Sometimes – more often than you’d think – when I meet with clients, it feels more like a confessional than like a lesson. They know I train using primarily positive reinforcement, and they will look totally abashed and confess, “I just lost patience” and admit that they used to use a shock collar, or that they yelled at their dog. Even the ones who don’t lose patience and punish their dogs will admit to things like that they wonder if they made a mistake getting a dog, that they’re in over their heads, that they just need a break and some peace and quiet. They always look so ashamed.
Here’s the truth: it’s normal.
Here’s another truth: I do it too.
The first year with my dog, I was sure I’d made a huge mistake. I loved her, but god she was a hard puppy. She used to teethe on me so much that I’d bleed, and cry. And she has barrier frustration that I’m sure I could have worked through, but at the time I didn’t know how, so I couldn’t crate her. So she’d bite me and I’d bleed and cry and put her in her crate and she’d howl and cry and bark while I would bleed and cry and wonder why everyone else in the world seems to love puppies so much.
When she was older, probably around two, we were at the dog park and she was way too excited and over aroused, so I grabbed her for a time out to calm down, which was normal for us. For the first time ever, in her non-thinking state of arousal, she redirected her excited play and whipped around and bit me, hard. It didn’t break skin but it bruised, and I was shocked – I love this dog so much and I do everything for her and she bites me? I took her home, handed her leash to my partner, and – through tears – told him, “I love this dog but I am going into the bedroom to read and I cannot even look at her for a few hours.”
Even now – she’s almost four, and I am now a professional trainer – she’ll be whining at me or being pushy, and without thinking I’ll snap “Enough, Athena.” and it’s out of my mouth only seconds before my brain goes, “Oh shit, that’s not how we handle this.” and then I feel that guilty pit of my stomach feeling like I’m the worst dog owner in the world.
Here’s the bottom line:
We all do the best we can. Sometimes, we lose patience. Sometimes, we just need a bubble bath and a glass of wine with the dog locked out of the bathroom. Sometimes, we just really want to go pee alone for once (I know I’m not the only one…). Sometimes, we just need a break.
It’s okay. It’s normal. And you don’t need to feel guilty about it.
The vast majority of our dogs have very happy fulfilled lives, with minimal coercion and compulsion (I’m guessing on my readership here, but I’d imagine most of you are not correcting and punishing your dogs). Our dogs love us, and we love them. If you make a mistake, if you lose patience, it’s okay; dogs are so forgiving. It’s part of their charm.
So whether you have a puppy and you just can’t handle their sharky little teeth right now, or you have an older dog who is testing your patience, don’t worry. Take a deep breath. You didn’t make a mistake getting a dog. We all have bad days – people and dogs – but I can’t imagine my life without them.