We’ve all known that parent: the mom who enters her toddler in beauty pageants because she wanted to be a beauty queen when she was younger, the dad who pushes his son into organized sports to relive his glory days as the star quarterback for his home team. Whether it’s theater, academics, swimming, music, or something else, we’ve known the parent who lost sight of the child in front of them as they pursued the child they had always dreamed of having (or perhaps of being).
It’s natural to dream big and to want the best for those you love. Parents dream of their children becoming the next president or the next famous chef. They look at all of the amazing potential that their child has and they want wonderful things for them. This is normal, and to a certain degree it’s healthy.
We’ve all known great parents who followed their children’s dreams, supporting their son or daughter as they explored their own interests. Whether it’s learning about cars or about horses, we’ve known parents who followed their children on paths they never would have chosen on their own, and we’ve watched as the children thrived.
We’ve also seen this same normal, healthy desire to help their children have a better life turn dark. We’ve seen parents scream at Little League umpires or require their children to practice something so frequently and obsessively that the child’s social life or rest time is negatively impacted. Just like so much in life, balance is important.
Dogs are not children. We choose the dogs we bring into our life, and once we bring them home they stay with us unless we choose otherwise. They never grow up and move away. They eat when we feed them, sleep when and where we allow them to, and don’t leave our houses unless we permit it.
One of my favorite exercises to assign to my clients is the “perfect day” thought exercise. I ask them to tell me about their dog’s perfect day. If their dog got to decide, how would he choose to spend his day? What would he want to do? Which ten activities would he include in his perfect day? Chasing rabbits? Rolling in deer poop? Playing with other dogs? Swimming? Sunbathing? Snuggling? Eating roast beef? Digging up your lawn? If your dog got to call the shots, how would he spend his time?
It’s important to remember that dogs are individuals. Your dog is his own self. He has his own thoughts, likes, and dislikes. He’s aware of his world, and he perceives it differently than you, your other dog, or your previous dog of that breed. He is capable of making choices, and he has opinions about things. When was the last time you asked him what he lives for?
Here’s something to consider: dogs cannot opt out of relationships. They can check out, they can act out, but they cannot get out unless they act so far outside of their owner’s standards of acceptable behavior that they are euthanized or rehomed. They have the cognitive abilities of two- to five-year-old children, and like parents it is our responsibility to watch their behavior to learn what’s working and what’s not working for them in their world.
There’s a common recommendation in the agility and other dog sport worlds for young, anxious, distractible, independent, or enthusiastic dogs. Convention states that unless the dog’s owner is the center of his universe, their relationship is somehow fatally flawed. In order to become the center of his universe, owners are advised to prevent their dog from doing anything he enjoys that doesn’t include the owner.
If we follow this recommendation to its conclusion, it’s easy to see how it could be quite effective. If your adolescent dog loves to play with other dogs more than he loves agility, never allowing him to play with other dogs may indeed increase his enthusiasm for agility. If your child loves to surf the web more than she loves to play the violin, taking away her computer access may indeed make her more likely to practice her violin. If it’s the only game in town, it’s going to be better than nothing.
As a good parent, you might require your child to practice her violin for a certain amount of time before you let her log on to the web, and as a good dog owner you may ask your dog to do something for you (perhaps heel politely to the play area or sit and look at you) before you allow him to play with his doggy friends. Balance is important. But if you never allow your child to log on to the computer or never allow your dog to play with his friends out of some notion that letting them be themselves will harm your own goals, is that really the relationship you want to foster?
It’s normal for us to dream big, whether you’re gazing at a new baby human or a new baby dog. Both are full of possibilities, and it’s wonderful that we want the best for them. But in our quest to help those we love achieve greatness, let’s not lose sight of the individual in front of us. If you just pay attention, your dog will tell you what they need.
Layla told me that she didn’t enjoy agility trials but loves competing in rally obedience. Dobby told me that he would rather be petted under his chin than along his sides. Mischief frequently tells me that because she’s still young and learning about her world, she needs a moment to just sit quietly and watch the other dogs work in class or get used to the commotion of a new environment before she can focus on me. While their opinions may not always jive with my own goals for them, my respect for them as individuals is such that I am willing to listen, and to comply or to compromise, as the case may be. And our relationship deepens each time I hear them, and I get chills each time I learn more about the fascinating, wonderful, unique individual each one of them is. They’re their own selves, and there’s something absolutely amazing about that.
Your dog is her own self too, with her own opinions and passions. The choice of how you “parent” her is all yours. Please step lightly and choose wisely. Your dog may not be able to opt out, but she can opt in to a lifelong relationship with you. And that’s a beautiful, powerful thing.