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I recently wrote about 5 ways to mess up your dog. The list included obvious mistakes in dog ownership like not providing enough exercise or structure, but it also mentioned, “letting sympathy rein” regarding how we often view shelter dogs or dogs with anxiety issues.
To make my point about how useless sympathy is in helping rehabilitate dogs that have behavioral issues, allow me to share with you a bit of my personal story.
Years ago I had to go through some significant physical therapy after being involved in an auto accident.
On Halloween of 1997, I found myself careening down the side of a California mountain in a U-Haul that lost its brakes. Through deft maneuvering on the part of my sister driving, we opted to take the truck into the hillside rather than “off” of the cliff edge. It was the best choice available, and we both survived the impact. The challenge for the rescue team was extracting us from the crushed cab of the vehicle. Both of my legs got tangled and crushed into the wreckage, and it took the crew about 3 hours to figure out how to get me extricated. As a result, I had numerous broken bones and a cracked vertebrae.
There were a few months spent in a wheelchair before I proceeded to crutches and eventually to walking free of assistance (which the surgeon at the time of the accident wasn’t sure would be possible). I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the rescue team, the talented crew in the operating room and enormous credit to my physical therapist, Tony. He never really bothered to hear much of my story or invest time in lamenting what had happened to me to get me into that situation. He just pushed me forward day after day to learn to walk again and regain every bit of physical ability that I could.
So how does this tie into to helping a dog improve their behavior?
Well, as the title says, you can have ‘Reasons or Results,’ but the key word in that statement is OR. You simply cannot have both. You have to choose which direction you want to invest your time and energy into.
Unfortunately, I often see people who are more locked into the reasons their dog does XYZ (whatever behavior is of concern) than in actually working to create positive change.
The reasons are numerous and typically emotionally charged: “He’s a rescue dog,” “she was attacked by another dog,” “he never got socialized as a puppy,” “she came from a puppy mill,” “he lived outside tied to a tree,” or “we think he was abused.”
These reasons may be perfectly valid, but all too often owners allow those reasons to get in the way of helping the dog. The sympathy takes over and becomes an excuse for not doing the work needed to make the situation better.
Words have tremendous power. They influence emotions and emotions are what influence us to take action. For this reason, we should be conscious of the words we use to describe our dogs. Those descriptions create a fine line between simply becoming reasons or actually turning into results.
For example, how do you think about a training problem versus a training challenge? While they could equally be used to describe a situation, one feels more daunting while the other inspires us to take action.
This is what I meant when I referred to the mistake of letting sympathy rein in the 5 mistakes article. All too often dogs described as “rescue dog” or a dog “we think was abused” have been handicapped by owners who can’t put the sympathy aside. It simply does no good to keep that thought prevalent in our mindset. Whatever happened is in the past. It should not determine the dog’s future.
When I first met Tony for PT, he never asked me “what happened?” we just started working on the goal of getting me walking again. There was never a single moment of “poor Robin.” There was only the continual push of persevering toward a goal. I am eternally grateful for that.
Stay focused on the results you want to create with your dog. Don’t let speculation about abuse, rescue, neglect, etc. overtake your thinking and limit your expectations of what is possible.
Change your words and thus your thinking. Try exchanging “rescue” for “adopted,” switch “scared” to “shy” and drop abused altogether. I am not encouraging you to deny what was, but perhaps it is time to move on. Your dog has more potential and resilience than you likely give him or her credit for.
You can have reasons OR results. Which one do you choose?