How We Make Our Dream Dog Unattainable


Most of us grew up coveting the “American Dream.” We wanted the spacious single family home with the white picket fence for our two children and our dog. We dreamed of workless weekends on the lake and coming home to our large manicured yard with a shiny barbecue grill, being welcomed by neighbors that we had no conflicts with.

Today that vision has largely shifted. It has been nudged aside by tiny homes and communal living setups, by technology making it possible for us to work all the time, by a significant decrease in the desire to raise children. There is one area, however, where a common dream remains: dogs.

I spend my days listening to pet dog owners talk about what they want in their dog. It’s often like listening to music of the same genre: same basic beats, similar context, different voices. Most people want a dog they can take anywhere, that can go on vacations, sit outside a cafe, or accompany their family to the beach. They want a dog that they can exercise easily, that can run around at the dog park with no problems or simply walk beside their owners at heel and only ever displaying excitement toward them. They want a dog that will be kind to anyone and everyone, regardless of where or how they meet. And they want a dog that will lie around quietly whenever they don’t want to be bothered.

The dream of the great American Dream dog is a wonderful one, and with all the right things aligned, it’s achievable. But dog owners repeatedly sabotage themselves and often make it nearly impossible for that dream to be realized.

First, people forget that dogs are dogs. Dogs are incredible creatures that we often don’t give sufficient credit to. We, theoretically, shove dogs as beings into boxes and square out their personalities so that they are all the same. We lobotomize their instincts and put the weight of our expectations on them—that they will not behave as instinctive animals but as rational humans with the gift of reason and forethought, pushing them to achieve what we as humans often cannot. A stranger surprises us at the door unexpectedly and we startle at the knock, we grow annoyed at being bothered, and treat the religious missionary with hostility when we interact with them. Yet our dogs must not be startled, they must not express anything but calm and welcoming behavior. Someone bumps into us on the street, touches us out of turn, or even stands too close for comfort and we grow angry, muttering or yelling expletives and learning to distrust people or approaches. Dogs, however, are expected to accept greetings from any person or dog, disallowed to have feelings or opinions on the matter. They must love everyone and everyone must be able to do anything to them. They must love every dog, even if that dog is rude or unfriendly.

It’s in these expectations that we start to kill the reality of the American Dream Dog.

The second thing we do is bring home dogs that are incapable of being the dog we want them to be. “A friend has a dog that is so well behaved” is often what’s described as the inspiration for a client having gotten a dog. Somehow I’m still surprised that new dog owners are surprised that their dog is nothing like their friend’s dog. It’s as though there’s this secret belief that dogs are manufactured in a Build-A-Dog Factory with preinstalled features. It’s as though genetics bear no weight on a dogs’ characteristics, not to mention the implications of being raised a certain way or living on the street or spending time in a busy shelter.

Regardless of a dog’s genetic thresholds, we push them into becoming beings that they are barely capable of being. The dog who doesn’t care for other dogs is taken every day to the doggie daycare, the dog who doesn’t like people is asked repeatedly to approach a stranger hesitatingly for a treat. The dog who was bred for 100 years to run long distances at high speeds is asked to walk right beside us, never more than six feet away, at human walking speed without even dreaming of forging ahead. The dog who gets the equivalent of a runner’s high when he bites is told never to use his mouth for anything other than eating food and kissing the faces of the very people he would enjoy biting…lovingly.

Dogs have become everything we’ve wanted them to be, and in doing so may have become more than they were ever intended to be. Yet we still ask for more. We ask for a German Shepherd to behave like a Labrador because the German Shepherd was cheaper, cuter, more easily accessible or convenient.

The third way pet dog owners sabotage their dreams is by being almost completely unprepared when they bring a dog into their homes. When people buy cars, they often research manufacturers, features, projected gas costs, and costs of repairs. When they get cars, they peruse through the manual, spend time understanding the car’s language and how it works. People bring dogs into their homes, many of whom they will have longer than a car, yet have not checked the cost of educating said dog, not researched what a dog of their chosen breed needs to be happy and healthy, not ensured that they have the time to meet their dog’s needs. They also spend little, if any, time making effort to understand how dogs communicate. So many times have I heard the line “I wasn’t prepared to spend (X dollar amount) on this dog for training”—always with two slight implications: that it’s the fault of trainers for having such high prices, and that they never imagined their dog would actually need training.

As a trainer, it’s hard to see so many people setting themselves up for failure. Misunderstanding dogs and who they are, not choosing the right dog to bring home, and being unprepared to meet a dog’s needs or provide them with a basic education will always keep us on the other side of the fence from raising the American Dream Dog. Fixing these issues really isn’t that difficult, but it requires concerted effort. Until we purposely take steps in this area, we will always be close to this dream but unable to achieve it.