The Trouble with Expectations

I’ve heard it said that expectations are pre-meditated disappointments and frustrations. It’s natural to have expectations when a new dog arrives in the home.  Perhaps you have owned dogs in the past or spent time in the presence of friends’ dogs.  We all want the idyllic and harmonious companionship we imagined when the decision was made to add a dog to the family.  That relationship exists when owners recognize which expectations are, simply, unrealistic and set up for success instead.

The “Unrealistic”

These are common behaviors that owners often expect.

Dogs don’t housetrain themselves; they need us to follow a training program.  A truly housetrained dog PREFERS an outdoor potty area.  Puppies and young dogs “tell” us when they feel the need to eliminate by sniffing too long in one spot, or upon awakening.  They often lose focus in an engagement, circle, or become overly active.  That’s our cue to leash up and go outside to the potty place.  When the dog rings bells or barks to go outside, he’s training his human.  He learns quickly that these behaviors result in access to the interesting outdoors.  He may eliminate, but this is not a reliable housetraining program, where the dog learns to “hold it” and “go” at his owner’s convenience.

Your dog will continue to explore the world with his mouth when he lands in your household.  Puppies play with each other and investigate with their mouths.  Unless redirected to appropriate play activities (with rules) and chew items, they will continue this behavior.  All dogs gravitate to the most interesting element in the environment at any given moment.  Use a crate to manage and provide plenty of play and chew toys.  All dogs use their mouths more frequently and with less bite inhibition when the arousal level rises, which brings us to…..

Your dog will become over-stimulated as the activity level in your home rises.  Rare is the dog who has hard-wired impulse control.  This must be installed and managed in the meantime.  Homecoming is an especially high energy time for everyone.  The arrival of guests is another exciting scene.  The dog’s energy level rises with ours.  Learn to recognize the signals of a spike in your dog’s arousal level.

Your dog is unlikely to universally love people and other dogs.  Some puppies are inherently timid.  Young dogs may be under socialized.  ANY fear behavior – from subtly freezing in place to overtly showing teeth or barking – should be addressed promptly.  The worst scenario to is inadvertently teach your dog that low level fear signals don’t work to increase distance from a scary person.  For sure, you will see more obvious signals, such as growling, barking, lunging, and, possibly, biting.  Do you click with every random human? There is certainly a social dynamic among dogs, and some of it just isn’t friendly.  This could include the relationship between other dogs you bring into your household.  Carefully consider your motives.  Your dog may thrive on being an “only”.  Be a trustworthy leader to your dog and carefully assess his interactions.  Avoid on leash greetings, which thwart the natural process and can set up for an unpleasant emotional response in your dog.

Your puppy or young dog will get into trouble with lots of space in your house or yard.  Because we are kind people, we love the idea of providing plenty of running and playing space for our dogs.  There’s a time for that, which is when your dog responds reliably to obedience cues, has developed outside potty training and appropriate chewing preferences, and is respectful of your boundaries and your person.  You can avoid behaviors, such as stealing personal belongings, barking at passers-by, and digging up the garden, by managing the space where the dog has access.

Dogs are not as verbal as we are, so they don’t understand much of our human verbal communication. “Bailey! Get off the counter!” and “Daisy!  What are you doing?!?  That’s my shoe!  Give it back!”  Most of this verbiage is irrelevant to the dog.  Effective training involves pairing visual cues with verbal cues to teach your dog a vocabulary.  After a time, the visual cue can be faded.  Mixing learned obedience cue words with lots of additional talk makes it harder for your dog to respond correctly.  He has to filter out the irrelevant words.

Dogs don’t always welcome handling and petting on human terms. Many puppies must learn to tolerate certain types of handling. Placing harness and leash on can result in mouthing due to over arousal.  Make no mistake.  This behavior is not related to teething.  Some dogs do not welcome petting from an unfamiliar person, especially when the greeter pats the dog on the top of his head.  The result can be lots of jumping on the greeter.  This isn’t an unfriendly dog – just a reserved type who takes time to warm up.

Puppy behaviors change through developmental phases.  Behavior changes are predictable.  At approximately 7-8 months of age, puppies turn into adolescents.  They become more adventurous and emboldened.  Pushing the boundaries envelope is the order of the day.  Early signs of under socialization also escalate.  If undesirable behaviors were left unaddressed in puppyhood, they become stronger during a dog’s adolescent phase.  It’s time to change the bad habits lest they become well-practiced into adulthood.  And the finale …..

Dogs don’t outgrow undesirable behaviors.  Dogs do what works for them, so they tend to grow into behaviors.  If you wait for your dog to “outgrow” impulsivity, you will likely wait until he’s about 8 years old.  Seniority will resolve your problem.  Train in emotional self-control, starting in puppyhood and carry on through adolescence and into adulthood.  Anxious, young dogs rarely calm with age.  They grow into anxious old dogs.  Conditioned emotional responses stick as do behaviors, such as resource guarding and annoying attention-seeking tactics.  Behaviors that work become habits.  Intervention is required for change.

The “Realistic”

Some expectations are well-founded.

Dogs are endlessly forgiving.  Dogs “get it” that we are members of different species.  (Another one of many reasons that the outdated “dominance” thinking is silly.)   When we enhance our understanding of them, the reprimands can stop.  Training is a game for your dog, as it should be.  They are always ready to learn when you know how to motivate them – even when your training chops aren’t quite polished.

Dogs love short walks and play times.  Walk and play with your dog every day.  No marathon times are required.  Several ten minutes walks may be doable rather than one 30-40 outing.  Play times can be 5-10 minutes of fetch or tug several times a day.   The game ends before your dog loses interest, and he can happily anticipate the next one.

Dogs adapt to our schedules and house rules.  They have been adapting to changes for tens of thousands of years, so dogs are really good at this.  Certain accommodations must be made; however, no one should be wearing a ball and chain because of the dog.

Dogs know that they are dogs.  There’s an old saying:  “If you treat your dog like a human, he’ll treat you like a dog”.  Puppies are babies, but they are baby dogs.  Don’t confuse them.  Dogs need structure and routines, as well as people who set the order of their world.  Equality doesn’t make sense to them.

Dogs read us and their environments like a book.  They read us humans way better than we will ever read them!  Don’t mistake their appeasement gestures for guilt or their stress behaviors for spite.  Your dog is attempting to quell an uneasy moment.  Our smallest body posture change is meaningful to him.  When we are “off” for any reason, your dog reads that, too.  He’ll let you know if anything unseemly is afoot around your home.  No need for watchdog training.  Awareness is hard-wired.


Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2016 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC