… 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?

She replied:

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…

28 thoughts on “You don’t own me…”

  1. Wow! Great post! And, at the perfect moment. I was thinking the same about my Daisy recently. Glad you and Deb collaborated on this!

  2. I think you are asking a really good question about where you are setting the bar for Frankie’s success, and why.

    I also absolutely agree with Debbie. Eliminating fear (or the display of fearful behaviors) is not as realistic or as relevant a goal as encouraging and acknowledging the dog’s display of curiosity, courage, resilience, and healthy coping strategies. The dog may not ever fail to be afraid, but the dog CAN learn to keep the fear from hindering her, controlling her, and overwhelming her.

    In Dave’s case, I find it disturbing that someone suggested neutering would affect the relationship. I’m all for neutering pets, but it shows a marked lack of comprehension of canine behavior and emotion, not to mention exposure to the scientific evidence regarding the effects of neutering on behavior, to suggest behavioral change of the type desired by Dave’s owner would occur as a result.

    Building a relationship with a living organism is time-consuming, difficult, and inconstant. There are good and bad days. It takes communication skills, understanding, and the investment of time. Dave’s owner, sadly, seems to be in the “quick-fix” camp. No one would believe a claim like “A Lifetime of Healthy Nutrition in One Pill!”, since nutrition and eating habits are understood to be a daily process, but somehow there’s a myth that some secret dog training shortcut exists. It isn’t that it’s such a deep, dark, esoteric secret that I just don’t know about it. I don’t know about it because it does not exist.

    Personality is understood to be a fixed characteristic, similar to IQ. We can’t train personality “in” or “out”. We can’t train intelligence “in” or “out”.

    To me, the questions are, What IS already there? What are we seeing as a negative that can, in fact, be capitalized on and turned into a positive? How do we maximize the use of all the traits that the dog has to bring out the very best the dog has to offer, and to offer the dog the most enjoyable life we can?

    While those answers have to do with the dog, there are more questions that say a lot more about human nature: Why does every dog have to be a cookie-cutter copy of some perfect dog who never really existed? Why the comparison? Where does the ego involvement with our pets come from?

    Excellent article!!

  3. Ty is VERY cute. And generally afraid of strangers – more so of men than of women. Not happy about the behavior but not trying to change it because he is fine as long as people leave him alone until he can sniff them out. What pisses me off are people who STILL try to greet Ty after you ask them not to. Are you deaf?! I asked you to ignore him, and you INSIST that you are a dog person who knows my dog/breed better than me.

    Buster, a SPONGE for human affection, barks at other dogs when on leash. BARKS. He is a GSD. Other people with GSDs have told Amy and I: “He is a GSD … that’s what GSDs do.” We are struggling on whether to accept this behavior or not. Your link to fearful dogs may help. Will keep you “posted.”

    1. Yup, it’s generally humans that are the problem. Dogs know how to speak “dog” — i.e., read Ty’s body language — just fine. I guess with Buster it’s a question of who is bothered by the barking; hope the fearfuldogs link — now fixed! — helps.

  4. I agree, excellent post and excellent comments, all of which lend me insight into my life with Archie (and make me think maybe I’ve been doing the right thing most of the time). In fact, the perspectives here are so well articulated that some of my immediate ire with Moe has dissipated, but still: I know this is a dog blog, not a chick blog, but I didn’t like the wisecrack about “one in which one partner, without testicles, will always scream at the other, who has them, for no apparent reason,” which to me seems like a sophomoric “take my wife, please” crack that doesn’t help humans’ relationships with dogs or humans.

    1. Thanks, Clare. And this is a dog blog written by a chick — as it were — and I totally agree with you about the implied sexism of that remark. It brings up all those stereotypes: women as “ball busters,” women as having penis (or in this case, testicle) envy, etc. Glad you mentioned that.

  5. Excellent article, Rusty one on my dogs greets other dogs by growling which sometimes makes other dog owners nervous which I can understand. However, when you watch Rusty make his approach to other dogs his body language is all friendly. For about a year I tried to get Rusty to stop growling as he approached other dogs because of the way it made me look. Once I realized it was my personal image I was worried about I decided to let Rusty be himself, he has never hurt another dog, he just greets other dogs in an usual way.

    It’s important to take a minute to think about our moments when attempting to change a dogs personality.

    1. Rusty clearly speaks a dog dialect that other dogs have no problem with. In this case it’s the body language — or words — of your fellow humans that’s difficult. Interspecies communication is tough!

  6. And what sounds like a growl to uninitiated humans is probably some entirely different sort of expression to the dogs. There are growls, and there are GROWLS. My dog screeches what I call his “ode to joy” when we drive to the beach. To other humans it sounds like a cry, to other dogs and to me it sounds like the typical “when are we going to get there, mom?”

    1. I can attest to Archie’s love screech, accompanied — in his exuberant youthful past, of course — by his attempt to drive the car to get to the beach more quickly. It’s a uniquely frightening experience for an unprepared (as I especially was in my pre-Frankie days) passenger!

