Trainer Perspective: Your Last Dog
"I really don't know what to do with this dog," my client told me. "I've had Tunisian Water Spaniels my entire life, and I've never had this much trouble. My last dog never left my property! This one runs away three times a week. And, she's always chasing my cats, but my last dog would let the cats sleep with her! My last dog loved my grandkids, but this one tries to hide behind the couch when they come over. Why is she like this?"
As you might have guessed by the time you got to "Tunisian Water Spaniels," this isn't exactly a real conversation I've had. Not exactly, but I've had dozens almost identical to it, and I know other trainers have too. It happens so often it's occasionally referred to as a "syndrome," and current or new dogs are compared to past dogs in every way you can think of — how they eat, the toys they like, how they walk on the leash, the list is practically infinite. I definitely understand the frustration from the owner in this situation; if you've had a good dog in the past, it only makes sense that you'd want another one like it. However, the reality is, buying a dog of the same breed, even from the same breeder, doesn't guarantee it's going to have much in common with your last dog. Why not? Let's go through that together.
Dogs are individuals. We tend to talk about breed characteristics like they're set in stone, and I think it's done with good intentions. Breed organizations and associations want people to be prepared for the type of dog they're getting, and in some cases, associating a trait with a breed is a good idea. If you're getting a husky, you should expect it's going to be a high-drive, high-energy dog who needs lots of physical and mental exercise. However, that's a pretty basic understanding of a husky, and that drive and energy can manifest itself in a lot of different ways depending on the dog. Your last husky may have used that energy to play with his toys most of the day; your new husky might ignore his toys and dig holes in the yard instead. Like kids from the same parents, dogs of a certain breed may look the same and maybe even act similarly, but they have their own personality. Your current dog is not your last dog, no matter how much they may look alike.
Memories are golden. If you had your last dog for a long time, it only makes sense that you remember them as they were in their later years. It's very possible your last dog may have aged into what you consider the perfect dog, but were they really always that way? Did they really never jump on the guests, or steal food off the table, or have potty training failures? Similarly, is it possible your last dog did have flaws, but they happened to be ones you just didn't mind as much? As dog owners, we often habituate to things our dogs do that we don't love; maybe your last dog was a resource guarder, and managing that became such a habit that you almost didn't notice it anymore. Maybe your new dog isn't a resource guarder, but their tendency to jump all over you when you walk in the door seems particularly annoying because your last dog didn't do it.
Words mean different things to different people. When you hear a dog described as "smart and easily-trained," do you imagine it'll be an easy dog to live with? Newsflash: the really smart dogs I've worked with, the ones who pick up cues in sixty seconds flat? They're hard to live with. They get bored fast. They get creative to entertain themselves. Yeah, they can hold a down-stay for 10 minutes straight with a parade going down the street behind them, but that doesn't mean they won't tear your living room apart when you leave them unattended for half an hour. The point is, if you considered your last dog "smart and easily-trained" because they were a breeze to live with, you'll probably be in for a surprise if you get another dog based on that description.
As with many situations in our lives with dogs, this is about managing expectations. Expecting your new dog to be just like your old dog is setting you up for disappointment, and that constant comparison means you'll probably miss the awesome things about your new dog that are, again, different from your last dog. Of course, that doesn't mean your new dog won't need training, or that you'll suddenly find their every quirk cute instead of annoying. However, if you stop thinking of your new dog as a failure just for being themselves instead of your old dog, it'll ease your frustration and get you in the right headspace to find a trainer, make a plan, and be open to learning.
That's all for this week, so thanks for reading!