When we first visualise adding a dog to our lives, we conjure up an image, an impression, of what life will be like.
You may have been looking at this project being super-rational, coldly calculating, rigidly sensible … until this image washed over you -
of striding across a rugged landscape with your trusty friend at your heels.
Or perhaps it was sitting knitting in front of an open fire, with your little fluffy pet on your lap.
It could be that you saw yourself racing round an agility ring with your perfect pooch flying over the jumps to much applause.
Or maybe you had an image of your friendly dog playing endlessly with the children, and the children’s friends, and their cousins, and their dogs.
Whatever it was you imagined, this dog was destined to enhance your life, to show off your natural talents as - an outdoorsy type, a homely comfortmaker, a sporty competitor, or the quintessential earth mother.
This is all great and wonderful, and for some of us that will have come true.
We choose to have a dog to enrich our lives
But as any parent will know, once the much-anticipated creature (whether baby or puppy) arrives, it’s a different story! This little person has her own character, her own history, and her own opinions. Shaping a baby to become the kind of adult we’d like takes us twenty years (“Only twenty?” I hear you cry!). Fortunately it’s a lot quicker with a dog.
I’d expect my pup to arrive at the kind of dog I’m aiming for by the age of about three or four. Up to then you’re in teaching mode.
It is a truism that your dog’s behaviour is a direct reflection of your training.
With dogs it’s very much a case of you get out what you put in. And to get the best from your dog you need to be open to his suggestions of what works for him. To have harmony in the home, with a pet who knows his boundaries, you’ll be investing plenty of time in early training.
Don’t wait till things are going wrong! By the time your puppy is adolescent (around 6-9 months) and running wild, it is too late. That is a common age for dogs to be given up for rehoming. It’s the dog’s behaviour that will dictate how he fits in with his family - and ultimately whether he lives or dies. Many more dogs die because of poor training (failure to recall near a road, apparently aggressive behaviour because of lack of early socialisation, boisterousness, impetuousness) than from the illnesses that people are so afraid of.
Spending time and effort on vaccinations is pointless if you don’t put the same care into your training program!
Fortunately it’s becoming increasingly easier to find a force-free trainer to help you start your new dog the right way. Look for one who belongs to the APDT (UK), or the Karen Pryor Academy, and who has credentials you can look up and study. Avoid anyone who talks of “Pack Theory” “Dominance” “Keeping your dog in his place” and, of course, anyone who uses nasty equipment. If you wouldn’t use it on your small child, then no-one should have it near your dog.
Happily ever after
This will all pay off when your dog is mature, confident, knows exactly what goes down well with his family and what is best avoided.
By then, you’ll have found out what you really want in your partnership. You can discard the glossy magazine images that paraded before you when you were planning your dog’s arrival, and factor in your dog’s character, your own character, and the nitty-gritty of daily life.
Maybe you do go for those bracing hill walks; maybe you’re becoming an agility star; perhaps your dog is your rock and support; maybe she’s the perfect family dog.
But maybe not.
Maybe she got an injury which precluded her from being a performance dog.
Maybe she’s made it clear she’d far rather curl up and sleep than tramp across the moors.
Maybe she’ s had enough of noisy children and prefers peace and quiet - that’s her choice.
And you work with the dog you have, to ensure that she has the happiest life possible. So you may have to put your hopes and plans on the back burner and give this dog a life that suits her.
How often do you see a child from a sporty family end up as a musician, or an accountant? How about the academic family who are frustrated because their children become hippies or horse trainers?
Our dogs, like our children, are individuals. We can nurture their talents and rejoice in their creativity. The only reflection of us we need to see in our dog is the love in those big brown eyes. The rest is an adventure.