Teaching New Dog Owners Old Tricks
Teaching New Dog Owners Old Tricks

How can we help first-timers retrieve the answers they need?

Freya is digging contentedly in the backyard, her forgotten leash dragging loosely behind her after a failed obedience training session. Her human owner, Sarah, sits on the grass nearby, her head in her hands, wondering how so much effort and such good intentions could have brought her here. The dog stops destroying the lawn for a moment and bounds over to Sarah, giving her a sloppy kiss on the nose and planting a pair of muddy paws squarely on her new sweater. Sarah sighs in defeat.

Everyone knows that adopting a dog is hard. For most people, it’s the biggest commitment they’ll take on to care for another living being short of having a baby. Sarah went into this situation with eyes wide open, or so she thought. She spent months reading, budgeting, planning and talking to friends, but in this moment she just doesn’t see a way forward. How did she mess it up this badly? And how can she avoid judgment if she ever says out loud that she thought it would be easier?

When adults looking to adopt their first pup start doing research, they quickly notice how much cultural expectations surrounding our relationship with dogs have changed. Our dogs sleep on soft beds in our homes, never in a doghouse outside. That puppy chow with the brand name you recognize is full of empty carbs and harmful preservatives; if you love your dog, only the priciest organic grain-free food will do. Stop rubbing her nose in accidents, you’re only making her scared of you. You ought to be trying to be her benevolent pack leader—or his affectionate best friend. Which one is it?

You can’t say that there is any shortage of information available in books and on the internet about how you should raise a dog, but how you do navigate all of the conflicting opinions and decide what advice to keep and what to throw out? Seasoned dog owners approach the situation with a set of preconceptions and lived experiences that help them to filter out unsuitable answers. First-time dog owners like Sarah, on the other hand, often find themselves adrift and facing problems for which no amount of preparation could equip them. What types of critical information are they not getting, and how do they need help deciphering the information they do get?

Price

For dogs, as for children, we're encouraged not to think too much about cost—if you really care about them, you should be willing to pay whatever it takes to keep them healthy and happy. And while that may be true in principle, the reality of limited budgets means that too much money spent in one area means less will go to another. You don't want to feed your pup such exquisitely nutritious food that you can't afford a decent obedience course for him, right? So budgetary guidelines are key to surviving dog ownership, especially during the first year.

There are a number of truly helpful guides online that address how much you should expect your dog to cost you, but even most of these leave out expenses that are difficult to quantify. As they rapidly grow, puppies come with the certainty of having to replace items like collars, leashes and puzzle toys multiple times in the course of single year. If you adopted a puppy—or an adult of a potentially destructive breed—you can also probably count on repairing or replacing furniture, wood trim, clothing and so on. And you could be looking at financial liability if your dog goes on a rampage against your neighbor’s property—or, in a worst-case scenario, your neighbor’s pet or person. It won’t be possible to apply numbers to these issues, but they ought to be part of every potential dog owner’s decision-making process.

Another kind of information that would be useful is realistic analysis of which products and price ranges are solidly “good enough” for your pup. For many dog owners and especially newbies, shopping becomes a choice between the guilt of short-changing your dog and the guilt of blowing your budget. Pet stores can be an especially strange mix of underwhelming services and overpriced goods, although customers may not understand how to effectively use price matching and loyalty programs to bring down the cost. Instead of giving dog owners vague platitudes about “high-quality” food, why not specify which brands are “good enough” and which aren’t? Or provide an approximate price range in which consumers can expect to keep their dog well-nourished. Likewise with toys, medicine and more, providing guidelines on the upper and lower price limit of what is perfectly acceptable for your dog could take the guesswork, and the guilt, out of the equation.

Most guides to the cost of dog ownership allude to the availability of pet insurance, but fewer actually analyze which type of plan is best for you, or whether it’s worth it to get a plan at all. Again, the combination of ignorance and worry over whether they are adequately providing for a dog leads many first-time owners to shell out too much money for insurance that isn’t likely to save them money in the long run. Removing this toxic blend could revolutionize the pet industry.

Emotional Impact

First-time parents encounter a wealth of information about the emotional side of their undertaking, with sincere anecdotes about exhaustion, frustration and an initial lack of bonding. There is an established narrative telling them that if their experiences are disappointing, it doesn’t mean they’re doing it wrong. First-time dog owners could use more of this—not superficial tales of soiled carpets and chewed-up shoes, but real stories and advice relating to the difficulties of raising a dog. After all, we’re told that dogs understand and react to our own emotions, so why not put more effort into managing those emotions in a healthy way?

