Train the Dog, Not the Story

Working as a trainer and a dog rescuer, I’ve seen and heard about some awful things that have been done to dogs. Some of them, which I won’t mention here, will haunt me forever. We hear about horrible abuse often, and it never fails to grip our hearts. However, there’s an equally dark side to the story of dog abuse or neglect that is rarely mentioned.

Here’s the problem: once a dog becomes adopted, they begin the healing process. However, that process can only go as far as the new owner allows it to.

There’s no denying that horrible past experiences can influence a dog (or a person, for that matter) for the rest of his life. We understand from advances in neurological development that early experiences have a profound effect on the physical development of the brain. Impoverished environments during early development will result in a brain that does not develop normal neural connections and a body that does not process stress hormones normally (this is why socialization, including early puppy classes, is so important). Furthermore, new research hints that dogs and other animals can likely develop a form of PTSD with many of the exact same symptoms that humans suffering from the condition report.

All that said, improvement is almost always possible. A dog who spent his first 5 years in a tiny cage in a dark barn at some puppy mill may never be as much of a well-adjusted pet as he would have been if he’d had a better start. However, that’s not to say he can’t make great strides towards becoming more comfortable, or even have a very high quality of life in a new home. With advances in behavior modification, medication, and environmental manipulation, we can now treat anxiety or aggression issues that would have been a death sentence years ago.

There’s one thing that holds many of these dogs back, and it may surprise you.

It’s not their past.

It’s not their physical abnormalities.

It’s not even their owner’s level of competence at training.

It’s their story.

These two dogs came from a horrible situation. Instead of focusing on that, we can focus on them as individuals and let healing begin.

As far as we know, dogs don’t tell stories to themselves. However, people do. We do it all the time, and many adopters of dogs from bad situations do it to such an extent as to sabotage their dog’s progress.

Here’s the thing: your dog does not spend every minute of every day remembering the horrible thing that happened to him. He’s trying to move on. He is in a good place now. You need to move on too.

The best thing you can do for a rescued dog with a horrible past is to look to the future. Celebrate his progress. Celebrate where he is now. Celebrate the fact that he will never again have to endure hunger, cold, unsanitary conditions, or physical abuse.

Instead of seeing the story, see the dog. Provide rules and structure. Provide a set routine. Provide training.

There’s a lot of evidence that genetic potential has a large influence on a dog’s ability to make progress. You won’t know what your dog can achieve until you try. Listen to him, stay within his limits, and do not put him in situations where he struggles. Learn to read him, and work closely with a professional. Put his best interests first. Stop making excuses. If you find yourself apologizing for poor behavior using your dog’s story as an excuse, stop! Look to the dog you have in front of you right now. Read the page in front of you at this moment, not ancient history that happened weeks, months, or years ago.

Your dog’s story didn’t end when you rescued him. It’s still being written, and you’re one of the authors. Write a great ending to his tale.

15 responses to “Train the Dog, Not the Story

  1. What a fabulous article!! You are so right that it’s new owners not willing to give up the story that hold these lovely dogs back.

  2. We have just recently adopted a mini pincher that has obviously suffered from abused..the bottom of his little ears have been split…a stupid attempt to make them stand up I guess)
    I’m having to be very patient while trying to ‘re-housebreak’ him….and there have been some trying times(like when he hiked his leg on my new cream colored sofa)…but when I look into his dark eyes and let him know its ok….his tail begins to wag and he jumps in my lap…we both know everything will workout and in time things will get better…he will learn in time…he is learning a lot from my 5yr old male mini dachshund…I take them out together…and where my mini doxie ‘goes’ the new little guy goes right behind him…so that’s been a huge help!!! We all have fell in love with this little guy, he has stolen our hearts… and he has truly found his “furever” home!!

  3. Another well written article Sara. I enjoyed reading this.

  4. Great article,,passing i on to my niece, who just adopted a rescue dog,,I know it will surely help her and her new dog on their, New journey to a happier life.

  5. Wonderful article which I have passed on. Thank you so much.

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  7. I do dog training in Toronto, and I have shared this post with SO many people since I found it a few weeks ago. Thanks so much for writing such a fabulous article on the subject and describing this phenomenon so well. :)

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  15. This small post has reached me like nothing else has. Maybe it is because I write stories so this explained things in a way my mind would finally hear. I constantly fret over my dog’s past, since she takes everything to heart and has some issues to heal. But I have KNOWN in my own heart that I am making things worse by being so fretful about it and focusing on it. It is mostly my own ptsd expecting the same from her, no matter how much healing and progress I have seen in her. This post has helped shift me into seeing her story as active and not finished, even with setbacks, and seeing her problems as the opportunity within the moment to help all those troubling things turn into happy things. It’s so great how in-the-moment dogs are! I’ve bookmarked a ton of your other posts, too, and can’t wait to use the Watch the World technique! Thank you SO MUCH!!

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