How to be a “Dog Person”

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I don’t know where I picked it up, but it elicits a chuckle each time I repeat it to someone new. “God made dogs,” the joke goes, “and the Devil made dog clubs.”

If you are involved in dogs outside the four walls of your home – competing in performance events like agility or obedience, helping out with a rescue group, going to your local dog park – then, inescapably, you are involved with dog people. And no matter what the context, or how altruistic the goal, any time more than two people gather in the name of something they are passionate about, there are politics – and drama, mama.

It’s fitting (and not a little ironic)  that dogs evolved to be our companions around the prehistoric garbage dump, because dealing with our unwanted baggage has become an inevitable part of the relationship.

All this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t band together to celebrate the species that is such an important part of our lives – how unrewarding would that be? But the more you get involved in the “dog world” – whether it’s your local obedience class or doing a star turn on the green carpet at Westminster – at some point you’ll likely find yourself grappling with a variety of emotions and dilemmas, and they are hardly ever brought on by the dogs themselves. Personality conflicts, head games, territorial imperatives, competitiveness so overt it would make even the steeliest soccer mom cringe – these are part and parcel of being “doggie” in this day and age.

Because the best defense is a good offense, here are some things to keep in mind if your goal is to have a balanced, healthy relationship not just with your dogs, but with the people who share your passion for them.

Don’t be judgmental. Like any culture, our doggie version has societal norms that are “supposed” to be observed, as well as its share of taboos. We judge people based on all kinds of things – where they acquired their dog, what kind of dog it is, whether they spay or neuter, where their dog sleeps at night, what training systems they use, even what kind of food they feed.

Take that last one for a minute. I may think feeding raw is the healthiest option for my dog, and that’s okay. But it’s not okay if that leads me to conclude that anyone who feeds kibble is uneducated or uncaring about her dog’s welfare. Enthusiasm over hard-won discoveries about your dog is nothing but natural, but avoid becoming a proselytizer who can’t see the benefit in other people’s choices. Accept that you know what works for you and your dog, but don’t make other people feel bad about making different choices. Who knows? Maybe your friend can’t feed raw because she has an immunocompromised child, or she flat out can’t afford it. You don’t want to be the oblivious Boy Scout who is helping the little old lady cross the street … with her hitting him over the head with her umbrella all the while, because that’s not the way she was heading.

We’re all not in the same place on this journey, and how boring would it be if we were? Remember how clueless you were when you got your first dog? You may have even embraced certain ideas or beliefs that today you find reprehensible. Does that make you a bad or unworthy person, then or today?

It is a slippery slope: Often, the more we know about our corner of the dog world, the lower our tolerance level. For example, when they encounter those who use punishment as part of their training repertoire, there are some “purely positive” trainers who react in a way that can only be termed aversive. There’s a delicious irony there, don’t you think? Better to follow their own training advice: Reward the behaviors you like, and ignore those you don’t.

Years ago I followed a bully breed rescuer for a story I was writing. He basically drove around a gritty neighborhood, cajoling street toughs to give up their fighting and breeding dogs. I asked him, probably with more than a tinge of righteousness, how he screened his homes – his placement process seemed a little, well, slipshod to me.

“It doesn’t have to be a perfect home,” he told me, as we cruised past a pittie living in a sawed-off oil drum. “It just has to be better than what the dog has today.”

It was an imperfect solution for an imperfect world, but it was better than nothing. Especially if you were the dog.

Don’t cut yourself on the competitive edge. Dogs are such willing partners with us, it’s no wonder that the list of formal activities that we can do with them seems to grow longer every day. Obedience, agility, tracking, flyball, rally, nosework, dock diving, doggie dancing – and those are just some of the “every dog” ones, let alone specialized competitions such as lure-coursing, herding, or field trials.

How to be a “Dog Person”

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But if you’re not careful, winning can turn you into the equivalent of a coin-stuffer parked in front of a casino slot machine: The wins are so addictive, they impart such a high, that soon you need more and more to maintain that same level of euphoria.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t hit a homer every time you’re at bat – or in front of the agility start line, or waiting at the white-fence entrance to the show ring. Kids in Little League are taught this, but many of us seem to have forgotten it. If leaving an event with the biggest and best ribbon is your only goal, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. In “sports” we compare ourselves to the competition, but in “sportsmanship,” we take our performance out of that context. Sportsmanship is defined as “an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake” – without assigning blame, or reacting with negativity or pettiness.

