The myth of "normal" dogs
Recently, a colleague and friend posted a picture on FB accompanied by a caption saying something to the effect of "does anyone have 'normal' dogs?" indicating that her dogs had a variety of issues which she was dedicated to working with - separation anxiety, noise sensitivity, fear aggression, etc. "All I ever wanted was a normal dog!"
I hear this a lot in my practice and am forced to ask, "Really? You really think you want a 'normal' dog?!"
What exactly is a 'normal' dog?
Here are some characteristics of normal dogs:
- normal dogs bite
- normal dogs have no standards as to appropriate elimination sites with the exception of "where I sleep is out of bounds"
- normal dogs do not come when called if something more interesting is going on
- normal dogs default to responding to new stimuli in their environment fearfully. Fear is a survival adaptation and keeps a dog safe.
- normal dogs chew, dissect, and destroy things
- normal dogs resource guard
- normal dogs bark and growl
- normal dogs dig holes
- normal dogs hump legs
- normal dogs vocalize when left alone
- normal dogs chase squirrels, deer, and cats
- normal dogs kill small animals
- normal dogs pull on the leash
- normal dogs often like to run around as fast as they can, even if they knock over small children or grandma in the process
- normal dogs lift their legs and pee on trees, even when we bring those trees into our houses and put lights and ornaments all over them
- normal dogs like to sniff EVERYTHING - crotches (human and canine), fire hydrants, trees, bushes, gopher holes
- normal dogs eat poop
- normal dogs tear up the garbage, counter surf, and eat expensive panties or heels
- normal dogs roll in poop and dead things
- normal dogs do not like every dog they meet
- normal dogs do not want to be hugged, kissed, touched, or stared at by every person they meet in every situation
- normal dogs don't like having their nails trimmed, mats removed from their coat, or grooming
- normal dogs don't naturally love being crated
- normal dogs don't naturally love wearing sweaters, being carried in purses or strollers, or wearing booties
Looking at all these things that normal dogs do, how many of you want one? All of these things are NORMAL DOG BEHAVIORS. If humans did not intervene, these are the things that dogs would do naturally. I'd argue that very, very few humans would even know what to do with a truly "normal" dog if they came across one. Normal dogs do not make good pets.
What we want in a pet dog is abnormal behavior. We want a creature which has evolved for millennia as a hunter to act like prey doesn't matter. We want dogs to learn to go potty outside the house, even when we bring doggy bathrooms (trees) into our homes as holiday decorations. We want dogs to like every dog and person they meet. We want dogs to be silent animals. We want dogs to walk politely on a loose leash, even though our walking pace is comparatively very slow. (Have you ever been caught behind someone who moves slowly when you're in a hurry, either walking or driving? Frustrating!) We want dogs to never bite, no matter what, even when they are harassed, abused, and neglected.
What we want from dogs are behaviors which are ethologically incompatible with their evolution as a species. We like dogs, but not their "dogginess." Normal dogs end up in shelters for just this reason. Abnormal dogs get to stay in their homes.
Part of the problem is also in what is defined as "normal dog owner" behavior. "Normal" dog owners:
- don't take their dog to class
- don't go out of their way to socialize the dog extensively and appropriately during puppyhood
- place their dog's physical and mental stimulation needs somewhere around #894 on their list of priorities
- don't manage their dogs to prevent rehearsal of bad behavior
- focus on what their dog is doing "wrong" and ignoring the dog when he does the "right" things
- don't train their dogs and then blame the dog for misbehaving
- expect dogs know the difference between "right" and "wrong" naturally
- look for a quick fix to behavior problems
- choose to confine the dog to the back yard, turn him into a shelter, or have him euthanized before consulting with a behavior professional to address the problem
Normal dog owners get normal dog behaviors. Abnormal dog owners are proactive about preventing behavior problems and address any new problems as soon as they are noticed. If they don't know what to do about a problem, they research to find a good trainer who uses dog-friendly training methods. They exercise and train their dogs, even if they are busy. They make spending time with the dog and helping him thrive a priority.
While no dog is perfect, realizing that virtually everything we expect of dogs is unnatural for them highlights the need for training. Part of what makes dogs so wonderful is the fact that they are generally more than happy to exchange behaviors which are rooted in hundreds of thousands of years of instinct for an owner that will spend a few minutes a day training them to offer alternative, incompatible, and socially desirable behaviors.
Dogs don't come "perfect," whether they are brought into the home as puppies or as adult dogs they need training. Well-behaved dogs rarely happen by chance, they are usually well-trained dogs. "Bad" behavior in dogs is not bad behavior to dogs, it is simply normal behavior. I think that society does dogs a disservice with the assumption that "good behaviors" are the norm and "bad behaviors" are aberrant. It is the dogs that pay for this misunderstanding, often with their lives. It's like something out of the Twilight Zone.
Carefully review the list of normal dog behaviors above. If these are not the behaviors you want, you need to train your dog to offer abnormal behaviors. In doing so, you will leave the ranks of "normal dog owners" and join us crazy folks in the "abnormal dog owner" realm.
It's not so bad - we have lots of treats, toys, and fun here with our "abnormal dogs!"