Curse of the Eager to Please Dog

I’ve read the complaints on Facebook and blogs. I’ve heard them on the streets.

“My dog never comes when I call her.”

“He’s just stubborn.”

“I could never trust my dog off leash.”

“My dog wouldn’t give me a kiss if I smeared steak on my lips.”

You’re lucky. At least you don’t know the curse of the eager-to-please dog.

Honey the golden retriever hates the ramp.

I hate this stupid ramp. Don’t you see me sticking my tongue out at it?

How Do You Know What Your Dog Wants?

When you have an eager-to-please dog, the kind who will walk through fire to stay by your side, you face an awesome responsibility. Because you have to ask yourself, “Am I causing my dog to do something that will make her terribly unhappy?” Your dog won’t tell you herself, by barking, running away, or “being stubborn.”

Should I take Honey to the crowded festival downtown? Or would she be happier snoozing at home?

Will she adapt to riding in the front of my crowded kayak cockpit? Or is she just going along with something uncomfortable because she’s eager to please?

How hard should I work to train Honey to ride in my bicycle cart? And if she tolerates it because she wants to be with us, is that ok?

And those are just the small decisions. What if we start talking about major, and potentially horrifying, life changes—like relocating to a noisy and crowded city, living aboard a sailboat, or moving to New Jersey (sorry New Jerseyites, I have nothing against the Garden State; it’s just an irresistible punchline)?

Honey the golden retriever goes aboard the sailboat on her ramp.

Okay, maybe this old ramp isn’t so bad. Are we going for a sail?

And what do I do with all the expensive smelly treats I bought to bribe lure motivate Honey to cross a scary ramp from a moving dock to a moving boat this past week? It turns out that just stepping aboard myself was enough to get her to come over on her own. And except for a brief lapse when she walked off the ramp without me to flirt with the two men in the boat at the next slip (slutty dog), Honey stayed by my side no matter what. Without complaint.

With a dog like that, how do I make the best choices for her?

Honey the golden retriever naps on a sailboat.

A quiet sail is a good time for a nap.

What Comforts Your Dog

Thinking about this, I’ve looked at other dogs.

Some dogs take comfort in their routines. They get up the same time every day. If you forget to feed them when they’re expecting it, they bark or whine. If you try to take them on a walk to a new place, they refuse to move.

Other dogs take comfort in their home. They don’t care to travel. Even car trips make them anxious. But home is their safe place. Or, in the case of a thunderstorm or fireworks, perhaps the basement or bath tub gives comfort.

Some dogs become braver by watching another dog do something first.

If you’re going to challenge your dog with something new, it’s smart to do it where they feel comfortable.

What comforts Honey? Being with us.

Honey the golden retriever enjoys sailing.

This sailing business isn’t too bad. Can we become pirates?

Sailing With The Dog

All week we’ve lived aboard a 30 foot sailboat in Kingston, Canada.

The setting was unfamiliar to Honey. Our routines varied greatly. Heck, she couldn’t even count on the floor to be where she expected it between the floating docks, movement of the boat, and heeling (when a boat tilts on its side) under high winds.

But Honey had her source of comfort. Mike and me. And apparently that was good enough.

So maybe I can stop worrying about whether Honey is doing things she hates just to make us happy. Because I know that being with us is what makes her happy.

And maybe that’s good enough.

Your Turn: How do YOU decide if a new, and potentially scary, experience is worth exposing your dog to?






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  1. I’m so glad Honey enjoyed the trip. We Jack, who is like Honey I just keep in mind what one of our dog trainers said to use about him. “Jack’s favorite thing to do is…whatever YOU are doing”. And it’s true – he loves doing anything. Maggie on the other hand is one of those stubborn dogs and will make her likes and dislikes well known.

  2. You described both Harley and Leo to a “tee!” They love to simply be with us. Great post, happy to hear Honey had fun and can’t wait for more stories about your trip. I enjoy reading your posts so much – I even wrote about you in a recent post “Springfield Days” your recall tips have made an tremendous impact on Leo, who really doesn’t care for a leash. Thanks so much for your tips, please continue to share.

    • Glad to know you and Leo have benefitted from our recall tips (or ruin your recall tips).

      Springfield Days sounds like lots of fun.

  3. Torrey and Roxy are very much like Honey, especially Torrey. But I know her limits. I know when she is happier staying home, even though she thinks she wants to go.

    • I noticed lots of pics of Roxy at your latest rendezvous but none of Torrey. Perhaps an example of a place where she’s happier at home? :)

  4. When my son was a baby I took a course in learning theory. Piaget was the man of the day with his “Irritate the organism” or at least stimulate it, to be more gentle. I guess I always have pushed my children and dogs (gently) into new situations so they would learn. Life was never boring. They all turned out well so I have no regrets.

    • Yep, teaching kids (and animals) that they can try scary things and come out ok is so important.

      I know I was very much taught to be fearful about everything. It’s been a life long job to get past it. Your kids (and dogs) are lucky to have had a gentle mama pushing them out of the nest.

  5. If it involves crowds of people, I know both my guys will be much happier left at home! Wilson is shy, Jimmy pretty friendly, but both of them tire of being touched by well-meaning strangers and jostled/stepped on by the clumsy ones. It’s just kinder to leave them home and protects against accidents of any kind.

    If it involves swimming, my dogs would brave anything to make it happen! That’s why they are veteran jetski riders!

    • Honey loves the attention at a busy event. But it’s just plain dangerous to have a dog walking around in a mob with people holding cigarettes at eye level or failing to look out for stray tails. That’s why we hang out on the periphery of big events and go home when it gets too busy.

