Confessions
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5 Ways I Failed as a Pet Parent

My dogs' behavior problems are because of one thing: me. Here's how I failed my dogs -- and how training is helping me fix that.

 |  Jan 30th 2013  |   92 Contributions


When my Dolly girl arrived, I threw myself into being the best possible pet parent. We took every level of obedience class available, including a Canine Good Citizen course, and walked several miles a day. I even brought Dolly to a puppy playgroup to ensure proper socialization.

Spot came along two years later and most certainly got the short end of the stick.

We skipped formal training. Dolly and I were pros at that point and would teach him ourselves, I said. The walks became shorter. After all, my pups had each other to play with and burn off excess energy. We did all visit the neighborhood dog park regularly, until my career moved us to another state.

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My sweet pups shortly after Spot, left, joined Dolly and me.

Fast-forward to today, and Dolly and Spot have no doggie friends nearby. Spot has serious leash aggression, so much so that the playgroup I recently joined in an effort to improve their now-lacking social skills asked that he not attend.

I could blame the move for our current situation, or the fact that most pet parents in our neighborhood avoid each other because of similar behavioral issues, giving my dogs little opportunity to practice good manners, but I don’t. The fault lies entirely with me.

By not enrolling Spot in obedience training and by letting Dolly slide in hers over the years, I created an environment without structure or proper guidance. That environment led to psychological and behavioral problems. Those problems made me want to avoid other dogs in general. And that avoidance made the situation worse.

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I blame myself for any behavioral problems Dolly, now 10, and Spot, now 8, have.

I did not come to this realization alone, but with the help of a professional trainer schooled in animal psychology. He has helped me to understand the result of my actions and inactions.

With the hope that others can learn from my mistakes, and in honor of National Train Your Dog Month, I put together the following list of five ways I failed as a pet parent. That may sound harsh, but it does accurately describe how I feel about letting Spot and Dolly down for so many years.

1. I let Spot and Dolly walk me

Thanks to the training I did with Dolly, I know the proper way to walk my dogs -- with them at my side, leash loose -- but at some point I started letting them run ahead, wander to the far left and right, and lag behind. Switching from regular leashes to retractable ones years ago contributed to them being able to chart their own course.

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Back on track, we now take proper walks.

Our trainer, Nate Dunham, explained that by giving them a freer rein, I let them take control of the walk -- and of me. That lack of guidance on my part resulted in Spot establishing dominance, which led us down the path to the current behavioral issues.

“It’s all about control,” Dunham said on our first training walk together. “You need to control their world, not the other way around.”

2. I allowed them to mark their territory

Why should I care where Spot and Dolly pee? Because eventually they claimed the entire neighborhood as their own, setting us up for ugly interactions -- the previously mentioned leash aggression -- with dogs that Spot saw as encroaching on our property.

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Spot Thought Bubble: You never let me pee on anything fun now.

In addition to walking properly again, using regular leashes, I now direct where they should go and “go,” per Dunham’s direction.

“If you’re the one who’s saying where to go, you’re saying, 'I own this neighborhood.' That way, when you walk the neighborhood, they don’t need to worry about protecting it. They know you have it under control, that you will protect them, and they can relax and enjoy the walk,” he explained.

3. I avoided other dogs

Once I realized that Spot’s leash aggression wasn’t an isolated incident or two, I began avoiding situations that put us face to face with other dogs whenever possible, and I quickly left when an interaction turned ugly. Dolly alone greets other dogs politely, even rolling over on her back to show submission on occasion, but when with Spot she also gets worked up when another dog approaches.

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Look at that face! Obviously, there are no dogs other than Dolly nearby.

Dunham explained that my actions were making the problem more severe.

“Years of frustration have built up,” he said, adding that immediately removing Spot and Dolly from a negative situation results in them associating seeing another dog with a bad experience. “Whenever possible, you should leave once they are calm and no longer care.”

Our trainer worked with us on exactly that during a session. He had me walk Spot and Dolly to where he stood with his two dogs. Of course, Spot barked and lunged, and Dolly joined in on the display of dominance.

Dunham calmly took Spot’s leash from me and moved him opposite the other dogs. He then tapped Spot behind the shoulder to break his focus on the dogs, who looked bored and a little embarrassed for him. Spot actually bit our trainer twice before the tapping and leash control finally did the job. Dunham and I continued talking for 10 minutes or so, allowing everyone to fully chill, before ending the session.

I now employ these techniques myself whenever possible. Just the other day, we ran into our neighbor and her new 11-month-old German Shepherd rescue. Spot gave Bach a less-than-friendly welcome, and I immediately put Spot in his place. I let him and Dolly know that I had the situation under control with my actions, and we were eventually able to enjoy an extended visit with our neighbors.

4. I let Spot develop a fetch obsession

Spot loves to fetch, whether on land or in water. I thought nothing negative about this until I began working with Dunham. In fact, I had envied Spot’s dedication to the sport.

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Spot fetches his toy from the pool.

Turns out, what I saw as a fun activity for Spot had long ago turned into an obsession. His whining and pacing when I didn’t throw his toy quickly enough? I thought it was cute. His inability to stop playing unless someone put the toy away? Again, I admired his dedication.

Our trainer explained that these were signs that Spot was in an unhealthy place in those moments. “It’s not a good thing to be focused so intensely,” Dunham said. “When he can’t block that obsession, it’s not mentally healthy. It becomes a constant part of his life. He is not able to fully relax, and that moves into other behavioral areas. You want Spot to feel relaxed and safe.”

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Spot Thought Bubble: THROW THE BALL THROW THE BALL THROW THE BALL WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR THROW THE BALL!

I now take a more active part in fetch, per Dunham's direction, whereas before I would just throw and throw and throw without thinking. When Spot brings me his toy, I make him sit. He must then make eye contact with me before I will throw it. Each day, we work on holding the eye contact a second longer.  

Of the techniques we have learned, this one has paid off most quickly. Spot now only wants to play fetch a few times a day, as opposed to constantly needing to chase a toy when not sleeping or eating. 

5. I did not introduce Spot and Dolly correctly to our current home

I move fairly regularly, and I simply open the door to our new home and let Spot and Dolly explore. Our trainer explained that doing so also can encourage dominance with dogs. He recommended taking them into a new home on a leash, then exploring the areas together. Dunham also suggested not giving them access to the entire house right away.

“It shows them that it’s your property, not theirs,” he said, adding that having the dogs know it’s your territory allows them to relax and know you have the protection of that space -- and them -- under control.

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Spot makes himself at home, as he should. I warned our trainer that it would be difficult for me to not treat Spot and Dolly like roomies. We'll revisit this area if necessary.

None of the above ways I have failed Spot and Dolly are irreversible, thank goodness. It pains me to think of how I let them down. We are continuing to train, both with Dunham and on our own, and every interaction with another dog goes better than the last.

Note: The above describes my particular situation and does not apply to all dogs. You could let your dog walk you or fetch for hours and not have behavioral problems as a result.

Let’s hear from you, readers! Does any of the above sound familiar? Please share your experiences in the comments!

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