I was out for a run with my bestie the other day ranting (she's very tolerant) about one of my biggest bugbears in dog ownership which is the tendency for the most well-meaning owners to accidentally create frustrated, intolerant, inflexible dogs that are totally incapable of coping if something in their world changes. So here is how to avoid that by focusing on creating flexible and adaptable dogs that can thrive in the chaos of the real world.
Historically, dogs did what they were told, because they were told, and they were expected to tolerate everything without any support or training. Not very nice for the dogs I imagine, and not something I recommend. More recently though there was a big shift to becoming more aware of a dog's experience, focusing more on a dog's mental wellbeing, stress levels and quality of life. This is a brilliant shift, and definitely a movement in the right direction but the issue I'm seeing is that we have almost swung too far in the opposite direction and now there is a tendency to shelter dogs too much and not expose them to any stress - resulting in dogs that can't cope in our world, which is inevitably at times, stressful.
"We have shifted from moulding the dog to suit the world, to moulding the world to suit the dog - until we can't... and that is when the wheels fall off"
I fell into this trap myself, which is why I understand and can sympathise when it happens. With my OG dog Tory, I wasn't a dog trainer yet and I wasn't very knowledgable. I put her in stressful and scary situations that were not fair, because I wanted her to 'toughen up', 'get used to it', and learn to 'roll with the punches'. It was not ok, and I would not do this now, BUT luckily for me, it didn't backfire and I have a pretty damn robust Tory-Dog. Then, after 8 years as a dog trainer, I swung too far in the opposite direction as I described above. I got Poodle, and I did everything in my power to make sure that every experience he had was positive. That he never felt frustration, was never spooked, never got told off by another dog, never got restrained if he didn't like it etc. It was extremely well-meaning of me, I wanted the absolute best for him and I wanted to fix all of the mistakes I had made with Tory - but it resulted in a marshmallow of a dog that would crumble in the face of stress or in situations that fall outside of his training. Which, in retrospect was also not fair of me.
Stress is a very normal and unavoidable part of life. We need to train our dogs to be as resilient and robust as possible so that when they do get faced with a change in routine, environment, or any other stressful situation, they're better equipped to brush it off.
Tory and Poodle snoozing outside a busy cafe.
There's a balance to be struck and it's not an easy, straightforward road map, because each dog is different. Some are naturally more confident and robust and others are naturally more sensitive or predisposed to fear/anxiety/nervousness etc... Nature vs. Nurture and all that jazz. So it's about working with the dog you have to help them be the best they can be. But let's take a little look at ways that I think we could all be working to humanely 'life-proof' our dogs (assuming the dogs in these examples do not have any severe behavioural issues):
1. Alone time.
Even if your family are homebodies that rarely go out for more than 3 seconds, or you have other dogs that can always be with your dog - it is extremely important to teach your dog to be comfortable and feel secure when they are alone. What if an emergency happens and they need to be left for 8 or 10 or 12 hours? Not ideal, but if they've been trained to be ok with this - they'll likely just be bored and sleep, no problem. If they've never been left alone before then that's going to be very very stressful and unfair on them.
Make a point of separating them from you within the house or going out without them sometimes. We want strong independent dogs that choose to hang out with us because they want to, not because they need to or they'll have a meltdown.
Whether you choose to have your dog crated long-term or not, having a dog that is comfortable being confined to a small-ish area sets them up to not panic if they ever need to be confined in the future. Crates on a plane. Crates in a vet clinic. Crates in a grooming salon. Crates in a car. Crates or kennels at a boarding facility. It's just life, your dog is likely going to need to be crated at some point.
Make it less stressful for the dog and those caring for them by crate training them, and then maintaining that association life long. You don't have to crate them every day or every night but crate them periodically with a chew or overnight so they remain crate-able.
Dogs that come to train or live with us are crated in vehicles and overnight for safety
Our own dogs are regularly crated when they don't need to be to maintain the association.
3. Being left out of the fun.
This one is a biggy, and it's probably the bit where my eye starts to twitch a little. Dogs that cannot be separated from their people or fellow dog friends, or watch fun stuff going on that they're not involved in without throwing an almighty frustration tantrum (not talking about separation anxiety here). It really limits what you can do with them! And it's not their fault, it's a gap in our training. Examples of where I've noticed this most:
- Dogs that can't be left outside while the humans are inside without barking incessantly at the door
- Dogs that can't handle seeing the other resident dog go for a walk/play/training session without them
- Dogs that can't handle seeing the kids play and not be involved
- Dogs that tantrum in their crate when anything mildly fun is going on that they can see.
- Dogs that lose the plot when visitors arrive and they aren't immediately allowed to leap all over them.
Exclude your dog more. That sounds harsh, but it's really that simple and the goal is for the dog not to care. We emphasise children learning how to share and take turns, the same goes with dogs. So start small in situations that won't cause the tantrum, and progressively build up to more exciting things. If you have 2+ dogs, walk/train/play with them separately sometimes. If you have a dog-proof yard, leave them out there with a scatter feed or chew while you do chores sometimes. Pop your dog in their crate when you have visitors over sometimes.
A common exercise in our household is to station everyone on couches or beds and then do a training session with one dog at a time. Those that aren't being actively trained are learning how to manage their frustration, self regulate, take turns etc. Yes - even the cat!
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a big cooperative care nerd, BUT, life also happens and throws curve balls that you might not be ready for in your training. In those situations, having your dog understand the concept of restraint is really crucial. There have been so many cases with my clients where a dog has injured/hurt themselves but because they can't be safely handled, they get a sub-par assessment at the vets (not the vet's fault at all). What if you need to carry them out of a sticky situation? What if they get something stuck in their foot that needs removing? Training to make your dog as handleable as possible (this may include muzzle training etc.) could potentially save their life, or will at the very least reduce their stress if/when it needs to happen.
Start easy and quick and build up from there. Short restraints = big payoffs with toys/food etc. Teach 'stillness' as a trick, and over time build on what that trick can tolerate.
Baby dog when she was too young to walk the whole hike. She still now can be carried like this happy as larry!
Poodle getting his feet shaved at the groomers
5. Changes in routine.
Last but certainly not least. Often my favourite clients are the nerdy ones with the perfect routine for their dogs. They get walked for 45mins from 7-7:45, then they get breakfast in this interactive feeder, in this location while I get ready for work, then, then, then etc. I love these clients because they are so committed to their dogs. But often what these dogs struggle with is changes in their routine. Routines are great to help fearful/anxious dogs have more predictability in their life, but I'd argue that if that isn't your dog, then mixing it up is better for them long term. If your dog has only ever slept in your bed, how will they cope when they need to go to a boarding facility? If your dog has never been tethered before, how will they cope when the air BNB you hire doesn't have a fence & you need to tie them to the deck? If your dog has never been walked/trained/handled by anyone else, how will they cope when you have to leave them with a friend for a few days? How will they cope with their dinner being 3 hours late because an emergency happened? How will they cope if they don't get a walk for 3 days in a row because you broke your foot? How will they cope if the friend's house you're staying at for a week doesn't like dogs on the carpet so they have to sleep in the garage overnight?
Mix it up! Crate them tonight, and let them sleep in your bed tomorrow night. Leave them outside for a couple of hours tomorrow. Feed them dinner late one day. Give them a day off walks once a week. Have them be walked by someone different occasionally. Find whatever your dog can currently tolerate and build on that. Expand that circle of flexibility.
We regularly take our lot camping where they need to be tethered at campsites, ignore strangers walking past, sleep in unusual situations (like inside our tent or sometimes in our van). They've become very adaptable!