Living with a dog behaviour problem is by definition challenging for us. If we didn’t find the behaviour difficult to live with we wouldn’t define it as a problem. Our dogs are individuals with an entire set of genetics and learning histories that make them into who they are. We know this and we love them for it. At the same time, it’s hard to live with a dog that doesn’t quite (or maybe doesn’t at all) fit in with what you want or need.
If your dog is doing things you wish he wouldn’t, you may well have lots of swirling emotions about him. You love him obviously, but you might also get embarrassed by him sometimes, or frustrated. You might get angry at the time, and then deeply upset afterwards, both with the situation and yourself for not managing better.
I’m the queen of self-flagellation when something hasn’t gone well, or if my dog has reacted in a less than stellar way to something. I spend days ruminating on what I could have done better, on how my dogs would probably be better off living with someone else, which leads to a swirling vortex about how can I possibly be serious about helping other people with their dogs when my own do XYZ?!
Except for the bit about working through what I could have done differently, the rest is not helpful. What I’m learning to do is not to grab hold of feelings. They are temporary and in five minutes I’ll be feeling something else usually. I might go back to guilt or anger when it crosses my mind again, and that’s OK, I just try not to sink down into agreeing with my inner dickhead and run through all the ways I’m a terrible person. My counsellor would be proud.
I’m doing the best I can, and I *did* the best I could at the time, and I know that’s true for you too.
Your Dog’s Feelings
Then there’s your dog’s feelings. We can’t know what’s going on in our dog’s head. All we can do is interpret their external behaviour and make assumptions about what that means about their internal behaviour. We do this with other people too.
If dogs are acting in a way we wish they wouldn’t there’s normally a strong internal feeling that is accompanying that behaviour. It might be fear, or excitement, or something else, but often big behaviours have big emotions alongside them.
Most clients I work with suspect what their dog might be feeling. I’ll bet you do too. You just don’t know what to do about it.
It’s impossible to delve into someone’s brain and change the emotion they are feeling. We can’t do it with people, let alone dogs. All we can do is change the surrounding environment and give them different conditions. Even with things like NLP or CBT we are giving people ways in which to change their environment.
For your dog, I’m giving you permission to not put them into those situations you know are going to cause a problem. And if you find yourself in a problematic situation, you have my permission to just get you and your dog out of there. You aren’t cheating.
Squishing Them Into a Box They Can’t Fit
I expect that there was a subject at school that you liked less than the rest. For me, that was drama. I hated it. I was no good at it. In hindsight, I think it was more about the need to access emotions and become vulnerable, and there was no way that I was ever going to do that at that time. For the Kelly back then, if you had sent me to drama school, I would have been miserable, and probably stressed, every single day. I would probably have developed into a very different person than I am now because the conditions would not have been right for me.
The same goes for your dog. You might want your dog to accompany you down the pub for your Sunday lunch, but if your dog is going to spend that time lunging and barking at everyone that goes past, it’s going to be just like sending me to drama school. In addition, you cannot relax and enjoy your Sunday lunch either. No one is happy.
It’s the same if we want our dog to do a certain sport. I got Flint intending to do agility with him just as I did with Fraggle. While Flint will take a jump or two and I’m sure if I’d pursued it he would run a course with me and probably be pretty happy about it, I knew pretty quickly that it didn’t light a fire in his soul. Tracking does that. So we do more tracking and less agility.
Trying to squish our dogs into a box that doesn’t fit will never work well long term. They might be able to get in it for short periods, like Flint with agility, but for him the tracking box is a much more comfortable fit. There are some boxes that he can’t get into no matter how much I might want him to right now – the greeting other entire male dogs on lead nicely box is one of them. So I just don’t ask him to get in it.
You Can Still Work Towards Changing Things
Now I know what you’re thinking. Your dog doesn’t fit into a box, but you really need and want him to. Like the managing to take a walk without losing your shit box. And you’re right, there are some boxes that it would be sensible to work towards being able to ask our dogs to get in. It’s going to take work and you will need to start with a different box and help him get into that one before sizing down gradually until you get to your goal box.
You are still going to have to be aware of the boxes that don’t fit yet and help your dog to avoid them. And you might have to accept that you’ll never get down to your perfect box. But that’s ok. There are boxes you can’t fit into either, and your dog loves you anyway.
Explore Your Dog’s World
The only way I discovered that Flint loved tracking was by watching him and trying things out. It was obvious Flint sniffed a lot, so we did some scent work – which he enjoys. So I also then thought about other types of nosework and tried tracking – and discovered a different side to Flint. One I would never have seen otherwise.
For Fraggle, our change had to come about because of her physical health. She has arthritis in her stifle because of luxating patella, and she was going lame after doing agility. So I swapped her onto scent work – wrong fitting box. She will do scent work but it doesn’t fulfill her and it certainly can’t be the only thing in her life. She enjoys running, but I don’t want her jumping. So we’ve landed on hoopers and she’s thrilled.
You don’t have to be doing sports with your dogs – that’s just something I enjoy. What lights your dog’s fire might be going for a run with you, or investigating the world on a longer hike at the weekend away from everyone else, or time away just you and him together watching the world go by.
Give Yourselves a Break
Clients often ask me whether it’s cheating to avoid the difficult situations with their dog when I first start working with them
It’s really not.
Actually, I think it’s essential.
I’ve talked about management before and having to wear in new neural pathways to change behaviour. Continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different outcome is foolish. All you do is strengthen that old unwanted neural pathway.
To navigate the same situation but with different behaviour, we normally need to install new skills.
For instance, if you’ve historically had big arguments with family over Christmas dinner but you’d like that to stop then this year is your year. Because the pandemic means you probably won’t be able to spend Christmas day with them.
The break gives you the opportunity to practise new behaviours away from the situation. You can gradually practise your new behaviours in different situations and work towards your ability to breathe rather than rage at your bigoted uncle for Christmas 2021.
Or you might decide that if this year’s Christmas is blissful, that family Christmases will no longer feature in your life.
That’s OK too.
Maybe you’ll visit family at less fraught times of the year or avoid times your uncle is around. If that means you are more able to engage in the behaviour you want to display around your family then I’m all for it.
Same for your dog. And mine.
You can avoid it forever if you like. Management is not cheating. I think it’s hugely underrated as a behaviour change option. Giving you and your dog a break allows you the time and space to breathe and explore different possibilities together.
Honour the dog you have rather than lamenting the one you wished for. You’ll open up a new world. One you might prefer. Your dog certainly will.
If you need help with investigating new possibilities with your dog, I’d love to work with you. Book a discovery call with me and we can start you on your journey to a new world.