Four and a half months ago I adopted a dog from a shelter. The dog was one year and five months old and had been living in the same shelter since he was only two months old. He's a great dog, despite what he’s gone through (and it was quite a lot for such a young dog). Yet immediately I found I had to work to solve some serious issues.
First of all, his peeing behaviour. He was only allowed out once every 24-48 hours and never for more than 5-10 minutes. This meant he had to pee as much and as quickly as he could each time he was allowed out, and he had never properly developed the muscles and balance to pee like an adult male dog - he still went in the puppy position. This was compounded by a lack of stimuli and social interactions.
The second and much more serious problem was the extreme stimuli deprivation he had experienced growing up. He had no clue about the outside world, and would panic every time he saw, heard or smelt something new. He was not used to having grass under his paws as he had only experienced asphalt and concrete.
So here I was with my new, handsome boy, facing a series of issues that I wanted to work on as soon as possible, to make his life better. So I thought: "Well, it’s my job. I can sort this out in no time - no need to worry.” I immediately started training.
Soon after, I clashed with a harsh reality. After two months I still hadn’t made any progress. Frankie was still scared of everything and still peeing once or twice a day as before. It was extremely frustrating. Then one day I was talking to a client who owns a particularly challenging dog, and I told her: “However difficult the problem might be, if you just set realistic expectations for your dog, you are eventually going to be able to solve it.” That was when I had my 'aha' moment.
Why was I able to give good advice if I had no clue how to apply it to myself and my dog? Why was I able to sort out far more serious problems and still not make my dog feel safe enough to pee as often as he wanted to? Why was I able to help everyone but him? I had to swallow my pride as a trainer to get to the solution. I had to understand that it’s easier to work with clients and their dogs, because we are much less involved, emotionally and practically. We might meet them once or twice a week and give directions, instructions and suggestions, but it’s not us who has to carry them out. Once we are done, we go home and leave the client to deal with the situation. The fact that we have the knowledge to solve specific problems does not necessarily mean we will be able to do it faster than our clients.
I stopped watching my dog with the eyes of a trainer, and started watching him with the eyes of a human companion. We may be as good as we will ever be at our job, but the timescales and needs will only ever be dictated by the dog himself. Our task, as trainers and owners, is to support them when they need it by using this amazing knowledge we are so lucky to have at our disposal. There’s no use trying to speed up the process to 'fix' the dog as fast as we can. That’s not why we are trainers - that’s just being downright arrogant.
We have to allow the dog time to move on, to grow both emotionally and mentally and to adapt to changes. We can provide support by stepping in when they need it and gently nudging them in the right direction as soon as they are ready to take the next step. Dogs are so good at doing this all by themselves, provided we show them patience and give them time.
Sometimes us trainers should be kinder to ourselves and our dogs. We should allow ourselves the same patience we show to our clients. And above all, we should remember that realistic expectations are not only for dogs and clients, but also for ourselves.
Federica Iacozzilli is a dog trainer and behaviourist working in Italy. www.canietulipani.it