The Myth of the “Normal” Dog

Layla has always hated to be touched. Even as a tiny puppy, she would wiggle and jump around in social situations, moving so much that people couldn’t get their hands on her. If she was restrained, she would snarl ferociously and throw her body about, biting repeatedly in a panic until she was let go. This made veterinary exams and procedures grueling. Petting was out of the question, and anyone stupid enough to try hugging or kissing her was likely to get their face bitten.

With repeated conditioning (pairing touch with rewards), Layla has learned to tolerate handling of all kinds. I can pet her, hug her, and even kiss her without worrying about being bitten. She no longer needs to be sedated for basic procedures like toenail trimming or ear cleaning, and even allows me to give her shots or express her anal glands when necessary. She stands perfectly still at the vet clinic for blood draws, resting her chin in my hands while I gently grasp her collar.

Layla tolerates touch, but she does not enjoy it. Like many people with autism or other sensory processing disorders, she appears to be highly sensitive to touches that most dogs would not even notice. Light pressure and casual touches always prompt stress signals, even though she no longer reacts violently to them.

Layla. Photo by SC Studios.

Deep pressure, on the other hand, appears to be very enjoyable to her. Even as a tiny puppy, Layla would crawl under the covers. In fact, this seemed to be the only way that she could truly relax. She can often be found burrowed underneath a blanket, dog bed, or couch cushion. She enjoys wearing coats and her Thundershirt. She also appears to love it when I slide my hand underneath her side as she’s lying down and gently press upward or scratch her, as she will lean into the pressure. Just as weighted vests and blankets appear to help children with autism “dial down” their nervous systems, Layla appears to benefit from any sort of even, steady pressure.

Owning a dog like Layla can be frustrating. Imagine having a pet who never wants to be petted! It can feel like a personal insult when your beloved dog moves away from you every time you stroke or touch her. When I decided to bring another dog into my life, I told all of my friends and family that this time around, I wanted a “normal” dog.

The idea of the “normal” dog is an appealing one to anyone who deals with behavior problems. It’s also unrealistic and unfair. There is no such thing as “normal.” Normalcy is a lie that we tell ourselves, and it causes so much harm. Think of all of your friends and family. Who’s the most “normal” of all of them? Who’s the most “abnormal?”

Normalcy is a mental construct that we build in our minds based on our culture and our individual past history, but it’s also an unachievable standard. There is no such thing as a “normal” dog, just as there’s no such thing as a “normal” person.

Many of the behaviors that we consider abnormal are in truth entirely sane responses to the artificial and unnatural environment that we expect our dogs (and ourselves!) to cope with on a daily basis. Layla’s aversion to touch is an entirely normal response for her unique nervous system. Another one of my dogs, Dobby, seeks out touch and relaxes the most when he can snuggle up with me or with another dog. The way that he desires and is reassured by touch is entirely normal for his nervous system.

In this same vein, separation anxiety is an entirely normal response for a social animal that is kept in isolation for long hours without being taught coping skills. Leash reactivity is an entirely normal response for a dog who desires more distance from people or animals that concern her. When we look at each dog’s genetic make-up, past history, and current environment, we can begin understanding why that dog behaves in the way that he or she does. We can move past the idea of normal or abnormal behavior.

Judging your dog against other dogs you have owned, other dogs of the same breed, or what you know of dogs in general does her an incredible disservice. She is an individual, and comparing her to some ideal dog prevents you from celebrating her as an individual. Just as each of your friends and family members is special and unique, so too is your dog. What charms or delights you about your dog? What makes you laugh? What makes you proud? Is it worth it to shove a square peg into a round hole if doing so will damage the peg?

Words have power, and I think we need to be incredibly careful how we use them. Saying that you want a “normal” dog implies that your current dog is somehow less than ideal, and primes your brain to accept nothing less than your idea of perfection: a standard that no real dog will ever be able to meet.

Layla does not fit into our society’s concept of a “normal” pet dog. She doesn’t want to be touched, she opens gates and refrigerator doors, and she kills and eats any small critter she finds. That’s okay! She’s a fascinating individual, and I feel incredibly honored to know her. The relationship that we’ve built based on her uniqueness is special, and will never be replicated with any other dog. The more I listen to what she “tells” me, the more I learn about that wonderful spark that makes her who she is.

16 responses to “The Myth of the “Normal” Dog

  1. Wonderful points about comparing our dogs. For a while, I too wanted to “normal dog” and compared her to others. I finally learned the same, there is no normal, and instead focused on the positive things, and I couldn’t be happier :) Great article!!!

