Work to improve your dog, but accept his preferences and limitations, too


We have to find balance in our relationships. We need to work to help our dogs live comfortably with us and our chaotic human world. This takes time, practice, patience, observational skill, a willingness to work at it. If our dogs are uncomfortable with other dogs, get worked up when on-leash, or are fearful of new people or new environments, we help them to work through these things. We want them to be comfortable, reduce the stress and anxiety that they might feel. We want them to be comfortable so that we can take them more places with us, enjoy their company in more venues.

We also need to know when to accept who they are, to be willing to change our expectations of them. If they don’t want to meet lots of other dogs, we need to accept that. If they don’t want to hang out at the coffee shop while we sit at the table visiting and drinking our caffeine, we need to accept that. If we have a dog that really gets no enjoyment out of agility, we need to question why we might be insisting.

As with people, there are introverts and extroverts in dogs. There are shy dogs, driven dogs, dogs who love to meet everyone and anyone, and dogs who prefer a small circle of friends only. So we work on making things better as much as possible for them, minimize the stress, maximize the comfort, then we adjust the environment to fit with who they are.

When someone calls me to say that they don’t want to have to make any changes in their own lives to meet their dogs’ needs, one of my tasks might be to reset their expectations. If one’s daughter decides that med school or law school is not for her, a good parent supports that decision and understands that the love of another avenue is a perfectly fine thing for their child.

I have one such dog that has limitations. He likely had distemper as a pup and is a bit limited in his ability to do things that the other dogs can do. He can’t go to as many places as the other dogs, but we have made concessions, made his life work for him and for us. We have learned to appreciate who he is, have not pushed him beyond his ability.

We have to compromise in our human relationships, too. If you are not fond of endless holiday cocktail parties with people you don’t really know, your partner — who might love such gatherings, understands that it might too much to ask to expect that you attend one after another. Your partner could come up with a plan so that you could attend just a few of them, and they could attend a greater number independently or skip some of them. This is how relationships work and thrive.

Wouldn’t it be great if we made our relationships with our dogs worked that way too? Wouldn’t it be to great to help them to be comfortable in our world while not pushing them beyond their innate abilities, understand that they might have preferences or limitations. Just imagine if your parents insisted that you go to medical school even though your dream was to become an artist. Our dogs are just as individual as we are.

Tricia Breen has been involved with horses and dogs for most of her life. She studied biology and animal behavior in college, and spent years training her dogs and helping others to teach their dogs while moving around the country. Once settled back in her native California, she participated in and taught classes at her local dog training club, then taught classes and conducted behavior consults at the Marin Humane Society. For the last five years, Tricia was the Director of Animal Care and Adoptions at Marin Humane Society, always keeping an eye toward helping dogs and volunteers with shelter life. She has recently left this role and gone back to assisting people with their dogs to build relationships, consulting with behavior and training issues. She can be reached via as a new partner in this endeavor.