People tell me my dogs are perfect. I’m here to tell you right now: NO dogs are perfect. Except seeing eye and police dogs, and those dogs retire around 6 or 7 typically because they burn out.
So, how do you have a perfect dog? Don’t expect perfection.
Not too long ago, I took my dogs to a rodeo school where a friend of mine was going to learn to ride bulls. My dogs have seen all sorts of livestock, but not bulls — and not bucking bulls! I didn’t expect them to be perfect. I am a perfectionist, and for a while I DID expect perfection of my dogs. Then I realized some things that were very important:
1. I’m not perfect, no matter how hard I try. If I can’t be perfect, and I’m supposed to be smarter than them, how can I expect them to be perfect in an exciting, sometimes scary, always confusing world?
2. Expecting perfection means that I am constantly disappointed. I love my dogs, and I want to make sure they know it!
So, I dropped perfection. Now I look for a few things: Are they being generally well behaved? The answer is usually yes! The other thing I look for is: Are they better this week than they were last month? Once more, the answer is usually yes! This one is especially important when I’m newly training a dog with lots of problems. The truth is, that dog isn’t going to be well behaved for a while — but he can still be better behaved than he was last month!
When I took my dogs to the rodeo, I didn’t expect perfection. I expected them to be dogs, to mess up, to listen as best they could, to be pretty well behaved, to need reminders, and to be their usual loving selves.
We took our place on the grandstands. I told them to go lay down, and I poured them a bowl of water, leaving it where they could get to it. A few minutes later, someone walked by and said, “What nice dogs!” and reached to pet them.
Lily wagged, but stayed put. Cash leaped to his feet to help that hand get closer to his head. I had moved to the rail to get a better view, but I turned when I heard the person talking so I saw Cash stand up. I said, “Cash, lay down and then you can be petted.” (This is a sneaky trick, by the way: If I tell Cash he can lay down to get petted, then the person also realizes that Cash must lay down to get petted, and they wait! Otherwise, they reward him for standing up by petting him. If I tell them to wait until he lies down, they often tell me they don’t care if he jumps up, or they seem disgruntled. By correcting him, not them, the politics in the people world stay smooth!)
Cash didn’t lay down right away, but I just walked over, took his leash, and laid him down. Then I said, “Down,” told him he was good, and let the person pet him.
This happened several times, until the people walking past realized what was going on and actually started making him lay down before they petted him. If Lily didn’t get petted because she didn’t get up — better behaved dogs often get ignored, sadly! — then I made sure to pet her. Obviously, only when it’s a small group will people see what you’re doing and help enforce it, but regardless your dog will still learn!
After a while, Cash and Lily figured out they had to stay laying down. But twenty minutes passed and they got bored. Cash reached to sniff. I reminded him to stay put. Lily started skipping from sunshine to shade and back again. I reminded her to stay put (but released her after a while, so she could skip back and forth. By telling her to stay put, I reaffirmed that she had to stay. By releasing her to travel just a few feet in either direction, I was a nice person. Lily has been with me long enough to know the difference between, “Stay,” “Stay close,” and “You can be here or here [with pointing].”)
At lunch I gave them both bully sticks, which kept them occupied for another twenty minutes. In the late afternoon, when things — including them! — had calmed down, I released them and let them wander around the bleachers nearby. (Again, small group of people. Don’t do this in a crowd!) Occasionally they’d go too far and I’d call them, remind them of their boundaries. I always expected them to watch me, so that if I started to move they’d follow no matter what was going on. Twice I had to remind one of them by calling “Come on,” because they were distracted.
Were they perfect? No. But we had a great day, and the people around me were amazed at how good they were. Could I find a million and one flaws I’d like to see them be better about? Yes! But that would drive us all crazy. There were a few things I needed them to be very good about: not barking. Lily didn’t care about the bulls, but as soon as Cash started staring I corrected him and made him look away. By keeping him from even staring, I was able to keep him from getting excited and barking. I was able to communicate to him that those bulls were part of our pack, and nothing to get excited about.
I also wanted my dogs to listen — and they did. They did admirably, in fact. They were there all day, and though they needed reminders of things, they did their best. They weren’t annoying, they didn’t become unmanageable, they listened, and they tried very hard. I couldn’t ask for more.
This is how you have perfect dogs: don’t set unreasonable expectations, be proud of them for what they do well, and remember they have short attention spans. I would rather have an almost perfect dog who won’t burn out at 6 or 7 years than a perfect dog who needs to be retired young.
Perfect is overrated.