“This is not your fault,” I tell the upset dog lover as she explains to me about her dog’s fear of people. She has done all the right things – ongoing socialization attempts and attending a puppy class. But still, her dog is doubtful around strangers.
Just like people, dogs are born with unique personalities. They have their own strengths and weaknesses which we can learn to build on and compensate for but rarely completely change. This dog is missing the primary piece to be an easy pet: he just isn’t people loving. Together, we can improve matters but he’s never going to be a dog who naturally and immediately runs up to guests wagging.
Mulling on this dog and many others, I decided to blog on the topic. Here is my short list of ideal pet dog qualities:
Yesterday I was with a 5-month-old puppy who adores everyone, wagging nonstop at people of all ages, sizes, and races. This is not a response created just by socialization. Socialization helps a dog be as stable and social as he can be but it would not create this. This level of sociability comes in this pup’s personality package. When selecting a companion – especially a companion for kids – pick a dog born with that “Hi, nice to met you, I love you already” attitude. They are out there – in every shape, size, color, breed and mix.
Self-calming pups cry in their crates for 10-20 minutes the first few times then fall asleep. Self-calming dogs whine behind a gate or bark at some noise in the backyard and then, on their own, stop. They greet guests then go lie down.
Dogs who cannot self-calm keep on going and going. Before I understood this I tried to wait one of my own pups out, believing what the books of the day told me that she would stop on her own. Many hours later all I had was an exhausted, barking puppy and seriously frayed human nerves. She simply could not self-calm. So, I taught her how to crate quietly and she was happy for the help. She did not enjoy the bark-a-thon, she simply could not stop herself.
Watching experts at Guiding Eyes for the Blind temperament test pups years ago, I learned about life-resilience. At that time, they exposed pups to new things up to three times because what they wanted to see if the pup grew calmer or more concerned with each repetition. It was fascinating to watch pups who startled when they heard a noise the first time adapt quickly and others who became more concerned (if they showed such concern, the testing stopped). This underlined for me what I already knew from my work as a dog trainer: response to stress is inborn. It can be worked on and improved but it cannot be reliably or completely changed.
A good pet dog doesn’t have to love every other dog but he does need to tolerate of them. Owning a dog who wants to attack other dogs is a level of stress only bearable in the most rural of situations. I hesitated to add this one in because this is, usually, the easiest to deal with in most pets. A change in training equipment and some attention games generally creates a manageable companion. But requiring that already moves a dog into the “not easy” category so I added this in.
Once you’ve lived with a dog with all of these fine qualities, you know what a gift they are. Such companions are easy to live with, completely adored and can make you feel like an amazing dog lover. And once you’ve lived with a dog who is missing any of these, you know what a strain it can be and they can make you feel like an incompetent, flawed dog lover.
If that’s your situation, do not despair, there is a lot you can do to help the situation – a lot – but very little you can do to completely, 100%, gone-forever change it.