How do you cope with the sadness and betrayal on your dog’s face as you leave her to go to work? What do you do when, like Sarah, all of your planning and work don’t seem to be adding up to a healthy relationship with your pet? If you have seriously thought about giving up and rehoming your pet, is this an indication that you’re a terrible person—or is it just a common part of the process? Pet owners need to hear honest accounts from their peers, the more uncomfortable the better, to be able to cope with their feelings and attain a wider perspective.

Part of the solution to helping new dog owners deal with their emotions is changing how we talk about dogs in our culture. Too often books and movies featuring dogs are shamelessly sentimental. What we need is a slice of pop culture that deals with dog ownership in all its messiness and nuance. Given how many dogs need to be placed in loving homes, it makes sense that we tend to romanticize them, but ultimately dog owners are best served by entertainment that reflects both the good and bad parts of their experience.

 

 

Different Philosophies

One of the most confusing aspects of online advice for new dog owners is that there are multiple schools of thought about how you should train and treat your dog, and most sources aren’t particularly transparent about which one they adhere to. Broadly speaking, most modern approaches to dog behavior are based around the poles of the “alpha dog” philosophy, which emphasizes maintaining your place at the head of the pack through tough (but fair and consistent) discipline, and the “positive reinforcement” theory that says you should be your dog’s pal and avoid punishment. There are far more than two philosophies of dog training that are current today, and even these two major movements encompass some different ways of thinking, but it is fair to say that most dog literature reflects this discipline vs. encouragement split.

It is important to recognize that scientific research and emerging technology are both forcing the philosophical landscape of dog training to shift and evolve. Behavioral science that says dogs don’t operate under the same pack dynamics as wolves lends credibility to the positive reinforcement approach. And in the second edition of their book The Art of Raising a Puppy, the Monks of New Skete explain that they have undergone a complete about-face regarding electronic training collars. Formerly viewing them as barbaric, the monks acknowledge that the function of the hardware has moved from painful punishment to stimulating haptic feedback, making it an excellent training tool that they have incorporated into their own training curriculum. The fact that both research and technology progress quickly means that up-to-date knowledge is crucial for making informed choices about how to raise your dog.

The biggest improvement that information sources for dog owners could offer in this area is transparency. Encountering contradictory advice on how to deal with a common problem, readers without prior dog experience will have a hard time figuring out which source to trust. Stating up-front which training philosophy you adhere to helps dog owners to contextualize your advice and make an informed decision on whether to follow your recommendations.

 

Different Breeds

While it is tempting to think that your dog is an absolute individual, most dog experts emphasize the different behavioral characteristics associated with particular breeds. Some breeds are not ideally suited for first-time dog owners, and it can be helpful to steer prospective adopters to pets who will not give them an especially hard time. Popular and well-established breeds feature an abundance of literature explaining their personalities and needs, but newer and less common breeds can be much harder to find information about. In the absence of experts, social media accounts from dog owners can be wonderful sources for anecdotal information about the dogs’ development and behavior. When a dog of an unusual breed experiences problems that typical training advice fails to correct, seeking out the people who live with these dogs every day is the best bet.

Mixed-breed dogs present greater challenges when it comes to predicting their behavior, because in most cases the owner does not know all of the breeds that are present in their genetic makeup. DNA testing kits for dogs are currently offering a revolutionary solution, but there is reason to question how reliable any given test is. With no regulatory framework in place and many test options that offer different results, whom should you believe? Fortunately, the abundance of DNA tests hitting the market features a wide range of testing methodologies and price points, and heavy competition should ensure greater accuracy and lower cost in the future.

For dogs whose genetic background does not consist of one or two primary breeds, the results of testing are likely to raise more questions than solutions about behavioral characteristics. True “mutts” like these will likely remain impervious to DNA-based predictions of their behavior, and owners will just have to learn about their temperaments as they mature. It would be useful to have up-to-date sources not just on which genetic tests to trust, but on how to interpret their results and how much weight to give them.

Seeing Clearly

Dog owners need to be able to filter the huge amount of information about dogs that they have access to, and those with prior experience find this to be an easier task. For new dog owners in particular, it is crucial that information be transparent and easy to contextualize. Attention must also be paid to the human side of dog ownership, especially areas that people find uncomfortable discussing with their peers. By stimulating practical and honest conversations about dogs, we can ensure that those adopting their first dog have the most healthy and nurturing relationship possible with their pet.

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Tim Herr