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When Interests Collide

Focus on Acceptance for Relationship Equilibrium

The notion of a dog that can be taken anywhere, everywhere, who loves all people, and is friendly with all dogs can be a dangerous fantasy. I’ve seen many human/dog relationships damaged by this outlook—mine included. When I adopted Turkey, I didn’t know I’d be getting an anxious and aggressive dog, and instead of adventuring out to the local café together or taking a leisurely walk around the neighborhood, we would spend four years working through various programs of setups, counter conditioning, desensitization, tight management, and obedience.

We hear it all the time: “Practice makes perfect,” and “If you work hard, you can achieve your goals.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in animal learning. Sometimes fitting a dog into your lifestyle and social activities leaves the dog’s needs and wants unaccounted for. As a private dog trainer, I see many people and dogs, with conflicting interests and different priorities, living together. Obvious mismatches include athletic dogs living with families who don’t exercise or stimulate them sufficiently, and dogs with phobias of being home alone living with people who work 12-hour days. But by far the biggest mismatch I see is active and social families living with shy, fearful, or aggressive dogs. These dogs living in a busy household can be damaging for both the people and dog alike.

At first, most folks try to do the right thing. They take their time easing a newly adopted dog into their hectic world of dinner parties, child play dates, and weekend trips. But when the dog doesn’t quite adjust, they call me. Usually by then, the person is worried about a failure on their dog’s part and is typically anxious about their child’s or neighbor’s safety and want to resolve the problem immediately.

Dogs can learn an incredible amount of tasks, information, skills, and coping mechanisms. They can also curb and adapt many of their innate behaviors and emotions through positive reinforcement, but it’s important to remember that all dogs have limitations. Dogs show avoidance or aggression for explicit purposes, and it’s our job to know when they’ve reached their personal limit and to not see things as inherently fixable. Expecting your dog to handle every circumstance you throw at him can sometimes lead to resentments or apathy between the two of you. Finding equilibrium in relationships takes time, work, sacrifice, and compromise. Instead of changing your dog into a different dog, focus on acceptance; focus on relationship building through activities that make you both happy. With exception, I don’t believe you can get everything you want out of one dog. Physically, a Pekingese and a Malamute are opposites. Likewise, emotional capacity differs greatly among dogs. A confident, easygoing dog might happily be trained to accept being tied up in front of a café for a few minutes, while an anxious dog might not ever tolerate it. Some dogs are fine to meet stranger dogs on walks well into adulthood while others choose to close off their social circles around adolescence.

Want to increase the odds for living with a dog that can be taken anywhere, everywhere, who loves all people, and is friendly with all dogs? Try a multi-dog household! If that’s not possible, or even still, if it is, we must learn to compromise. We must learn to adjust our expectations of cohabitation and redefine ideas of success. Adapting realistic, tangible goals with our dog’s individuality in mind is key to living harmoniously with our pet dogs. Yes, it’s important to know how to ask an animal to do something, but I’d argue that it’s even more important to know what to ask—and, even more importantly, when to stop asking.

After four years of living and working with my dog through various challenges, I’ve finally arrived at a point where I believe he is living a quality life, complete with his behavioral baggage, precisely because I’ve stopped trying to fix him. Sometimes, training can’t solve everything. I think more than finding success in a specific training goal, there’s a lot to be said about what goals and expectations are realistic and which should be adjusted for your own dog. Dogs will drastically change your life, and if you’re open to learning and understanding them for what they are and not for what you want them to be, your life and their life will be changed for the better. Sometimes that change is not immediate, so be patient.

Mena Kamel, CPDT-KA, is a trainer at Bravo!Pup in Oakland. Bravo!Pup trains dogs, puppies, and their people using positive reinforcement techniques to make learning exciting, fun, and motivating. Instructors are formally educated and certified in science-based training methods, behavior modification, and client counseling. Learn more a


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Main article photo by: Photo by Jaromir Chalabala