In this excerpt from her pet behavior advice column, The Teacher’s Pets, Dr. Megan Maxwell, CAAB, addresses a reader’s concerns that her own dogs’ behavior doesn’t meet standards she sees in other dogs in public settings.

My husband and I were out for dinner recently when we noticed a couple next to us on the restaurant patio with their perfectly behaved dog laying at their feet under the table. I commented to my husband that I wished we could bring our dogs out with us like that. He laughed and replied, “Only in your dreams – Finn and Kiwi will never be well-enough behaved for restaurant dining!” I think he’s right, and sometimes I feel like I’m the only dog owner who can’t enjoy her dogs publicly because of their behavior. Am I alone?

Annie W.

Knoxville, TN

Ah, the inevitable comparisons we make when we see wonderfully behaved dogs in public and think of our own dogs at home. We see these “perfect” dogs bounding off-leash around the park with their families, trotting through street fairs by their owner’s side, or, as you observed, in gentle repose at their owners’ feet at an eatery. Our minds flash to our own dogs and bad memories of that time they knocked down the bicyclist, ran into the side of a moving car while chasing a squirrel, barked at that small child, picked a fight with an innocent Pug, or myriad other embarrassing or even dangerous experiences we’ve had. This comparison is natural and common, but I hasten to assure you that you are far from alone, Annie! For every well-behaved dog in public, I would guess there are many more left at home because their behavior would make them unsuitable, disruptive, or just a nuisance to their owners.

Broadly speaking, a dog’s behavior is determined by a combination of his or her genetics, early socialization experiences, lifelong learning, and current environment. Only some of these variables are under our control. In a perfect world, breeders could emphasize and select for desirable behavioral traits. Those interested in purchasing a puppy could research breed characteristics and carefully select the breed or breed mix most likely to match their own lifestyle, and they could ensure that they meet the pups’ parents and find their behavior appealing. Puppy owners could carry out flawless socialization programs over the first 12 months of a pup’s life and continue to implement sound strategies for dog training and behavioral wellness for all the years thereafter. Alas, like your own dogs, Annie, the world is not perfect and these elements rarely come together as described. In fact, many of us own rescued dogs of unknown backgrounds altogether!

Now that we have established you are in good company, Annie, let’s address some strategies for you moving forward. First, you can always teach an old dog new tricks. That is to say, dogs who are neurologically sound are capable of learning and behavior change at any age and after any set of past experiences. However, this is not to say that you can turn your dog into anything you want her to be through training or behavior modification. This is one reason I am always skeptical when a dog trainer or pet behavior professional claims to “guarantee” behavior change results. Because behavior is, by definition, determined by many variables as described above, and because each owner brings his or her own experiences, skills, and expectations to the table, there are no training or behavior modification strategies that can meet every owner’s expectations in every case.

Your best bet is to delineate both short- and long-term goals for your dogs and to begin with some goals that are easily achievable. Beginning with easy tasks allows both you and your dog to be successful and thus reinforces your behavior and hers as you move forward with more challenging exercises. For example, if your long-term goal is to have Finn and Kiwi behaving politely at a dog-friendly restaurant, begin by taking stock of where they already can be polite. For example, are they polite in other public situations? Are they manageable and attentive to you on walks when greeting new people and encountering new things? Or are you in the position many are of walking them at odd hours or not at all to avoid social situations due to their behavior? We must start where Finn and Kiwi show strengths and develop pinpointed goals for moving forward from there. Signing on to a behavior modification or dog training program is like joining a gym – the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. And let there be no doubt that it will take time, repetition, persistence, and patience, and often the guidance and coaching of a qualified trainer or pet behavior professional.

Assuming you agree to begin a behavior plan for your dogs, how will you know how far you can get with them or how much work it will take? Certainly, some of these “perfect pooches” you see behave as they do through extensive training by their owners while others were just naturally easy, attentive, relaxed, and social from the outset. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of one-time assessment tools that can predict with precision a dog’s response to behavior therapy or training over extended periods of time. In next month’s column, I will review some of the factors correlated with a successful outcome for dogs in behavior therapy and those associated with failures to progress. For now, Annie, enjoy Finn and Kiwi for everything they bring to your home, consider signing up for work with a qualified pet behavior professional, and enjoy those dog-free date nights with your husband!

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