The Burden of Expectations
Updated: Apr 17
How much should we try to change our dogs to fit the image in our (or others’) heads?
Chances are, if your dog is struggling with something then it’s not only affecting their behaviour and wellbeing, it’s affecting yours too.
When a dog is exhibiting behaviours that we find it difficult to cope with such as excessive barking, destructive behaviours, lunging and barking at something or someone on walks (the list could go on and on) it’s not just them that struggles, we can struggle too.
Sometimes we might feel judged by those around us ‘Ooooo look at her, she can’t control her dog!’ or perhaps ‘that dog needs some training, it’s all the owner’s fault’. Perhaps we might blame ourselves. We might also blame the dog and feel that they’re doing it to spite us or be stubborn (myth buster – they’re not).
There’s a lot to be said for examining what we expect from our dogs and also from ourselves in certain situations.
Many of us come to dog guardianship pre-programmed with lots of expectations about how a dog should behave and what their relationship with us should be like. This can come from multiple sources such as childhood memories of a family dog; images portrayed in novels, films, TV and media; that woman down the road with the ‘perfect’ obedient dog who walks off lead to heel at all times, never stops to sniff and sits at every curb; we may even compare our dog to a previous dog we had and expect the same behaviour and relationship.
Often, and this is totally understandable, we focus on how WE want our relationship with our dog to be and what we need them to do to fit into OUR lives.
Now dogs are amazing, they are pretty unique in that they have evolved (and are continuing to evolve) alongside us and have adapted along the way to become companion animals and pets.
We control so much of their day to day lives and our expectations of them are often something we don’t even think about because by and large, most of the time, for most dogs, this works fine.
They give (and we expect) ‘unconditional love’. They live in our homes, fit in with our lives, join us in activities we would like them to be part of. I mean that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? That’s what happens?
What if it doesn’t quite work out like that?
This is where I think asking ‘WHY’ is so important.
In dog behaviour we tend to look at the why behind a particular dog behaviour to understand the underlying emotion behind it and work to change it in order to change the behaviour. Sometimes, however, I think it’s also important to look at our own expectations and ask ourselves why we want things a certain way.
Our Perfect Dog
Like humans, dogs are not perfect. It would be unfair to expect them to be in my opinion. Each dog is different, each relationship is different. Just as each human is different and their idea of how their dog should be is too!
‘Child Friendly’ - Some expectations can be totally unrealistic and downright dangerous:
Consider the dog who is expected to be totally ‘good with children’ (a phrase open to a lot of interpretation). What expectations might that phrase set up? Are they realistic… or fair? A dog might tolerate, for example, a toddler throwing their arms around their neck and giving them a squeeze. They might tolerate having their ears tugged; being sat on; their toys taken from them…. Do we expect that? Why? What if the dog does not tolerate that?
For me, this one is non-negotiable one – NO, we should not expect that and that expectation needs to be changed right away!
Some are more debateable and might need a bit more thought:
Training - Don’t get me wrong, training is great and some of it is important for the safety of both you and your dog.
Without training a solid recall, for example, it wouldn’t be safe to let your dog off lead.
Without toilet training we couldn’t happily have our dogs living in our homes with us (it would get a bit smelly).
Some fun training can also be fantastic for improving your bond with your dog and also increasing their confidence and optimism.
However, I think we need to identify what is necessary, next what is fun and enjoyable for the dog before then going on to ask ourselves the WHY? behind the rest.
‘Sit!’ is the classic one for me. I find that even kindly strangers offering my dog a treat will expect her to sit for them first. Why? Then of course, I feel I have to apologise and give an explanation as to why my dog won’t sit for their treat! Something along the lines of ‘Oh she’s a saluki, they don’t find sitting comfortable’.
I get embarrassed. It becomes about me and about what’s expected.
Actually, truth is… I’ve never taught her a sit.
There’s never been a reason to! Shhhhh, don’t tell anyone…. But again, this is an example of us (and our dogs) being ruled by expectations and neither of us being very happy about it.
‘Walkies!’ - What constitutes an ideal dog walk is an issue I come across time and time again.
We often tend to have a picture in our heads about what our dog walks should be like. You might see a dog walk as a daily (or twice daily) trot around the local streets, stopping occasionally to chat to a friend or neighbour, your dog happily greeting other on lead dogs and ‘socialising’ while you chat to their humans. It might be your daily exercise as well as the dog’s so you want to make it a power walk or even a jog – no sniffing allowed, no stopping!
That’s absolutely fine for some, but what happens when your expectation of a dog walk doesn’t suit your particular dog? Is it their walk or yours?
Here’s another one - perhaps you want to be able to have your dog running off lead in a busy park where there’s lots of people, joggers, cyclists, families with young children and you’re frustrated that you can’t because your dog tends to bark at one or more of the above.
People are starting to complain and get funny with you about it. It’s embarrassing and stressful.
You can train a great recall and call your dog back as soon as you spot one of these triggers on the horizon. This should work…. some of the time.
We can work on the dog’s ‘why’; we can work on creating a positive association with those triggers so that the dog doesn’t feel as worried by them. This will take time, patience, understanding and most of all work on the part of the guardian.
Thing is, why do you want your dog to be able to cope with this? Is it necessary for them to walk in these busy spots? Why? If so, are they happy on lead? Then why not keep them on lead? If they have good recall but don’t like busy places, could you do off lead walks somewhere quieter? Do they even need to be off lead at all? (Possibly controversial I know).
Who is this walk for? Could you adapt or even change your expectations of what a dog walk should be whilst you work to help your dog feel happier. Maybe you can find some middle ground where you both feel happier and less stressed.
Sleeping arrangements is another of many examples I could come up with.
Many feel quite strongly that dogs should sleep in the kitchen or utility room. Now, there may or may not be valid reasons for this in some circumstances however, it is often just an expectation.
It may be down to the individual’s expectations or may have come from family or friends. It can be one of those that is just passed down in families and is how it is.
If it’s causing issues and the dog isn’t happy, I would want to be asking WHY?
If it’s just because that’s how it’s ‘supposed to be’ then I’d be looking at alternatives and compromises that could make for a happier dog rather than working to change the dog’s behaviour to fit in with the expectation.
Considering your needs but also your dogs – compromises and adaptations
That’s what a good relationship is about isn’t it? Making adjustments, compromising for the sake of the other – a delicate balance between their needs and yours so that both parties are considered without either suffering?
Like I said at the beginning, it’s about your emotional wellbeing as well as your dog’s and sometimes thinking a little differently, challenging and changing your own expectations (even if it’s a short term change while you help your dog to adapt to a solution that suits you both) can be a huge part of removing unnecessary pressure and improving the relationship for you both.