      BTW, do Jimmy and Wilson offer swimming lessons? Because no one can convince her she’s a water dog. :)

  6. Yea! I’m so glad to hear you all had a great trip. People often ask us how the dogs adjusted to life in the RV, and honestly, it wasn’t hard at all. There are still things that we don’t subject the boys to – like big crowds. But, when it comes to where we live, as long as we’re all together – and Ty has his bed – it’s all good.

    • At this point, your dogs really see the RV as home. We found that Honey adapted to the boat as a home pretty quickly too. Apparently any place she can hog the blankets is home. :)

  7. Whoa! Go Honey! As for me and Jen, she doesn’t as a rule expose me to new things unless there’s either a necessity or a reasonable belief all will be well. You see, I don’t do what I’m told, which is not a problem in our yard, but can be a huge problem if I’m out and about.

    • On the other hand, Rumpy, trying new things results in lots of cookies. Perhaps you want to tamp down your wanderlust a bit to fool Jen into trying something new with you that will require lots of cookies.

      Just saying…

  8. Thank you for the “food for thought”. I’ve the the last few weekends feeling guilty that I’m not bringing my dogs to all these spring events (crowds, noise, other dogs, cars, people, children….). It never occurred to me that maybe they ARE better off just being at home. On the other hand, they love being wherever I am, and will do just about anything to be with me. Great post!!

    • In truth, even though Honey likes going to events with us, I alter the way we attend crowded activities to make them better for her.

      I think I’ll write a post about what we do to make festivals more manageable. Thanks for the idea, Kathy. :)

      • Awesome!! Looking forward to it!! I asked a friend to go with me to “Whisker Walk” this weekend… not exactly to help with Charlie, but just so I am not doing it alone. I think it will be better with two people. I’ll keep you posted!

  9. It is really good to hear that Honey did so well on the sailboat, just because you and Mike were there. Very cool! Bet it made for an easier time for everyone and I hope you all had some fun!

    • Now we have to see how all three of us do the first time a big-butt storm comes up while we’re at sea. Not looking forward to that at all.

      But for now, yes, it’s very fun.

  10. I am so pleased to hear that everything appears to have gone well! I think I have to decide if the experience is worth anything negative they might feel. Like BD with other dogs, I am trying to teach him they are not scary and so by exposing him a little, but not too much, he is learning that dogs are ok.

    • In the case of BD, it’s not as if you can protect him in a bubble where he never has to see other dogs. So it’s good you’re helping him to get past his fears.

      And the only way any of us get past our fears is by slowly learning over that that when we meet the thing that scares us, it doesn’t kill us. :)

  11. For Bailie and I, being with Mom is what matters most and we seem to adapt well to almost anything if she is there. Katie is happy to do what she wants or stay home if it is something she might not like. She is quite independent and although Mom is comforting, it is not always enough for her.

    • It’s smart to know each dog’s (and person’s) limits. I bet Katie loves having the house to herself sometimes.

  12. I get this. I am never sure if Phoebe would rather go with me on an all day trip to town to take care of my Mom, or stay home with her pack. Maybe she’s ok with whatever I want, since I obviously desire her company. I think that’s what dogs do for us…they adjust to our moods, wants, and rules. And are fine with it. So much better than sleeping alone by the side of a road…hungry, cold, lonely and scared.

    • Good thing to remember, Ann. A little bit of fear with us is much better than a crazy amount of fear without us.

      Don’t you wish you could just ask Phoebe which she prefers? I suspect she’d tell you to stay home and wait on her hand and food. :)

  13. Kimberly says:

    This post came at a perfect time in the life of my Cavalier, Oliver. He loves nothing better than to be sandwiched between his people. We are moving across town and I know he’s stressed because he’s going a long time between meals. I have been and will continue to take him with me whenever I can (even to Home Depot) while we prepare our new house for move in. And maybe a little hand feeding won’t hurt in the end.

    Have you ever used a pheromone collar? My vet is recommending one.

    • I’ve used DAP (dog appeasing pheremone) sprays with extremely fearful foster dogs. Because the anxiety level was so high, I had a tough time figuring out if it worked or not.

      From talking to others, DAP works for some dogs and not for others. You just never know until you give it a shot.

      I’ve had good luck with using a Thundershirt for a fearful foster dog. But my dog Honey found the velcro kind of scary. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what will help Oliver feel more comfortable until you try something.

      In the end, getting settled into your new house is probably what he really wants.

      Good luck. Hopefully you’ll be in your new home soon and things will settle down.

  14. Re. deciding whether or not to take my dog or a client’s dog into a new situation, it’s of course largely based on temperament and experience. LOTS of exercise before the new experience, to take any edge down to a lower level.
    But no matter the past experience, most important is keeping tuned in to the dog’s comfort level… calming signals, panting, loose vs. tense body language, the look in their eyes and the consistency vs. contrast between these things at home and these things in the new environment. So I may take the plunge, but significantly, I have a way out figured ahead of time if things are not comfortable.

  15. What a lovely post Pamela. It is so wonderful to see and read about how far Honey has come. Yes. Maybe being with you is the absolute best thing about her life. She loves you both so much. Honey has become a sailing dog!

  16. I love the last photo in particular, you and Honey both look so relaxed :) The power of love is amazing, Honey is proof of that.

    Asher isn’t a confident dog despite having been in a pet home for 6 months before I got him. His first home wasn’t a bad home but I think he was more treated as an ornament rather than a much loved pet. I am so proud of how well he copes now with everything that gets thrown at him. He’s gone from a dog who hid under a chair at a Greyhound run when in his previous home to a dog who had a ball when we had a lunch for friends at our place with approximately 30 people and 30 Greyhounds here. I’m not taking any credit, all I’ve done is just let Asher find out who Asher is and he’s much braver than he thought he was :)