  2. I’m sorry to burst your bubble. Your dog is not normal, and children tragically handicapped by autism are not normal. You are a very patient and tolerant person to put up with your dogs anti-social and unpleasant behaviors, and I give you credit for that. Most people would have put Layla down.

    Surely there is great variation in “normal”, and some dogs are more social than others, or more friendly than others. That does not meant you have to get “stuck” with a psychotic pet who makes your life miserable for 10-15 years. I feel very bad for such dogs (and sometimes cats), but it is NOT RIGHT to call it “normal”.

    This is an animal, a pet. It is not a human child. To your human child, you owe a very high degree of responsibility, even if that child is tragically handicapped. You do not owe this to a pet who makes your life miserable daily, or actually hurts you, or endangers you, or hurts other people.

    I say this, though I love my pets very much and I have “toughed it out” with some who had behavior problems. But a dog you can’t pet or cuddle with? who bites you (the owner)? I don’t think I could take that. I am also not sure you are doing the animal any great favor, as they seem to be living a miserable, isolated and lonely life.

    In short: yes there ARE normal dogs — most dogs are normal — Layla is NOT normal. You can accept this, but please do not try to sell the idea that all dogs are wildly different or unsocial. If that was true, humans would not have domesticated dogs thousands of years ago!

    • Thanks for your comment, Lola. I can tell that you love your pets very much, and commend you for “toughing it out” when your own pets have needed a little extra help to fit into your life.

      I’m very sorry that you got the impression that Layla makes my life miserable daily, hurts or endangers me, or hurts other people. I can assure you that these statements are not true, and that she in fact brings quite a lot of joy to my life. As I mentioned in the blog post, she now tolerates touch of all kinds, including quite invasive procedures such as allergy shots or having her anal glands expressed. I disagree with you that her life is miserable, isolated, or lonely. As you can see from the picture, she finds joy in many things, including training, daily walks, and time with myself and my other two dogs. I believe that she is very happy and content the vast majority of the time.

      The point of this blog post is not Layla, however, but rather the damage we can do with words and expectations. As I wrote above, “Judging your dog against other dogs you have owned, other dogs of the same breed, or what you know of dogs in general does her an incredible disservice. She is an individual, and comparing her to some ideal dog prevents you from celebrating her as an individual. Just as each of your friends and family members is special and unique, so too is your dog. What charms or delights you about your dog? What makes you laugh? What makes you proud? Is it worth it to shove a square peg into a round hole if doing so will damage the peg?”

      I agree with you that it’s important to get a pet to fit your lifestyle. I know that each of your pets is very special, and am sure you celebrate them all as individuals. In that same way, I wrote this post to celebrate the uniqueness of Layla, and of every other dog out there. There is a spark inside every one of us that makes us who we are, and I hope that those who read this post will focus on that spark in their own pets.

      Kindest regards,
      – Sara Reusche

    • Hey LOLA MONTEZ you are NOT normal for posting this stupid response- I feel sorry for your dogs that you make them tough it out – how inhumane
      Educate yourself on the science of dog behavior

  3. What a great post! And, so true that each dog is an individual and should be respected and treated as such. I just adopted a little pittie girl. She is very dainty and cute with big floppy ears and *everyone* wants to pet her (we live in a busy neighborhood in NYC!). Eleanor loves other people, but couldn’t be bothered with them when she’s out walking, sniffing around, looking for squirrels and saying hi to her doggie friends. I used to be embarrassed because she didn’t seem social enough to all these strangers wanting to pet her, but now I get it. She has other priorities on our walks, and loud, shrieking tourists just aren’t her thing. Who can blame her?!? Thank you for sharing your experiences with your gorgeous little girl. R

  4. This is such a great post. I read this somewhere else about liking your dog for what they are, not wishing for something they are not and it has made all the difference in the world with my “middle” child. She still drives me crazy at times but for the most part she makes me laugh and I didn’t see this before. I was just always frustrated with her and her behaviors. Since I now “like” my dog, our relationship is awesome. For the most part it was me that was causing the problem. Thanks for the reminder which I still sometimes need when I’m frustrated.

  5. I have a wonderful dog who has no major behavior problems, but he, like Layla, dislikes petting. He has never growled or snapped at petting or touching, but if you try to pet him he will give calming signals or just walk away. We’re very lucky, though, because he loves strangers and kids (they might have food!).

