We generally bring pets into the family because we believe they are going to enhance our lives in some way. We may choose them as a companion for us or for an existing pet, as an exercise partner or because the kids want one. Whatever the reason we generally have preconceived ideas as to what they are going to be like and what we are going to be able to do with them.
But animals, like us, are complex individuals. Each is different; some are introverts whilst others the life of the party. Some cope with stressful situations, others don’t. Even within a specific breed there may be extreme differences. Buying a chocolate Labrador as an adult because you had a wonderful one as a child and want to replicate the experience can be fraught with disaster. They are never the same!!
Whilst we can encourage our pets to be social and to interact with others in appropriate ways – by taking them to puppy preschool and making sure all early socialisation experiences are positive – we cannot guarantee it.
Some animals are genetically timid or may be predisposed to anxiety; whilst others just seem content with minimal social interactions. Although we may have wanted a dog to take to the dog park or to sit quietly as we sip latte at the local café with friends, the dog we chose may not be suited to this lifestyle.
Forcing them out of their comfort zone is neither enjoyable for them nor does it come without risk. A dog that is scared and devoid of the ability to run away has few options available to it. If the owner fails to read its body language appropriately and does not remove it from the situation, the dogs only real options are to show aggression, as an attempt to keep others from getting too close, or to ‘shut down’. Shutting down may be more socially acceptable to those around it but it is a huge welfare concern for the individual animal in question.
Behavioural modification techniques help change an animal’s feelings toward a certain environment or situation and many animals learn to tolerate, and even enjoy, situations in which they used to feel uneasy. These techniques require commitment and skill but are certainly worthwhile pursuing if we are change a pet’s emotional state and its outward behaviour for the better.
However, at times it is the human that needs to change. It is their expectations and their behaviour that is contributing to the problem. As our pet’s ultimate advocate, it is beholden upon us, their owner, that we consider their needs and emotions and don’t force them into situations they find uncomfortable or threatening.
Some dogs just should never ever be taken to a dog park or the cafe. EVER! The risks associated with doing so, both for that animal, but also for those around it are just not worth it. Instead of a trip to the dog park, take a trip to the local state forest. Order a takeaway coffee and take it to a quiet spot in the park if you wish to enjoy it with your dog. Or leave your dog at home…
Sadly, for many owners, the loss of ‘the dream’ owning a pet conjured up is akin to the grief of the animal dying.
Perhaps the second dog was purchased as a companion to your first and your aspirations were of them living together in blissful harmony. To be told that their relationship will likely never amount to this and that they need to be kept physically separated within the home is very hard to hear.
That pets may not fulfil our expectations is, in part, why so many are dumped at shelters. Some of these animals will have a mental illness that requires committed treatment, but many others were just incompatible with their owner’s lifestyle requirements.
Owners need to be truthful as to what their expectations are; and behaviour veterinarians need to be realistic as to what the prognosis for achieving this may be.
An animals best chance of improvement comes when everyone involved in their treatment – owners, vet, trainer – are all on the same page.
Written by Dr Emma Hughes BSc; BVSc; MSc (Animal Behaviour); MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour).