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The Dogma of Dog Training

"If you look for perfection, you'll never be content."

- Leo Tolstoy.

I was with a friend and a new acquaintance the other day, and when the acquaintance discovered I train dogs, started talking about dog life. My friend’s friend, who we will call Donna, was talking about a dog she has. Or rather, about the judgment she receives from many different sources about her even owning a dog. I don’t know Donna well, and have only met her twice, so I instinctively braced myself for the barrage of atrocities she must be visiting upon said dog. With anger already rising, I asked her why she shouldn’t own a dog.

“Because I work”, was her reply.

I thought I didn’t hear her correctly. I verified this answer. Yes, she was being judged for not being a stay-at-home dog mom.

Now, let’s get a little bit more in-depth. Certainly that couldn’t be the end of it. Perhaps she was in a position, say such as a nurse or fireman, who wasn’t home for extended hours during the day, and hadn’t made proper arrangements for the dog’s care during those hours.

Nope. Bankers hours. She owns an older, very low energy dog, who she happens to leave home alone while she works during the day.

I see this type of judgment much more than I care to. Someone isn’t able to give all the luxuries to their pet that others can. Such as having a someone home most of the day. Being able to afford a more expensive, premium brand of food. Using a low-cost clinic rather than the up-town vet. Perhaps we need to go over a few things here. Some uncomfortable truths.

1. Your world can’t revolve around your dog.

Sure, it would be lovely if you were able to stay home and cater to your dog’s every want and need. I know I would have a blast with 4 walks a day, 2 daily sessions of agility and 1 marathon grooming session every day.

But the reality is I work. I enjoy my job as a dog trainer, but the bigger reality is that part of the money I earn by working goes for the care of my dog. In other words, if I am unable to work, my dogs are unable to eat, go to the vet, etc. I’m the first to admit that due to the hours I work, and my ability to make my own schedule, I have enormous flexibility with my pets’ care. Not everybody does.

But I think we need a reminder that we are all doing the best we can with what we have.

So when one of my clients nervously admits that their dog is crated for 8-9 hours a day while they work, I say “Good for you!”. Not because of the length of time their dog is crated, but because that dog isn’t in a shelter, kennel, or worse. And even the most mediocre home is still better than the most amazing shelter. At home, your dogs are patiently waiting to be spoiled rotten when their owner comes home after a long day of work, ready to give hugs and kisses to them to ease the stress of their human’s day. Dogs still love their owner, and aren’t angry. Instead, they are grateful for what they have: a home, a human, food, shelter, and above all, love.

2. A good home isn’t about income, fenced in yard, or how clean your house is.

I am the proud parent of two human children, two cats, two rats and two dogs. My human children I was allowed to have and raise without any input from anyone. As long as I didn’t neglect nor abuse them, people just roll their eyes when you do/don’t allow too much/too little screen time. When you do/don’t feed organic food. When you do/don’t have viola lessons 2x week per kid.

My grandma had a wonderful saying, "Your kids won't remember if your floors were freshly mopped, but they'll remember that you always had time to read a story to them."

The reality is that we are much more judgment about who is allowed to have a pet. Which is ridiculous.

According to the SPCA, “Each year, approximately 1.5 million animals are euthanized (670,00 dogs and 860,000 cats).”

Let me repeat that number for you: 1.5 million animals are euthanized

Yet you’re worried that I don’t have a fenced-in yard? That the dog will be home alone for too long during the day? What that translates to is a dog is better off dead than in a home where he will be crated 8 hours a day. It's a place of extreme privilege to deny someone a dog because they can't afford a $4k fence for their yard.

While we're at it, let me bust a myth for you: There is no such thing as a "no kill" shelter.

So maybe Rex the rescue pit bull is at the perfect "no-kill" shelter, waiting for the perfect home, but Rex is taking up a spot that Cooper the other rescue pit bull needs. See, Cooper is scheduled to be euthanized tomorrow due to overcrowding at a local county shelter. You can neither create nor destroy matter, which means we can not just will another open kennel in a shelter. There’s only so much room on the Ark, and not everyone is going to make it. Cooper won’t make it because Rex still hasn’t found the perfect home, and the last applicant for Rex didn't have a fenced in yard, so Rex is still taking up cage space because he wasn't adopted out.

So that no kill shelter isn't really no kill; they have the option of just not taking in a dog if they don't have room. Yes, they are doing amazing things, and rescuing dogs. But don't disparage the county kennel. They simply don't have the option to not take in a dog. And if they only have a facility that holds 50 dogs, what do you think will have to happen when the call comes in about stray/abandoned/dumped dog number 51 comes in?

Some disillusionment needs to happen. There is no such thing as a perfect home. Even if there were, we don’t have time to find the perfect home. There are too many animals dying. We can’t wait to adopt animals out to the perfect home; the "kill" shelters are doing triage. And the longer Rex sits waiting for that mythical “perfect home” the more dogs will die as a result.

In order for a home to be perfect, there has to be love, and an ability to care for an animal, which means food, shelter, water and exercise. So Agatha, the potential adopter is 83 years old ad wants to adopt a 1-year old mixed breed named Finn. Yes. Most likely Agatha will be dead before Finn is even 8 years old, but guess what? Finn will be dead by this time next week if she doesn’t adopt him. Even in the worst case scenario, where after Agatha has gone and nobody steps up to take Finn, who is subsequently euthanized, Finn will have had a great life. Shorter than it should have been, but so much longer and fulfilling than one week at a shelter before being euthanized. Agatha has also opened up a cage for another dog by adopting Finn.

And Finn helped Agatha live longer, more independently. It’s a virtuous cycle. Funny how love works.

3. That’s the wrong breed of dog for you.

Nobody has ever told me that my children are the wrong breed for me. That my daughter, River, has too much Viking-Finnish blood from her father for me to handle. Or that since my daughter Robynn's full background is unknown (as she’s adopted), I shouldn’t take a risk on her.

Why do we do that with dogs?

I thought we had come to a point in our society where we stopped looking at what a person is, but rather who that person is. We’re not perfect, but we’re getting there, I guess. Slower than I like, but we’re picking up speed. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, too. From this:

Ruby Bridges, entering William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on November 14, 1960 with armed guards.

To this:

I really don’t care if you hated him, or if you want him for a third term; our first black president was born 1 year after little Ruby bravely stood up to end segregation.

We are growing as a society to look past ethnicity…to even embrace our differences in culture, religion and gender. But somehow that ends when it comes to adopting out a dog.

We look at what a dog is (boxer, pittie/chihuahua) rather than who a dog is (friendly/shy/in-between).

When we judge a group, rather than an each individual's character, we all lose.

Dogs languish in cages because Akitas are hard to handle (maybe… if you’re talking about handling all that fur…). Pitties are aggressive (about as aggressive as a human…meaning they are each unique but vastly non-hostile). Mastiffs drool (okay, got me there *shudder*).

We need to at least give the family of four a chance to pick out their own dog regardless of breed, and respect that they probably know more about their situation in life and ability to care for a dog than you do. We can still reserve the right to weed out any potentially abusive or downright neglectful homes, and by all means, give any facts or information you have on the individual dog to the family, or perhaps known health/risk issues (prevalence of hip dysplasia, bite history (yikes!), etc., but let's allow them process the information and make a decision.

So back to my acquaintance, Donna, and the horrible, wretched life she is imposing by leaving her dog home alone for 8-9 hours per day, as well as all of you who actually work for a living: You’re doing just fine. You’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got, and you should never apologize for it, nor should you be made to feel like a villain. Donna, you are an incredible mother to your dog. The best dog mom or “dog-ma” there is, just like all of us who are working with what we’ve been given. And nailing it.

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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