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