  7. Jersey can be timid when it comes to meeting new dogs that are bigger than herself. There have been times when her behavior has irritated me. I think that I’m not a chicken so my dog shouldn’t be, either. But like people, every dog has it’s own personality and Jersey just isn’t confident around larger dogs. I just let her do her thing and after a few minutes of her tail between her legs she settles down.

  8. I got 6 year old Bryn on 21st November.
    When she arrived she trembled a lot but now she only trembles when Jas is taking too long sniffing instead of walking.
    I was told she was hand shy. She hasn’t shown any signs of it with me though fearless Jas can be (my hand is disabled)
    I was told she picked at her food and wouldn’t eat unless her owner was in the same room. Not at all although I make sure that Jas is fed in the other room.
    She is changing while living with Jas and me. She is no longer possessive about toys or food. She has even changed colour and is turning brown. I assume that is a winter coat thing.
    I haven’t been trying to change her, except for insisting that she doesn’t eat the cat’s food and that she walks on the left when we go for a walk. I think the changes are due to Jasper’s influence because he is the kindest most generous dog you could hope to meet. I was worried that she may change him but all is well so far.
    Conclusion: environment can change a dog’s personality.

  9. Thank you for this post, Edie. This is something we’ve struggled with for a long time, both with Buster and Ty. I wanted our boys to behave in a particular way and I was disappointed and frustrated when they didn’t. Once I got my ego out of it, I realized that when I stopped resisting their behaviors, they actually behaved better!! I think us humans need to be reminded every once in a while that dogs are not all the same – each one has their own personality and issues – and if they were all the same, life would be pretty boring!

  10. Fabulous post and a great collaboration! I think you’ll be helping a lot of people with this. While I don’t have any issues with my Shih Tzu Tashi–except maybe that he is attracted to a German Shepherd that would happily make a snack of him–I have in the past been confronted with what I had wanted for the dog versus what his limits were, and the recognition of how wrong-headed that kind of thinking was. I did let go of my own desires for him, and just let him be. Boy, expectations even kills relationships between dogs and people!

    1. This post really seems to have struck a cord with people, including some who haven’t been here in a while (nice to see you Jen!). This makes me think that it’s a very good thing that dogs don’t judge us by our behavior. We would doubtless fail in many categories, — for example, greetings. Why does she have those foolish full face interactions with strangers, not preceded by even a cursory butt sniff? Frankie might wonder.

  11. I just thought I’d elaborate on my comment about experiences being good, bad or neutral. It’s important for owners to realize that just having nothing bad happen does not necessarily constitute a ‘neutral’ experience for a dog. Anytime a dog feels fear in the presence of a trigger, it’s a ‘bad’ experience. All the cheese in the world may not compensate for a dog that is feeling afraid. Neutral can be hard to come by with scared dogs, which is why desensitization and counter conditioning can be so challenging.

    1. Thanks for elaborating on this Debbie. That’s good to know, if somewhat discouraging, ie., I’d always assumed that if fearful moments are associated with good things — e.g., cheese — then that helps temper the fear. So you’re saying desensitization is a much slower process, yes? Would you give some examples of desensitization and counter conditioning (as opposed, say, to giving the dog cheese to distract him. I know, a lot to ask… maybe another guest post?

  12. It really is people–not pets that have a problem with expectations and behaviors. As Amy says, our egos are often in the way. Great post, and Frankie is lucky to have you.

    1. Thanks, Michele. Of course, after Debbie’s response to my question — and especially to her just-posted comment — I was thinking I haven’t done enough to make fearful situations less difficult for Frankie. Guilt-free zone, guilt-free zone… mustn’t forget my mantra!

