Why Do We Expect So Much From Dogs?

“Do I really have to go to that party? I won’t know anyone and I’ll feel so awkward.”

“She just rubs me the wrong way. If she wasn’t my sister-in-law, I’d never talk to her.”

“I know the store is only 2 miles away. But riding my bike on the road scares me. What if I get hit by a car?”

Sometimes we’re socially awkward. We dislike people for no reason. And we’re scared to try new things.

No big deal, right? We’re only human after all.

Then why do we expect so much from our dogs?
 

My dog rides in a canoe.

Shadow didn’t ask to go canoeing. But she was happy to be with us and she figured out how to balance in the tippy boat.

 

The Life of a Dog

Most dogs make very few choices. They

  • go on walks where and when it’s convenient for their person,
  • eat what’s put in front of them (unless the counter or garbage happens to be unguarded),
  • socialize with whoever approaches them.

They rarely get to choose who to live with. And I’ve never heard of anyone asking the dog whether he thought they should have a baby.

Luckily, dogs are amazingly adaptable.

They form a bond with us. And they are happy to share our lives, no matter how chaotic and unpredictable they may be. And they do all this without human reasoning to make sense of what’s happening around them.
 

Honey the Golden Retriever puppy lies down with a root beer bottle for company.

They call it socialization. All I know is if they keep dragging me out to crazy events when I’d rather nap. It’s enough to drive a puppy to drink.


 
But some dogs find life in human society harder than others.

Their loving people have the job of explaining why their dog barks and growls at someone else’s off-leash dog who is “just being friendly.” They face the pressure of friends who don’t understand why they can’t just put the dog in a kennel and go on vacation for a long weekend. And they start to feel a little nuts from managing every interaction between their “crazy” dog and the rest of the world.

But dogs aren’t crazy. They’re just acting like humans.

Some Dogs Are Like Neurotic Humans

A happy, well-adjusted dog barks, roots through trash, rolls in stinky stuff, sniffs butts, and growls when someone irritates her. That’s normal dog behavior. And some people devote most of their relationship to trying to keep their dog from behaving like a dog.

A dog challenged by life in our world does all those doggy things. But they also bark insanely when someone walks by the window, pull and lunge on leash at every strange dog or person who comes within 30 feet, or cower at loud noises.

Some people see those dog behaviors as problems. But I see their human equivalents all the time.

A person who can’t tolerate any challenge to his political or religious world view reminds me of a dog snarling at the mail carrier through the window. Someone who uses sarcasm or insults to push people away reminds me of a dog snarling on the end of his leash. And the person who fears trying anything new makes me think of a dog cowering from distant gunfire.

We don’t consider people with neurotic behaviors to be failures. We give them talk radio or television shows and pay them millions of dollars. Others become famous comedians. And some are just the quiet person on the block doing the same thing every day.
 

Honey the Golden Retriever watches Santa rappel down the side of a building.

Aren’t I socialized enough? I can’t imagine why you need me to see the bearded guy in red rappelling down that building.


 
So why do people get so upset when dogs aren’t “perfect?” Y’know, when they’re acting just like regular humans?

What People Think of Dogs

I know what the problem is. People think too much of dogs. And people think too little of dogs. Here’s what I mean.

Dogs are heroes.

They guide blind people. They rescue babies from burning buildings. They sniff out land mines.

Deep down, we know that very few dogs (and very few people) rise to these lofty expectations. But somehow we want all dogs to be noble and heroic. We think too much of them.

And yet we also think too little of them.

We expect them to follow us on the end of their leash without expressing any opinion about where we go or what we do. Some people routinely pull their dogs away from anything they want to explore on a walk. Who has time for all that sniffing?

We think too little of them to care about what they want.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see every dog (and person) as she is? Appreciate her for just that? And let her have the coping tools she needs to be comfortable in this world?
 

Honey the Golden Retriever plays tug on the beach with her person.

Ah, finally you’ve listened to me. This is what I’ve been waiting for all day.


 

Dog Coping Tools

People mediate to clear their busy thoughts. They watch tv to drown out anxiety. They go to therapy to heal past wounds.

How is that different from a dog wearing a thundershirt? Practicing calm reactions with a clicker and treats? Or taking medication to lessen anxiety?

This isn’t a world-shattering notion to most people reading this. You’re already crazy enough to read nearly 1000 words about human expectations for dogs.

And the people who need the biggest attitude adjustment about dogs will never see this.

But if you’re living with a dog who doesn’t meet society’s expectations for a perfect dog (and that would be most of us), I hope you’ll be encouraged.

