Things We Expect of Our Dogs But Cannot Do Ourselves


Perfect impulse control: We expect perfect impulse control from our dogs, but how often are we impulsive? Do you ever eat fast food or other unhealthy food, even though you know it’s bad for you? Do you ever splurge on a pair of shoes, even if that purchase isn’t in the budget for that particular week? Do you ever stay up or sleep in later than you should? Do you ever speed while driving?  Perhaps you’ve laid on the horn when someone cut you off in traffic?  (Not that I would ever do any of these things, of course.  This is pure speculation.)

Speak foreign languages fluently with little/no instruction or practice: We expect our dogs to understand the foreign language of our speech. Sometimes we expect them to learn a new word after only hearing it once or twice. Even more interesting, sometimes we say a word that we haven’t taught them, and punish them for not knowing what it means! (Sounds like science fiction, right?)

Not only do we expect our dogs to learn language perfectly and without any memory loss ever, no matter how long it’s been since they’ve heard the language, but we expect them to be unconfused by dialects and accents. I’ve been speaking English my entire life and yet still I struggle to understand individuals with extremely thick and heavy accents. To dogs, variations in body language or posture, vocal intonation, volume level, pitch, and even attire while we are cueing can all function as heavily accented dialects of our shared language, and thus, take longer to learn and comprehend.

Sounds easy? Probably about as easy as learning how to speak and write in fluent Chinese in a week. No problem, you say? Don’t speak or read a word of Chinese for 45 years and then take a comprehensive Chinese language examination. I took French in middle school, high school, and college, but have not studied since.

For the record, I’m hardly conversational as a Francophone these days.

100% non-reactive behavior at all times: We expect our dogs never to growl, bite, snarl, or snap at a person, no matter what that person may do to the dog. If you were in a situation where you felt threatened, would you defend yourself? Might you yell, scream, punch, and kick at an attacker? Likely you would. Yet many people expect dogs to tolerate being chased around, harassed, pinched, yelled at, grabbed at, shocked, kicked, choked, hit, or jerked around on leash with aplomb. Imagine how you might feel if someone did these things to you. What would it take to make you reactive?

Never have a bad day: We expect our dogs to listen, every day, all the time, and never have a bad day where they say, “You know what? I don’t feel like that today.” Have you ever skipped taking your dog for a walk because you were ill, or perhaps it was raining, sleeting, hailing, or snowing outside? Have you ever called into work sick, even though you just felt tired or maybe because you wanted to go shopping with a friend?

Always walk on a loose leash: This is one of my favorites. We expect our dogs to walk on a loose leash, yet we keep on walking when the leash is tight. Walking on a tight leash, like walking on a loose leash, takes two. If the dog learns that we walk when the leash is tight, why wouldn’t he do the same? I imagine dogs think humans must like walking when the leash is tight, because two-leggers just seem to do that all the time!

Always come immediately whenever someone calls us, no matter what else is going on: We expect our dogs to drop everything and come at our every whim, immediately, 100% of the time. But haven’t you ever said to someone who was calling you, “I’ll be there a minute?” or, “Just let me finish this up quickly!” Have you ever not answered a phone call from a friend, family member, or colleague, because you were otherwise engaged in some important task? Is it that hard to imagine that sometimes dogs might feel the same way? “I’ll be there in a minute mom, I just want to finish rolling on this dead fish, ok?”

NOTE:  Behaviors like recall are life-savers and mistakes can have deadly consequences.  You really cannot overtrain a behavior like recall, provided you’re working in short sessions and are making training fun for your dog.  Practice, practice, practice!

Like everyone you meet, including rude, offensive, obnoxious individuals: We expect our dogs to like all other dogs, even if the other dog is rude. We expect our dogs to like children, even children who are allowed to frighten, harass, and injure them. Do you like every person you meet? Do you pet-sit for a dog that has bitten you repeatedly or a cat that pees on your purse? If not, do you self-identify as a “poorly socialized human”? Well-socialized two and four-legged creatures have social opinions of both conspecifics (other individuals of the same species) and contraspecifics (individuals of other species). How would you like to be forced to go camping for a weekend with a bunch of rude, obnoxious individuals and be expected to pretend that you liked them lest ye be labeled an “unstable” type?

Perfection: In short, we expect our dogs to attain a lofty goal that none of us will ever attain, perfection. Living with, learning from, and loving dogs has taught me that they are in fact perfect in many ways that we will never be. Dogs do not decieve, manipulate, coerce, or betray us. They are the ultimate secret-keepers. They like us on bad hair days. They sit and provide silent comfort for hours, listening without judgment, in our hours of darkest turmoil.

Yet dogs share many of our imperfections, and we’d do well to remember that they have feelings, desires, frustrations, preferences. They experience sadness, confusion, anger, and pure joy. Dogs have good days and bad days. Remembering what we share in common with the animals who have been our collective “best friends” for millennium will engender empathy. With empathy comes understanding, respect, and trust.

I hope the future holds a revolution for how dogs and people understand and live with each other. When and if this happens, the change will hopefully be rooted deeply in the soils of empathy for our collective perfections and imperfections, desires and goals.  So forgive your dog her mistakes.  Be certain that she has forgiven many of yours.  After all, you’re only human!