  13. Can I weigh in with a couple of thoughts from the dog rescue (as well as dog owner) perspective?
    First, dog breeds — for those who live with a dog of identifiable breed — only outline a big perimeter within which each dog grows his or her own personality. There are goofy standard poodles as well as wise ones, devoted fox terriers versus those who bite the human that ignores the dog’s demands. If you are getting a puppy — or even adopting an adult pooch — spend as much time as you can with your bright, particular star of a dog before making the commitment on behalf of both of you.
    Second, dog personalities do change. Please, — she added hastily — this is not a pitch for thinking one can transform a Chihuahua into a Pug or an Australian Shepherd into a couch potato..After 11 years, my Brussels Griffon still cringes if I reach for him. But he has no hesitation about demanding I come over and “spot’ him on the stairs to the bed. Only since the age of nine has he really discovered that, if you come wiggling up to the nearest human, you may get your butt scratched!
    I am saying dogs mature — and recover from traumatic experiences — just as humans do. I am most familiar with the terriers I pal around with; many of them are utter little monsters until the age of three to five, when they mature into the most delightful — but still exhuberant– companion a person might ask for. Twenty years ago, I received my first miniature schnauzer, a 16-week-old puppy, as a birthday gift. I had NO IDEA what I was getting in to, since my incumbent terri-poo was the kind of dog who taught himself tricks. There was no Internet to tap for information. I really think the only way Cleo and I made it through her youth was a conversation I had with a restaurant owner one evening. He assured me that mini schnauzers are ungovernable puppies.
    Unfortunately, one reason many young dogs wind up in shelters or rescue is that an aging would-be owner has forgotten just how much of a challenge a puppy can be, only recalling the sedate pace set by a 12-year-old. That’s one reason I encourage the older prospective adopter to consider a middle-aged (seven and up with most smaller breeds). These are adult dogs who have many good years to live and to offer to the right adopter. Plus, you can avoid all those tedious hours freezing out doors in the dark, waiting for the pup to pee !(as long as your buddy doesn’t develop diabetes, as Frankie has). A great joy with a rescue is watching a fearful and intimidated dog blossom into a loved and loving pooch (as Frankie is, shyness not withstanding).
    Sometimes we humans underestimate the resiliency of our canine companions. I certainly had always believed that a traumatized, abused dog was permanently damaged. But one of my most gratifying rescues involved a quartet of dogs I received who had been some of the breeding stock in a just-shut-down puppy mill about 100 miles from me. I had a perfect family waiting for one of them — a couple who lives in car-coasting distance from me. They had recently lost their much-loved 15-year-old schnauzer to cancer and were the kind of people who came home at lunch to walk the dog, wanted a dog to take on trips,pose for pictures with their dog on Christmas cards , etc etc. I brought a couple of dogs over for them to meet, including one of the puppy mill females, who I shall call Petunia.
    They were interested in Petunia but also hesitant to adopt her — she was at that time a five-year-old dog who was scared to walk on most types of indoor flooring! They agreed to take her on a standard couple of week trial.
    Fast forward a year or so. They kept Petunia, and tell me, whenever I see them out walking, how glad they are they had the patience to wait for her to grow into her new life. Two schnauzer puppies have also entered their life together — the couple’s grown daughter had bought a puppy for herself and one for her dad. Petunia is, for the first time after all those years of breeding, getting to raise a puppy. And the puppies are helping her expand her horizons. On a family trip to the beach, the two puppies were romping in the shallows while Petunia stood hesitantly on the sand, watching. Suddenly, she gathered herself together and RAN into the waves. bouncing out soaking wet and gloriously happy, newborn as a water baby.
    What I am trying to get to here is a plea to allow your dog to be his or herself. Sure, your dog needs to learn the basics that will keep you both safe, like proper walking on a leash. Beyond that, offer new experiences, just as you would suggest a fun activity to a friend. Some dogs take longer than others to decide if they like whatever you have in mind. But your dog will let you know soon enough if sitting at the outdoor cafe, latte for you and water for him or her, adds up to great fun or a nightmare. Or if doing tricks for treats is a natural talent or demeaning to the entire species.

    1. Of course you can weigh in, Rebecca. As Frankie’s rescuer — and therefore the raison d’etre (I have a French gem show guest staying with me) — for the blog itself, you will always have a forum on Will My Dog Hate Me. That and the fact that what you say makes a great deal of sense.

  14. What a great post. I love the analogy Debbie gives at the end, working with a fearful dog is much like raising a child; you can have your hopes for them and encourage them to work towards what you feel will be good for them, but in the end you really just have to love them how they are. I just worked with a client and his fearful dog he is in the process of adopting yesterday, and we talked about how his fearful dog, who a month ago would not come within a block of a person and now will go to people she knows for affection, may never have the same comfort level with strangers as most dogs do. He did not bat an eye, and explained that his goal was not to “fix” the dog, but to help her live the happiest life she could, whatever that ended up meaning for her. It still fills me with warmth every time I run into an owner who may not have all the know-how of a trainer, but who is so right-on in instinct.

    I was linked here by the Dancing Dog Blog, glad to have found your site!

    1. Thank you for your nice words — especially valued coming from a trainer. And yes, it’s very heartwarming when you encounter someone who “gets” it and doesn’t want to remake a dog in his or her image.

      And I’m very pleased that you found me through Dancing Dog Blog (www.dancingdogblog.com), one of my favorites!

  15. I’ve had four dogs in my adult life, all with their own personalities and I’ve loved all of them and their personalities. None of them have been barkers, Shaka (Siberian Husky) was a runner. He ran away every chance he got, but that’s what Husky’s do, they run, so I dealt with it when it happened, but always loved him.

    Sweety, my 14 1/2 year old Border Collie has been a true angel in my life. She can be quite whiny at times and it has driven me up a wall a few times. Now I think (because she’s going on 15), there will be a day when I no longer hear her whines, that will be a sad day.

    Zack (RIP), a deaf Dalmatian that I adopted when he was 5, started off as quite a little bastard, LOL. By the end he was a different dog, much more trusting. Either way I loved him.

    Now with Zeus (adopted Pit Bull), he can be randomly dog reactive – that I have to work on with him, but it’s part of the breed’s history. Because I know about the breed’s history, it is my responsibility to ensure that I never put him in a bad position. He may never have the personality of Lassie and that’s ok with me. I’ll love him for who he is.

    I’ll stop rambling now. :/

    1. Jim, thanks so much for your loving portraits of all your dogs and their unique personalities. Because Frankie is my first dog, who opened my eyes and heart to the species, I can’t imagine loving another as much as him. So it encourages that you’ve been able to care for all your dogs for who they are and not try to hold them up to another dog’s standard.

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