You’re not the crazy one for listening to your dog, loving him as he is, managing his anxiety, and helping him cope with a world that doesn’t always make sense.

You respect him for being a dog. And being no crazier than any human.

This post was inspired by Bella, Silas, Boogie, Morgan, Desmond, Ducky, and every other wonderful, crazy dog lucky enough to be loved by someone just as crazy as they are.

Your Turn: Do most people have unrealistic expectations for dogs?

 

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Comments

  1. Wise words. A dog should be allowed to be a dog and not some kind of perfect companion. Have a super Saturday.
    Best wishes Molly

  2. Wonderful post! Yes, I am one of those people who has dogs that don’t meet society’s expectations of a perfect dog. But my dogs are perfect to me. Maya’s zest for life can be a bit embarrassing in public when she pulls on her leash to say hi and tries to jump on people. But I just love her enthusiasm. Yes, I work with her on behaving a little calmer in public. But I will not quash her enthusiasm by training her with a shock collar. And with Pierson’s dog aggression, I am working with him because I don’t want him to be stressed out every time he sees another dog on a walk. Whatever their imperfections, Maya and Pierson are the best dogs EVER!

  3. I agree – we ask too much of our dogs. We want them to be perfect little people, but how many people do you know who are perfect? All want is for Zora to be reasonably polite, stay out of the trash and the litter boxes, not cruise the countertops, not bark when people come to the door and not jump on them when they come inside, blah, blah, blah. It’s tough being a dog!

  4. Wow what a post! Wonderful! Some people say to mom that I shouldn’t be allowed to jump on her when I want to or that we don’t walk in the heel position but mom always says who cares. We are doing things as we want them done and if others don’t like it then too bad. It is our life and we do most things that are asked of us by mom and other humans so if we aren’t perfect, that is ok, neither are humans. Mom likes to drink diet Coke which lots of people think is bad and I enjoy that occasional litter box snack, who really cares! Dogs are simply the best!

  5. Sue at The Golden Life says:

    Pamela, it was so sweet of you to include Ducky in your list of dogs who inspired you to write this post! She, her Daddy, and I appreciate it very much!!

    You gave me a lot to think about as well, and I thank you for it. Especially the part about riding my bike on that road…if it were just me, I’d probably walk on the side of our ultra-busy road. But sometimes there’s a thin line between fear and common sense. People drive way too fast on this road, some of them while texting on their phones instead of paying attention to the traffic around them or even their own driving. I’ve seen too many accidents on this road as a result of such bad habits. So, maybe it is fear to some degree on my part; but it’s mostly the common sense to do/not do what I feel necessary to keep my dogs as safe as possible at all times.

    As for expectations of dogs? Well, I have far fewer for dogs than I do for their humans. I don’t expect a dog to be a “perfect” gentleman or lady if its human is too distracted by its phone to care about what the dog is doing. Generally, if I see a human/dog pair coming toward us on the trail at the park, I’ll guide my own dogs off the trail into the grass and wait for them to pass before going any further. Callie tends to be a bit reactive when we’re standing still, so getting her off the trail and distracted by the grass is just safer.

  6. Pamela, this post was right on the money. I consider myself a pretty dog savvy individual yet I find myself falling into this mode of thought all the time. I have Pit bulls so am very tuned in to their public appearance as I want them to be a good experience for anyone that meets them especially those with false idea in their head about PB type dogs. I have one Pup Rodney, my heart dog but he has a problem. He doesn’t like people in his face, I get so flustered with him because he’s a handsome boy and people want to meet him but I have to explain quickly that he needs his space, they must give him some time to warm up to them. I find myself flustered with Rodney at times because I see the look on peoples face when I ask them to give him some space and then I think why am I put out with Rodney?? I can’t expect him to be just a cookie cutter model of the perfect dog that lives in my mind, the fact that he doesn’t want someone in his face doesn’t make him a bad dog, shoot I hate most people up in my face too! Your article was well written and thought provoking thank you! You always make me think.

  7. We are big advocates at our house for letting our dogs be who they are and for treating them as individuals. That means realizing that Felix LOVEs to come to busy street fairs and Kol does not. We know that Kol and Felix love to go to the drive in and watch movies, but Lu hates being that close to so many people and not playing. None of the dogs like to swim. We try to respect what social situations make them uncomfortable and not push the boundaries of that.

