Doable vs. Realistically Doable

Let’s face it, adopting a dog is one of the greatest thrills we humans can experience. Having a dog, especially a puppy, run up with tail-wagging excitement, climb into our arms and squirm with joy…well, there’s nothing better. 

Usually within a month or so, it’s as if he or she says, “OK, now that we’re all familiar with each other, let me introduce you to who I REALLY am.”  The honeymoon is over, and reality sets in. 

Your new arrival might start barking, jumping, chewing, door dashing, stealing, pulling on the leash, chasing the cat, incessantly bothering the incumbent dog(s) and so on. The good news is, the vast majority of these dogs simply need some basic education. With a little education and consistency, your newly adopted dog can become a cherished, well-mannered member of the family. Everyone lives happily-ever-after.

But sometimes more serious behavioral issues emerge once your dog has had a chance to settle in.  Dogs with fear-based behavioral issues like separation anxiety, or high-energy dogs that need more physical, mental and emotional stimulation to be fulfilled, often manifest their inner stress. This can manifest as excessive barking, stealing food or clothing, chewing, eliminating in the house, nipping and biting, and so on. Situations like this can be emotionally difficult, especially if aggression is involved.

Calling a professional trainer is the first thing any adopter should do. A professional trainer will evaluate the situation and set up a step-by-step behavior modification program. This is especially critical if there are safety issues.

Professional trainers give guidance to new adopters and are advocates for their newly adopted dogs.  And sometimes they need to include an extra dose of empathy and sensitivity with their expert advice. Not all adoptions have a storybook ending, and it can be a tough balancing act because some dogs just aren’t a good fit with some households. 

Doable vs Realistically Doable

It is almost always the case that unwanted or problem behaviors can be modified. That is, “it’s doable.”  A trainer will demonstrate the exact training methods that need to be learned and practiced and will set up a step-by-step program to give the family an idea of what’s in store. But sometimes, things aren’t quite so easy. I’ve found that whether a particular family has the capacity to appreciably modify a dog’s behavior is based on five criteria that determine if the desired change is “realistically doable.“ You’ll notice these same points should be considered before even adopting a dog.

These five criteria are:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Emotional Commitment
  • Skills
  • Environment

Time

Does the family have the time to provide the physical, mental and emotional support that that particular dog needs? If the dog has special-needs, including specialized training, play and socialization, are all members of the family able to devote the time? 

In today’s busy, fast-paced, hectic lifestyle, it can be really difficult for people to set aside the time necessary for any appreciable behavioral changes to take root.  People who are away from home 10 hours a day will have a difficult time raising any dog, let alone a newly adopted puppy, or a special-needs dog. Or what about a family who has suddenly become a multi-dog household? Adopting two dogs at the same time can often become a recipe for disaster. More dogs equal more time. And adopting two puppies at the same time, especially with young children in the home, more-often-than-not results in very unhappy endings.

The time consideration is critical and should be well thought out before any adoption.

As to how much time it may take to see a change in a problem behavior, I tell people that dogs are like humans, and some habits are difficult to change. A simple example: if someone changed your silverware drawer, how long would it take you to stop going back to the old drawer? It usually takes 2-12 months for a habit to take hold, but can take more than a year to change ingrained habits. Many people simply aren’t able or willing to put in the time to change their own lives, let alone their dog’s. 

Money  

Working with a skilled, professional force-free dog trainer costs money as well as time. Depending on the behavioral problem, the amount of money spent on training sessions can add up. Some behavioral issues have their basis in the dog’s physical health. Visits to the vet also add up quick. The potential cost of your dog’s health care is an important consideration before adopting any dog. If possible, find out as much as you can about the dog’s history, including his or her medical history.

Emotional Commitment

It is emotionally draining to spend hours of your the day worrying. Whether it’s about your dog’s separation anxiety and coming home to a destroyed living room, or the new dog and the old dog fighting while you are out, or the neighbors calling the landlord because of the incessant barking. The list goes on and on and the emotional stress on the family can begin to affect relationships at work and at home. As a trainer, I’ve seen many human relationships strained and actually unravel due to the stress. And in order to create the happiest, healthiest and safest environment for all concerned, all family members have to be on board with the dog’s education.

Another thing to consider: if the family hasn’t done any training in the first 2, 3, 4 or more years of a dog’s life, how realistic is it for the family to change their ways and commit to a daily, structured training program?

Skills

I am horrible with anything having to do with computers. I’m not a mechanic, a doctor, lawyer or opera singer. My skills are in the dog training world. And, just like I can never become the least bit proficient in any of those other walks of life, many people simply cannot become skilled trainers. My dad was a great example. He enjoyed our dogs, but he could not, for the life of him, be proactive in his training. And his timing was terrible. He learned from his dad that dogs simply needed to be corrected. His tools were pinning the dog on the ground, yelling NO!, leash corrections, swatting with newspapers…you get the picture. Yet he was a great firefighter, carpenter, electrician and baseball player. He simply wasn’t able to understand the idea of using prevention and management for safety, using clear communication instead of force in training and being proactive, that is, teaching our dogs what TO DO rather than trying to stop them from doing something. Sadly, I do not think it was coincidence that our family dogs never lived past the age of seven.

Environment  

People who live in apartments and adopt a serially vocal dog with separation anxiety are often given 30 days to fix the problem “or else.” People with young children who adopt large reactive dogs with hair-trigger sound and motion sensitivities aren’t setting themselves, or their new dog, up for success. Families with older or infirm dogs should consider how stressful it might be to have a younger, more reactive dog in the home. 

Living space also has a big effect on a training program. I once visited a client who was a hoarder. Things were piled in every room with only small walkways leading from one room to another. And the outside was the same. There was no place for the dog to play, no place for training and no room for human or dog to visit. This may be an extreme example, but let’s say, for example, you have an older dog with arthritis and you adopt a young, high-energy dog. The older dog will need a safe space to get away, something that may not be possible in, say, a studio apartment.

High-energy dogs can also pose a problem for family members who don’t move or react as quickly as they used to, like me! So raising a younger dog who wants to jump and chew and play all the time can be quite a strain on the home environment.

Resolutions 

Changing a dog’s behavior is almost always do-able. But if success in two or more of the five criteria described is not likely, then it may not be realistically do-able. In those situations, sometimes the emotionally difficult choice of finding a better home for the dog is an option that should be seriously considered. 

If a family finds itself dealing with aggression, especially a family with young children or older or infirmed dogs, it may be that only one of these factors will be the determining consideration. 

It’s not only doing what’s safest and best for us, it’s also what’s best for the dog.