… Oh, wait, you do, your dog might say, if she were inclined towards philosophical musings. But does that mean you can — and should — try to change everything about me that you don’t like?
Those questions came to mind — mine, not Frankie’s, at least as far as I can tell — after I read an essay in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine titled “The Dog Who Hates Me.”
To summarize the piece: The author, John Moe, brings home a dog named Dave that his children adore — and vice versa. But Dave reacts badly to the author, barking hysterically whenever he comes home. Moe neuters Dave, hoping this will also alter the dog’s attitude towards him. The surgery is only marginally successful, and Moe decides to accept Dave’s behavior as an unalterable condition of their lives together.
Or, as Moe puts it:
He is who he is, just like all of us. I picked Dave’s name because it sounded human. I had no idea how prescient I was.
It’s a loving relationship, Dave’s and mine, but one in which one partner, without testicles, will always scream at the other, who has them, for no apparent reason.
My first reaction was irritation at the author, who gave training only a cursory try. But then the essay got me wondering: Where does one draw the line at trying to change a dog?
Frankie shies away from other dogs and other people but is happy with me. Do I wish him to be braver because I think it will make his life better, or am I just worried that his behavior reflects badly on me?
I asked Debbie Jacobs, author of A Guide To Living & Working With A Fearful Dog and blogger at www.fearfuldogs.com, what she thought about the degree to which we should accept our dog’s personalities. Should I be trying harder to make Frankie less fearful?
If a dog’s triggers [stimuli that bring on a reaction, such as fear] can be easily managed or avoided, then ‘working’ with the dog doesn’t matter so much. If someone lives in New England and is deathly afraid of zebras there’s probably no need to spend a lot of time on the problem, unless they plan on going on a safari. But if you live in NYC and are afraid of crowds, then that is a fear which either impacts you daily or limits what you can do in your life. If you are happy remaining in your apartment and have a full life, no problem, but if you live in dread of the times you have to leave and face the crowds, then that’s likely to contribute to stress and anxiety in your life.
Understanding that a dog that was not socialized or may be genetically predisposed to being fearful may never achieve the level of comfort another dog will in relation to its triggers is important. An owner can compassionately manage the dog’s exposure to things to minimize its anxiety. But every exposure to a trigger is an opportunity to help the dog change how he feels about it. It’s not so much about forcing a dog to deal with its triggers as much as realizing that in any situation something either good, bad or neutral is happening to a dog in regard to those triggers. By understanding how counter conditioning and desensitization work we can do our best to try to make these exposures be good things, or at the very least neutral. It’s a lifelong project for dogs like mine, but change happens, slowly, and I often say I hope both Sunny and I live long enough to see as much change as I’d like.
I don’t know Frankie so won’t speak specifically about what you should do. We need to be able to separate what our ‘dreams’ might be for our dogs and consider what theirs might be. I’m glad my parents weren’t set on me being a brain surgeon or concert pianist, they’d be disappointed and I’d probably have been miserable.
What a wise answer. Now if only I could get Frankie to write down his dreams…