In my 15 year career as a dog trainer one thing that has become apparent to me is just how different the dog owing experience can be for different people. I have worked with people whose lives have been enriched, enlightened and overall made better by owning a dog. I have also worked with people for whom dog ownership has increased anxiety, distress and hardship- sometimes on such a frequent basis that this becomes the overwhelming reality of their dog ownership experience. This flies in the face of the research that indicates dog ownership is good for a person’s mental and physical health.
So why does this stark contrast exist? What is the secret to ensuring dog ownership improves the quality of your life? The good news is that there is no secret, no mystery- this is the recipe for dog owning success-
Have Realistic Expectations- This applies in equal measure to people who have had dogs before and those who have not. Experienced dog owners frequently compare a new dog to a previous dog, particularly if they are of the same breed. It’s easy for normal variation to then cause disappointment or frustration. Those new to dog ownership may compare their dog to a friend’s dog or simply be unprepared for what dogs’ do and what they need from you. Do you know what is normal, natural dog behaviour? Are you willing to accept that your dog will be unique, with their own personality and temperament and their own challenges and weaknesses? Even the easiest and most brilliant of dogs can be trying at times- it’s not reasonable to expect your dog to never make a mistake. Spend time with and around dogs before making the decision to welcome one into your home.
Choose Wisely- Could an individual dog be a success in your hands and home whilst another is a disaster? YES! Dog breeds have developed over time to provide us with incredible variation and it is not an overstatement to suggest a lack of research prior to adopting a dog is the number one cause of unhappy dog- owner relationships. What breed is right for you? Should you get a puppy or adult? How much exercise are you able to provide? How much exercise are you able to provide-in Winter!!?
Research the common characteristics of different pedigree breeds to help determine what breeds will best suit your lifestyle and family. Understand that crossbreeds can make wonderful companions too, but may provide you with the traits of any of the breeds within their lineage. Avoid buying a dog that is highly likely to need things you simply can’t provide- this includes the necessary grooming, exercise, company and stimulation. Be HONEST about what you are willing to provide for a dog.
Choose a dog breed that is likely to enjoy what you enjoy- if you are highly social and want to mix at the local dog park each afternoon, don’t choose a dog that is likely to be reserved, shy or unhappy in this environment. Don’t assume you can always train the dog away from their natural inclinations and preferences- genetics matter!
Choose Wisely- Again- If choosing your dogs breed and age are the ingredients in your recipe, choosing where to source your dog from is the mixing bowl! Sellers of dogs can be many things- are you buying your dog from a knowledgeable expert? Or someone who is innocently ignorant? Perhaps you’re unlucky enough to have found the more unusual seller who is deliberately deceptive. How will you know what type of seller you are dealing with unless you have done research of your own? (I use the term seller to encompass all sources of dogs- breeders, shelters and rescue groups- all of these sources vary greatly in quality and ethics.)
If you are purchasing a puppy from a breeder, how were the parents of the puppy chosen? How has the puppy been raised before you get them? Don’t underestimate the impact the breeder has on your dog before you bring them home. Choose a breeder who raises the puppies in an environment that shares some similarities to your family home- this is very important, particularly if you are inexperienced with dogs.
If you are purchasing an older dog from a shelter or rescue group, what information can be provided to you about your new dog? Does the organisation provide follow up support and assistance? Do you know what your new dog will need with regards to training and socialisation?
Regardless of the source of your dog, settling into a new environment requires help- are you in a position to provide that help?
Train Pro Actively- To train pro-actively simply means to anticipate problematic behaviours and get in first! You don’t need to wait for something to become a problem before you act- either on your own or by seeking professional help.
For example- Your dog is likely to become overly excited when visitors arrive and may jump, mouth or sneak out the front door!
A reactive owner waits until the dog is jumping on your guest and then tries to grab or remove the dog from the situation. This is often ineffective and does little to improve the behaviour for next time.
A proactive owner knows that a reliable “place” command or “go to your bed” is a great way to ensure there is no chaos around the door and sets about reliably training the behaviour BEFORE the dog is in the more challenging situation with a guest.
Find a Dog Hobby- A dog hobby doesn’t have to be serious or competitive. It is simply finding a regular activity that both you AND your dog enjoy together. A hike, a picnic, agility training, teaching a new trick at home- the list is endless! Rather than thinking of things you can’t do with your dog, explore the things you can! Your dog hobby is your own secret ingredient and it can be as individual as you!
Understand- Relationship, not Robot- Owning a dog is not like anything else you might own. Dog ownership goes far beyond the choice to buy a dog and bring them home. Your efforts in developing, evaluating and improving the quality of your relationship with your dog are paramount. This is ongoing, at times relentless and can’t cease for long periods of time without consequences. Having a dog is not simply a hobby to be attended to only when the weather is right or when you have spare time. Your efforts will be rewarded with the benefits of dog ownership- improved mental and physical health and unconditional companionship that owning a dog can bring.
Whilst gathering all of these ingredients sounds like hard work, their inclusion helps to ensure your dog owning experience adds value to BOTH your life and the life of the dog fortunate enough to call your house home.