  8. This is a great post. I think sometimes people expect all dogs to just kind of be the same. Maybe they had a great, well-adjusted dog in the past, and they expect all dogs after that to just be the same. Our previous dogs were very outgoing, but 3 of 4 now aren’t so much. Cricket barks at strange men that come in the house. I constantly explain that she is shy. I’m shy too so I understand that in her. I wish it would be as easy for me to tell people that I’m shy and that’s why I won’t go to that social event! Most of the dogs are afraid of thunderstorms….well, so am I, so how can I criticize them? I think sometimes having multiple dogs makes it easier to see that they all have different personalities…..pretty much nothing phases Kobi, but the other dogs are phased by a lot of things. We can try to help them to deal with it better, but we can also understand that they are just different from him.

  9. Slimdoggy says:

    We accept so much diversity in ourselves, our friends, family and acquaintances…so why shouldn’t we accept the same in our dogs? I’ve been guilty of assuming my labs would all have similar personalities, but Jack and Maggie have clearly shown me the error of my thinking. They have personalities, likes, dislikes and what I’ve found is accommodating their differences rather than trying to force square pegs into round holes leads to much happier dogs and peaceful household.

  10. YES!! Let dogs be dogs. When I walk dogs, unless I’m truly training, being hounds, I let them go by their noses, which means we stop, sniff, and leave a lot of pee mail. Could they heel? Absolutely. It’s not a priority. Too many dogs come to me from poor situations, much demanded of them and little given to/for them. My priority is to let them first learn to be a dog. Monk will always bark at visitors, no matter how often they come over, BUT, just yesterday, this feral dog lay down for petting and then, miracle, rolled over for a tummy rub. He’s not adoptable – he’ll be here for life – but I see his life improving week by week.
    The puppies drive me insane – run, play, wrestle, sleep, bark, do it all again, but I allow them because that’s their job at this stage of life. However, Ethel M. tried to guard her Kong from me the other day; we are now working on food resource guarding to shape her behavior for her new home when they find her.
    Another excellent post – yes, we expect too much and too little. Man, I could go on and on, but you covered the topic well.

  11. Brilliant post. I love how you can get into the minds of dogs and people alike and articulate so well our thoughts and feelings.

    Frankie and Beryl are far from perfect, which makes three of us :) But neither of them are very problematical either and I am very grateful for that.

  12. Great Post! I always learn so much from your blog. Thank-you!

  13. Wonderful insights and so, so true. No dog is perfect (and no human is either) but we celebrate the goodness in our faithful companions. I know Sage has several idiosyncrasies, so we work around them and let her enjoy life in her own manner.

  14. This is an amazing post, and I’ve wondered about this myself. I once read a book (it might have been Bones Will Rain From the Sky) which asked us to imagine a world where another species are our owners. In this world, we are asked to wear collars, we are asked to understand their commands which are in a different language from us..etc etc. The author set out the entire scene, and asked how we, as humans, would cope? It was very illuminating for me to read that. It’s really amazing what they can do, and we still ask more from them.

  15. I love this post so very much. Thank you for writing it!

  16. Great post Pamela, I wish every dog owner could read and understand this!

  17. I think we expect so much from dogs because we say so. So much of dog interactions and expectations is based on what WE want. Don’t pee inside, don’t chew on that, don’t jump, etc. etc. Once we eradicate all of the “bad” behaviors, we figure we have a blank slate. So all those things we want? Of course the dog will do them, right?

    Dogs are saints to put up with us sometimes, truly.

  18. Thank you so much for this post. I’m 5 months in as a new dog mom and I’m really feeling the pressure to train a “good” dog. It’s incredibly overwhelming for someone who has never owned a dog before. On top of just trying to figure out what normal dog-things are, I have the added anxiety of trying to train this perfect dog that no one will judge. It’s so silly to think that way. I’ll do my best to train Bailey, but I will have to accept that it’s likely that she won’t be the perfectly trained dog I envision her to be and that’s OK. She’s wonderful and she loves us and that’s what matters.

    • You are so lucky. This is a great time to be a new dog person. There are so many wonderful training resources, nutritious food, cool leashes and tools, not to mention the internet.

      I know my first dogs, more than 20 years ago, would have had a much happier life if I knew then what I know now.

      The inspiration for this post and others I’ve written like it comes from Suzanne Clothier. This is the first thing I ever read by her and it rocked my world: http://www.suzanneclothier.com/the-articles/he-just-wants-say-hi

      Good luck with Bailey. And I hope you won’t be a stranger. It’s exciting to rediscover dog love in someone else’s experiences.

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