your dog. After a while, usually a very short while, your dog knows the backyard like the back of his paw and gets bored here very easily. Sure, when you’re out there interacting with him he will get excited, but when there is not another person, or dog, out there with him he will get bored quickly. Also, running a couple of laps around the yard is NOT adequate exercise. Just like with people, dogs need sustained cardiovascular activity for at least 20 minutes a day (and that is not nearly enough for most dogs). It is important for them physically (40-50% of my patients are overweight or obese) as well as mentally. Endorphins have a calming effect of the brain and they are a by-product of exercise. If you skimp on exercise, expect to have to deal with bad behavior to varying degrees, period.
This reminds me of a behavior client of mine who wanted a German Sheppard. He is a very successful guy with tons of money, and tons of time. He did his research and found a puppy that came from a champion bloodline in Schutzhund training. This is a VERY active dog with VERY high drive. Even though this guy had the time and the money to properly exercise this dog, he did not have the desire. His father had come to me with concerns about the dog’s increasingly bad behavior, but the son was not interested because HE would have to put the time and effort into modifying the dogs behavior. SO, he sends the dog off to obedience school for 4 weeks. The dog came back to him very well trained, he was a smart dog that wanted to learn, but was still poorly behaved. He knew all of his commands, but would still destroy anything he could get his mouth on, maul (affectionately) anyone who entered the house, and steal random objects throughout the day in the hopes of getting his owners attention. This guy got what he was looking for (a dog from a championship line), but his expectations of this dog being calm and mellow without proper exercise was, and is, unrealistic.
Another common situation I see is the mismatch. For example, I have a client (a couple) who had an old, overweight, arthritic Shepherd mix. When the time came to euthanize their dog (she had cancer), they were very upset. They loved her very much and they loved having a dog in general. They are great owners and they took very good care of her, right up until the very end. Once she was gone, there was a bit of a void in the home and they decided to get another dog, a German Shepherd puppy. They figured that the new dog would behave similarly to there other dog, boy did they get this wrong. They went from an old dog that had a very low exercise requirement to a young one that had a very high exercise requirement, and all sorts of behavior issues stemmed from it. The couple is in their mid 60’s and both of them have health issues that include bad back, hips, and shoulders. They were unable to provide adequate exercise and mental stimulation for their new dog, and it is unrealistic to think that they would have been able to do so. I’m, not picking on Shepherds here, you can insert any active, high drive, working breed here and the unrealistic expectations remain.
Next comes the fearful dog. A very common request I get is to help someone take a very fearful and timid dog and transform him into a happy-go-lucky social butterfly. This is unrealistic. Many people feel that a dog is this way because of some type of abuse that has happened in the past. A fearful/timid demeanor has been shown to have a very strong genetic component. In other words, they’re just born that way. Couple that with poor socialization, especially with puppy mill dogs, and with the inadvertent reinforcement of that fearful state of mind (for years in many cases) and you end up with a dog that is extremely anxious and fearful. Think about it on a human scale. Many people see a psychiatrist once a week for YEARS and still only make minimal improvement with their fears and phobias. The best that we can hope for, in most cases, is progress, not perfection.
Now, say someone has a dog that’s “misbehaved” and either they have, or someone gives them the idea, that adding another dog will make things better. Well, it is unrealistic to think that bringing another dog into a home that has a dog that is out of control is going to help. It is more likely that the new dog will imprint on the behaviors of the current dog, and now you have double the trouble. If someone did not have the time or the motivation to get their first dog’s behavior under control, why would they possibly think adding another dog would make things better? I don’t know why, I guess it’s one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” things that eventually many people come to regret. Good ole’ 20/20 hindsight :-).
There are many more situations out there that fall into the unrealistic category; the above examples are only a few. The good news is that there is help out there. These dogs need training AND behavior modification along with proper mental and physical stimulation in order to be happy, healthy, and balanced. It is never too late to start and you absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks; but remember, progress, not perfection. Thanks for reading
Photos courtesy of Kira Okamoto, dingatx, Sailing Footprints Real to Reel (Ronn ashore), and davipt via Flickr