The other day I read that January 14 is the day each year that most people give up on their New Year’s Resolutions. On that day, I also happened to see the first “I need to sell my puppy, he has too much energy for this family” post on the Next Door social media platform. And while the two situations are not directly linked – meaning I doubt that someone has said, “This is the year that I am going to get a puppy and keep it for life” as their resolution and then failed to do so – I see a connection in the reasons people fail at resolutions and at puppy rearing.
If you read my most recent blog, you read that I struggled through the latter half of 2018, partially because of the idea of perfection. As I navigated a very, very tough year in which I felt feelings of failure and uncertainty, I stopped writing because I could not write perfect posts about how to create the perfectly happy and perfectly healthy life for your dog. I did not write about this in that blog, but for most of last year, I felt like a failure to my dogs because we were not taking grand adventures and doing one fun thing a day.
On so many days last year, I would look at them, snoozing peacefully in our safe, climate controlled home with tummies full of organic, nutritious food, and feel that I had failed them as an owner because their brains were not being worked and challenged like I would like them to be. We were not going on short hikes in new parks each week like I wanted to. We were not learning new dog sports and activities as I wanted them to.
Meanwhile, my dogs never gave any indications that they thought their life was imperfect or lacking. They weren’t destructive, they did not make up their own entertainment, they were as chilled and peaceful as when we do go on daily mini-adventures and have fun things to do. If they could speak English, they probably would have said, “Mom, lighten up, we are fine, we are happy!”
If I struggle with wanting to be perfect as a writer and as a dog owner and just overall as a human, I am sure that others do, too. And honestly, isn’t that why people fail their resolutions after just a few weeks because they are trying to do something perfectly and in a way that is not sustainable? Instead of vowing to get more exercise, we make a grand resolution to go to the gym every day at 5:00 am regardless of whether we like the gym or getting up that early.
When you put all of this together, I can’t help but wonder, if this quest for perfection has influenced our relationship with our dogs and more importantly, our owner surrender rates. Is the pursuit of perfection the reason why so many people give up on their “imperfect” dogs and try to sell them, give them away, or surrender them to shelters?
When Jax was a puppy, I shared the most adorable photos of him. There was Jax with his head in a bucket, precocious and adorable. There was Jax sitting calmly with his little puppy face cocked to the side. There was Jax sitting and looking at the camera with his frisbee sitting next to him. There was Jax, looking like Daddy’s little helper as my husband put up the lattice on our deck to keep him from going underneath where we could not reach him.
There were no photos of the bites and scratches on my arms that looked like I had been raising a baby T-Rex instead of a Labrador. There were no photos of the wooden base of the desk chair that he was hell-bent on destroying and chewing as if it was his mission in life. There were no photos of the drywall that he gnawed on while in his crate because we did not realize he could fit his little puppy snout through the slats and eat the wall. There were no photos of me, un-showered, disheveled, with eyes puffy from crying because at 9 weeks old he was full of puppy energy and puppy confidence and I was sleep deprived and exhausted from trying to keep him safe and out of trouble.
It takes a lot of work and patience to train a puppy. When I took training classes with Jackson and Tinkerbell, the trainers said it took approximately 100 hours of training and working with your dog to help them develop into an average well-behaved family member. Working with a new puppy is the proverbial marathon instead of a sprint. It is ok to have setbacks. It is ok if your particular puppy takes three times as long to master a skill as it takes a different dog to learn the same thing. It is not ok to just give up.
In some situations, re-homing a dog can be a blessing for that dog. Some dogs do find much better homes and a happier life. But the fact is that we have more dogs than we have available homes, which is a death sentence for 1.2 million dogs each year. Giving up a puppy is not like using that gym membership for one month even though you’ve signed up for a year of payments. A puppy is a living, breathing, lifelong commitment.
To the puppy owners who are just overwhelmed with the hard work and exhaustion of puppy rearing, I say keep going. Once you get through house-training, once you make it through the razor sharp puppy teeth piercing your flesh (and all of your prized possessions), and you teach your puppy what they can and cannot chew, things are going to get really fun! To the puppy owners who are going to sentence their dog to a life lived entirely in a crate or tied up and forgotten in a yard because they refuse to make time for their puppy and ultimately the joy of a dog, I say give that puppy a chance at a new life.
Dogs learn through consistency and repetition. If your house training seems like you are taking one step forward, two steps back, it’s ok. Just keep working on it, celebrating your dog’s successful potty breaks outside and calmly correcting his indoor accidents. When teaching bite inhibition, if you feel like you are forever going to be covered in welts and tooth marks like a human squeaky toy, just stick with your training plan. Eventually, all of those lessons will click in your dog’s brain, and you, the human leader of your pack, will learn how to channel that endless puppy energy into games and activities that are fun for both of you. And when all of that happens, you will be living the happily imperfect life that you dreamt of when you decided to get a dog in the first place.
I am a firm believer that every single dog should go to dog training classes with his owner, whether it is as a very young puppy or an adult rescue dog. It is never too late to work on improving your dog’s manners or knowledge. Not only do you learn new information about how to train your dog, but you will learn about how dogs think, and why they do some of the things that they do. But most importantly, you will find a source of moral support and a place to go to talk about your frustrations and doubts, so that if you do find yourself at the point where it feels like the only option is to surrender your dog, you will have someone to remind you that neither you nor your dog needs to be perfect to live a happy, healthy life together.
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