    Anyway, I love the blog. Thanks for an interesting and reassuring post!

  6. I find Layla to be a very happy little dog, she just wants life on her own terms.

  7. I love hearing stories about special dogs who bring their owners joy. I had a very reactive German shepherd who died too young. I wish I’d spent less time worrying about making her behave like other dogs. She was wonderful the way she was.

  8. I have three dogs in my home. Attitude, a mini Dachshund, has never met a stranger in her life; they are just friends she didn’t know she had. Dieter, my adopted Standard Dachshund, on the other hand, is wary of new people and fear reactive. I had to accept he would never be as outgoing or social as Attitude or any of my other dogs before I could see the funny, loving guy he is. Max, my German Shepherd Service Dog, likes people, but doesn’t like a lot of strangers touching him. He’s a funny, high energy boy who enjoys his work and loves his play time. Accepting the differences in them and seeing them for who they are has made our home happier.

    With clicker training I helped an 8 week old kitten join our family. Thrown into my yard at 8 weeks of age, she was terrified of people, dogs and life. She was 1.6 pounds when she came to me, and sick with a double eye infection and upper respiratory infection. With patience and clicker training we’ve added her into the family and she enjoys some petting, but not a lot. She enjoys play and roaming the house. Clicker training helped Dieter, my high prey drive dog, accept her as family and Max learn how to be in a home with a kitten for the first time in his five years of life. Attitude accepted her without a hiccup. It took 8 weeks of gates, kennels and planned training sessions with the dogs and kitten, but we fully integrated and everyone is living happily together. This could not have been achieved so quickly without positive training methods.

    Bless you for helping Layla accept touch without fear and accepting her for her special ways.

  9. It was really uplifting to read your article. My dog, Vadim, though a “toy” breed, is not a fan of touch either. Most people upon seeing him want to pet and cuddle him, but I have to really watch out. The kids – he tolerates (thank god) but with grown ups things can get nasty. I always thought it must be something I did wrong when bringing him up (Vadim is my first dog), but having read your article I realise that maybe his dislike of sitting on the sofa with me or cuddling is just a part of who he is. We have over time devloped a ritual of him placing his head on my lap when I sit on the floor. He never does this with anyone else. I guess that’s his way of showing me I’m special to him :)

  10. It is possible to accept abnormality and still love and cherish the dog for who they are. I do. I don’t ever want to fall into the trap of making more and more excuses for my dog because he is ‘special’ and what’s he’s doing makes perfect sense to him. Of course it does, or he wouldn’t do it. That doesn’t mean that this makes it normal in that it falls somewhere around the bulky bit of a bell curve representing all dog behaviour. I only need be honest. He has extreme qualities, some of which I love and make him an exciting and fascinating dog to share my life with, and some that are problematic and make him a trying dog to share my life with. Abnormality isn’t always a bad thing. Give me an abnormally smart dog like my little guy any day. After him, I don’t think I could ever go back to ‘normal’ dogs.

  11. Lola, I am sorry your didn’t quite understand what the author was saying. The author was trying to point out that we shouldn’t base our dogs on a level of “normalcy” or compare them to other dogs. This can do a great disservice. For example, my husband would always say, “I wish Oreo could be normal.” He would compare her to his old dogs. Instead of coming up with a solution, or wanting to train her to help her get PAST her fear, he focused on what was wrong, and didn’t see WHY he should have to work with her, she should just be normal. When he stopped focusing on how she should be normal, and realized he needed to help her, she made great progress. Many dogs are unsocial, and that’s okay. People need to realize dogs are all different, just like people. And as to your comment about “roughing it out”, no one should have to “rough it out” they should take action and start training or consulting a trainer if they are miserable, just like the author did, and I did with my own dog. Every dog is unique :)

  12. I love this part: “Judging your dog against other dogs you have owned, other dogs of the same breed, or what you know of dogs in general does her an incredible disservice.”

    And good job for training Layla to accept nail clipping and ear cleaning! We are still working on that with our dogs, both of whom LOVE to be touched by us as well as strangers — but not with nail clippers, go figure.

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  14. A wonderful article and so true that we should treat our dogs as individuals! I have my Fiona (one of three) who I always joke and say she is “an alien” because of some of her quirks but guess what…you learn to deal with them and realize that they are part of her and she is not hurting anyone she is just being who she is and I wouldn’t want her any other way!

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