By: Alison Saunders
Expectations are normal. We all have them, in almost every area of our lives. When we meet someone that might become a new friend, we subconsciously assess them. We make assumptions how they might be, what their likes are, what we might have in common. Sometimes we are right, sometimes we are not. We learn about them, about each other, and we adjust our communication styles as needed to be able to pursue that friendship. Common ground is established, and we start from there. We change our expectations as we go. There’s no difference really, when dealing with a new pet. Except that sometimes, it seems, we get too wrapped up in our expectations.
I’ve had countless dogs come through my life. They’ve either been fosters, that go on to find families of their own, or permanent members. The one thing I can say, with absolute certainty, is no two have ever been alike in personality. Ever. When I was younger I absolutely had expectations about the dog I would one day have. I watched Lassie, and other movies with these perfect dog friends on them and expected exactly that. I will get a dog, it will follow my every command, it will love long walks and sleep snuggled at my side at night. Talk about disappointment! And it wasn’t the dog’s fault, it was mine. Instead of learning who he was, and understanding that he was a separate, sentient being, I loaded all of my crap onto him. All of my misguided expectations right on top of his little furry head.
Like any relationship, sharing your world with a pet takes work! Who knew? And like any relationship, if needs aren’t met then resentments grow. Max was my first dog on my own. He was a Doberman/shepherd mix puppy. I had this expectation that we would be best friends immediately. He would snuggle up and sleep next to me. He would, of course, obey my every command, because look at Lassie. It was a rude awakening. Max was a crazy child. He was a puppy with energy out the wazoo. He didn’t sit, he didn’t stay, he didn’t heel, he didn’t want to go to the bathroom outside, nor wait for me take him anywhere to go to the bathroom. He wasn’t the snuggly sort, he liked to sleep on his own. Most of all, he liked to chew things. My things. And he grew. Huge. Another thing I hadn’t foreseen.
It was a difficult first relationship, like some tend to be. Many, as our shelters can attest, end here. Dogs are surrendered every day, almost every hour, for the behaviors Max had. People have expectations, and they are shocked when they are confronted with the fact that just because you saw Lassie go find Timmy in the well, doesn’t mean he got that right off the bat. Or, that Max has any interest at all in finding Timmy anywhere, because that thing over there smells way more interesting. And, sometimes, as much as we would like it to be different, people and a certain animal don’t mesh. That’s a heartbreaking, but true thing. There’s a lot of guilt associated with that, and another topic all together, that we can tackle on another day.
I was committed to Max. In order to be committed, I had to take the first step. I had to approach Max with zero expectations. It didn’t make it any easier, he was still a hellion, but I had to accept him as such. I had to find out what he liked. What would he work for? Some dogs will do anything for a treat, some could care less. I had a dog later named Dekker that would always politely take the offered cookie, then turn around and spit it out. Max liked cookies, however. We could work with that. Max required a lot of attention. I was convinced that he had zero idea he needed to tell me it was time to go outside. When I started paying attention, though, I could clearly see his sudden burst of energy and pacing meant we needed to go go go.
When I stopped expecting Max to tell me things in a certain way, I was able to learn his language. I could see a difference in him after long walks and lots of exercise, as opposed to not getting that. Worn out Max was cuddlier and more easy going. When given a kennel to be in during the day with toys (only hard Kong like toys), he didn’t eat my stuff. Max also learned, if it was made interesting enough for him, to let me know when he needed out BEFORE lifting his leg. It was probably the hardest dog relationship I ever had, but he taught me more than any dog since.
Think about your expectations when getting a dog, or dealing with a dog you’ve already gotten. Adjust those accordingly, and you will both be much happier. I’m sitting in a room right now with 4 dogs. Each of them completely different. Nietz is on the chair next to me, she needs to be near me whenever possible. Siggy just jumped down, as she often does, because she gets too warm and needs to lay splat in the middle of the room. Brixton, my laid back old man, is happy to curl in a dog bed that’s far too small and lick imaginary dirt off his feet. Ducky is in his “cave” under the table where he feels most safe when it’s warmer, like today. ChaCha is outside the room behind a baby gate, currently, because she has a hard time tolerating other dogs. It doesn’t make her bad, it makes her her. So, we modified things to keep her close without asking too much of her. In return we have to make the effort that she gets the attention she needs. It’s not a lot to ask, and she gets all the cuddles she can handle.
Dogs are just like people. Seriously. Keep expectations realistic and make the effort to adjust them. It’s so worth it. They have their likes and dislikes, just like we do. They’ve got their moods, as well. Take a step back and learn those. Believe me, they’re learning yours as well. Build the relationship not unlike you would with someone you want to be friends with. Learn their quirks, learn their limits, learn their likes and dislikes, earn the relationship. You might find someone you never would have expected to love so much!