For a professional dog trainer, my dogs are not very “well trained.” They wear Freedom harnesses on walks to keep them from pulling. They get excited when visitors come over. They bark when people come to the door.
Recently, I posted a picture on Facebook of my youngest dog, Mischief, with purple ink on her paws from a pen she had just destroyed. A good friend of mine was very concerned, and contacted me privately. Perhaps I might be hurting my business, she worried. Wouldn’t people be less likely to hire me if they saw that my puppy was destructive? What kind of dog trainer would let her dog do something so blatantly naughty?
Well, I would, for one. I love bragging about the amazing things my dogs can do, but I’m also not afraid to share their less impressive moments with the world. I thought Mischief’s pen murder was cute and funny. The pen had fallen from my desk and she did what any curious young dog would: she picked it up and chewed on it to see what it was. She doesn’t chew on other things that she finds on the floor such as my shoes, dirty clothes, or furniture, because I’ve taught her that these are not appropriate things to put in her mouth. If I wanted to teach her not to touch pens on the floor, it would be easy to do, but since pens rarely wind up on the ground it’s not something I worry about.
Here’s the thing: we each train what’s important to us. What I find important with my pets and what you feel are a priority may be very different, and that’s okay. Our pets become part of our family, and every family has its own unique rules and priorities. As long as your dog fits well in your family, it doesn’t matter what skills she knows or doesn’t know.
It’s important to me that my dogs travel well, and indeed they all ride quietly in the car, usually sleeping for most of the trip. They don’t bark out the car windows or pace restlessly. It’s important to me that they have rock-solid leave its, so most of my training sessions involve toys or treats on the ground, which my dogs ignore unless I give them permission to grab them. If we walk past roadkill or animal feces, my dogs respond quickly and happily when I tell them it’s not theirs.
As a family, we have certain rules that I expect my dogs to follow. It’s important that they enjoy their crates, and all three dogs are happy to hang out in their kennels whether I’m home or away. With my odd work hours it’s vital that my dogs not wake me up when I’m asleep unless it’s an emergency. When I’m sleeping, all three dogs curl up and sleep too, whether it’s 2am or 2pm. They never pester me for meals or wake me up, even if I want to sleep in.
Your priorities are probably very different, and there’s nothing wrong with that! If you want your dogs to walk on a loose leash, you can have a dog who walks politely by your side on nothing but a flat collar. Maybe having the leash yanked on or using a harness bothers you, and if that’s the case we should fix that issue. It doesn’t bother me if my dogs walk ahead of me, so I let them. We all enjoy our walks, so there’s no reason to change their behavior.
Similarly, maybe you want your dog to behave impeccably when visitors come over. Fine! Teach him how to do so. I rarely have visitors, much less those who aren’t “dog people,” so it’s not a priority for me. I actually prefer to have dogs who bark when people come to the door because I don’t live in a great neighborhood and this makes me feel safer. If you want your dog to be quiet when people ring the bell, you can teach him that.
When I work with clients on a one-on-one basis, I ask that they fill out a behavior questionnaire before our first appointment. Besides collecting information on their dog’s day-to-day life, this questionnaire asks what their training goals are. It also asks whether that client is considering rehoming their dog if they cannot fix the problem behavior as well as whether they’re considering euthanasia.
These last two questions are some of the very most important, because they help me figure out what that person’s priorities are. Some people are at their wit’s end when they can’t housetrain their puppy and are ready to rehome him if they can’t solve the issue immediately. Others are horrified that I ask these questions and wouldn’t dream of rehoming or euthanizing their dog, even though he has a multiple-bite history and has been declared a dangerous dog by the city. While it might be easy for us to pass judgment on the former owner for “giving up” on their dog over such a “minor” issue, for that person the issue might not be minor at all.
I once worked with someone whose dog was highly aggressive towards people. This person lived in the country and didn’t care about her dog’s aggressive behavior at all: it was easily managed by crating the dog when she had the occasional visitor and by muzzling her during yearly vet visits. So why did she hire me? Her dog had killed one of her chickens, and that was unacceptable to her. We taught her dog to leave the chickens alone without ever addressing her aggressive behavior towards people, and my client was thrilled with the training.
As easy as it may be to pass judgment on other people who do not share the same priorities as you, it’s neither kind nor fair. If your dog is not fitting into your family, work to change that by teaching them how to succeed in your household. If you don’t care whether your dog holds a perfect sit-stay while you open the door, don’t let anyone else bully you into obsessing over it.
We bring dogs into our families as friends, companions, and playmates. Enjoy your dogs for who they are, and for who they have become with your guidance and support. Enjoy their individual personalities and the special, unique bond that you have with them. Your relationship with your dog is one-of-a-kind. Cherish it, and never let someone else tell you that there’s anything wrong with it just because their priorities are different.