Common Assumptions in Dog Ownership

There is a nationally known dog trainer, author and clinician, Chris Bach, whom I admire. If you aren’t a dog trainer you probably won’t know who she is, but she has some great concepts. One of those concepts is the A.S.S.U.M.E. acronym. What Bach asks is:  Is it worthwhile for the dog/owner relationship to ASSUME that dogs must be:

Adaptable to any situation?

Sociable to everyone and everything?

Submissive to all people?

Unaffected by past experiences?

Manageable under all circumstances?

Emotionally stable regardless of anything?

The overwhelming answer is NO.  This is especially true with rescued dogs. Many times we won’t know a dog’s past experience.  In addition to that, Bach questions if humans are able to live by these impossible rules? The answer is also no. So why would we expect that from our dogs.  Therefore, she says that she is letting every person and every dog “off the hook.”  

One common example of humans expecting their dogs to be adaptable would be when I see them at farmer’s markets such as the ones in Winter Park or downtown Orlando that happen every weekend. Many dogs are ok but there are always a few that are just plain frightened of the people and commotion. These owners don’t realize this and are expecting their dogs to be “Adaptable to any situation” and, “Emotionally stable regardless of anything.” If you notice your dog is not happy in a place such as a farmer’s market, you shouldn’t bring him there or expect him to get used to it without time-consuming desensitization. How do you know your dog is frightened or uneasy? Look at the body language. The tail says a lot. If it is between the legs suggesting fear, or if it is up very high and wiggling quickly suggesting alertness and possible aggression, your dog should be taken away from the uncomfortable situation. Other things to look for are very wide eyes, ears perked up or bearing teeth. One of my dogs doesn’t like big crowds so I keep him away from them. There is no reason to put my dog through that kind of stress just because I feel my dog should be able to handle it. I rescued him and I have no idea what his past experience with big crowds was.

Here is another situation. My son used to be involved in a youth theater and few days during afternoon pick up time, a parent would come in with his older German Shepherd to wait for his child at the back of the theater. Naturally, the children gravitated towards this calm and seasoned dog. No less than five children were around this dog petting him and getting in his face. The owner may not have been attuned to what was clearly an absolutely terrified dog. He had wide eyes (sometimes called whale eye), ears were down and he was shaking. This was a recipe for disaster because a good majority of dog bites occur because the dog is fearful. Also, a majority of dog bite victims are children under 10. Many dogs when faced with this type of situation on a recurring basis feel that they have no choice but to say, “GET OUT OF MY FACE!,” and that is when a bite occurs. What we do as humans is blame the dog, when in fact, it was the humans who were truly at fault for not knowing how to approach a dog and read his body language. When these dogs finally do explode, they sadly get put down even though they were only trying to protect themselves. It is horribly sad. The owner should have instead left this dog in the car or left him at home. Luckily, I never saw this dog do anything, but I felt like it was a ticking time bomb. Every dog, no matter how nice and calm, has the capability of being aggressive when put in the wrong situation.

So please consider the anacronym, A.S.S.U.M.E. a dog can handle every person, place or situation. I have now let you “off the hook” and you are now allowed to say that my dog is not comfortable with children or at a super bowl party. Instead you can now leave your dog at home or put your dog up in a dog hotel for the evening if you are having a large gathering.

What should we do when we have no choice but to bring a dog into an uncomfortable situation? The vet’s office is a common place where dogs tend to be uncomfortable and fearful. You have a number of choices. Instead of waiting in the lobby for 15 or 20 minutes you could sign in and then wait with your dog outside or if it is cool, you could leave your dog in the car until it is your turn.

Another idea would be to systematically desensitize your dog to the vet. It is quite labor intensive, but if you put a lot of time into this, your dog’s anxiety could be greatly mitigated. Simply bring your dog to the vet weekly whether he needs medical care or not. Bring some good treats with you. Sit down for a while in the lobby feeding treats every once in a while. Let people pet your dog if he isn’t showing signs of stress. After a few weeks, ask if you can bring your dog to an empty exam room. Again, make sure that there is no anxiety. If there is, go back to the lobby and make visits there for a few more weeks. If the anxiety has abated, hang out in the exam room, again letting technicians pet your dog or even let your dog on the examination table if he is willing. Over the course of a few months, you likely will have a dog that is less afraid of going to the vet. We all too often force our dogs into vet’s offices and from a dog’s point of view, this can be absolutely terrifying.

 Instead of trying to assume that our dogs can live by the above assumed rules, it would be much better to manage the dogs behavior as best we can and let the dogs be dogs. Let their own individual personalities dictate how you train, socialize and interact with them.