Whenever I find myself heading into a weekend of dog shows, I never make winning my only goal. I aspire to it, of course, but there’s nothing more self-defeating than setting a goal that needs to be legitimized from outside. Instead, I make myself the arbiter of my own success, and thus I have complete control over it. I might tell myself, “This weekend, my goal is to have one conversation with someone that leaves me richer in knowledge than when I arrived.” Or: “My goal is to show my dog to her best advantage, with a palpable sense of enthusiasm and pride, so that everyone at ringside can see her quality and value.” Or, better yet: “I am going to have fun with my dog.”

It’s easier said than done, but it comes quicker the more you practice.

Like dogs, we dog people tend to arrange ourselves in a hierarchy. And it’s fine to have a group of like-minded dog friends that you hang out with, who are your support system and with whom you have shared interests. After all, most humans like to categorize and order our world – the narrower the pigeonhole, the more comfortable the fit. To that end, terrier people like to hang with terrier people, high-octane agility folk gravitate toward fellow competitors with high-speedsters, rescue folk seek out kindred spirits who know the challenges of the path they have chosen.

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But sometimes these different “camps” can be as limiting as high school cliques. It’s a good idea to cast your net as wide as possible, because you never know what you’ll learn next, or who will teach it to you. For example, you probably couldn’t come up with two more opposite groups than purebred dog breeders and mixed-breed animal rescuers, but just imagine what the two could learn from each other if there were open, meaningful, non-confrontational dialogue.

Of course, there are always head cases. There’s one in every crowd, and oftentimes there are two or three. It’s no surprise that some dog people bring their own emotional baggage and unresolved issues with them. And when they do, wherever they are – the dog run, the training class, the rally ring – becomes their personal stage.

The “games people play” are endless – you’d do well to pick up a copy of the classic Eric Berne book of the same title to get a sense of how pervasive and sophisticated they can be. But you don’t need a degree in transactional analysis to navigate them. Instead, just take a cue from the dogs: Approach non-confrontationally, throw lots of calming signals, and avoid getting sucked into the drama.

Don’t live through your dog. Your self-worth shouldn’t be tied to what your dog does, or what other people think about it. If your dog flipped out at the training class, or spent the afternoon being a serial-humper at the dog park, or got the zoomies during the off-leash heel at an obedience competition, that doesn’t make you a bad dog person, any more than it makes your dog a bad dog.

Dogs, like people, are not static creatures. They change and grow and evolve just like we do. Whatever your puppy is like at six months is sure to be very different from what he is at six years – or even at one year, for that matter. Don’t take the ups and downs to heart, because they are ephemeral and don’t matter in the long run. What matters are the memories that you make and the connections you foster.

In some of the highest levels of competition, or in intensely competitive social interactions, people do tend to make value judgments about the dogs around them. But these judgments are based on what is prized in that context. Your dog’s inherent value is not determined by how fast he can hurtle through an agility tunnel, or how gorgeous his turn of shoulder or head planes are, or how neat a sit he can execute, or how many people ogle him at the dog run, though those are understandable sources of pride. He is valuable because he is yours.

Whenever you are involved in an activity that takes a lot of emotional, mental, and physical effort – whether it’s rehabilitating a near-feral, neglected Yorkie out of a hoarder’s house, or readying your pit-mix for an advanced obedience title – it can be easy to lose perspective on what’s important. And in the end, what matters most is the relationship between you and your dog.

How to be a “Dog Person”

“Dogs aren’t our whole life, but they make our lives whole,” Roger Caras famously said. Because they offer such unconditional love, and because we can control and, yes, manipulate them so effortlessly, dogs can become an appealing substitute for human company.

I know plenty of dog people who have missed monumental family occasions because they had “dog stuff” to do. Again, I don’t judge, so maybe that was the right decision for them. But we can become so immersed in our dog life that sometimes we forget to put it in the proper perspective. Your dog doesn’t care if she is running through the weave poles in the backyard or at the highest-profile trial of the year. She just knows that she is running with you, and that is all that matters.

The activities that you and your dog share with the larger dog community can be fun, fulfilling, and rewarding. But they shouldn’t be the only things that provide those adjectives for you. Make sure yours is a balanced life. Cook dinner for friends, dig in your garden, take in a concert, dance in the rain.

Above all, recognize when you need a break. Taking time away to recharge might be just what you need to get a clear perspective on things. Clubs, events, rescue, and competition will be there when you get back. But the most important ingredient, the one thing that got you involved in all this to begin with – your dog – will still be at your side. Come to think of it, he never left.

Denise Flaim of Revodana Ridgebacks in Long Island, New York, shares her home with three Ridgebacks, three 9-year-old children, and a very patient husband.

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