clue, Dog Behavior and Training, Friday, General, Juno, Responsible Ownership

Are you a fan of your dog?


When Lucy – my beloved Dane and the dog I still think of when my eyes open in the morning – died, I got a lovely e-mail from her breeder, mostly full of all the things we say when a dog dies. But one line that Sterling sent then has stuck with me in all the years since.

She said, "I was a great fan of hers."  

Ever since, I have thought that was just about a perfect way to describe the relationship we should have with our dogs. Not that we just love them, but that we LIKE them. That we think of each other as being on the same team. That we respect and admire their doggishness, maybe even envy it a little, while constantly pulling for their success. 

Just recently I got another e-mail. This time it was someone who e-mailed me a behavior question about their dog, and asked me if I'd address it on the blog. 

I immediately said to myself, "Not a chance," and then sat back to think about why my reaction had instantly been so negative. 

Remember that I'm not a trainer, not even a bad one. So questions involving how you backchain a weave entrance or how to get a perfect heel are NOT for me. I am neither qualified enough nor foolish enough to answer them. 

However, in this case it was not a training but a behavior problem – let's say it was the dog being destructive – and something I've dealt with over and over again in my own dogs. I actually was, in this very limited scenario, qualified to answer it. But the idea of it turned that little wheel in my stomach where "no" lives. 

Why? Because the real reason, the root of the problem, was not that the person wanted to solve a dog's destructive behavior. It was that a person wanted someone who they thought was experienced in dogs to tell them that their dog was as bad as they thought he was.

I am sure every (real) trainer who reads this knows those questions. They use a lot of pronouns and the word "that." 

I can't handle that dog for one more second.

That dog is getting on my last nerve!

When I got home, that dog had peed all over my purse.

If I knew he was going to be like that as a puppy, I'd never have gotten him.

By the time an owner is using statements like the above, they're not asking for ways to change the dog's behavior. They're asking for permission to get rid of the dog. If you said to them "Wow, you're right. I've never seen anything this bad; let me take him right now and find him a new home," their reaction would be about five seconds of objection and then the light of relief would show in their eyes. They'd start to think about arriving home and not smelling pee. They think about going on vacation without having to board a dog that has to go in the "special kennel." They imagine going to buy a couch that will last longer than six months.

When, on the other hand, you say to them "This is a very common issue, and very easy to fix! All you have to do is…" their faces get hard and their eyes turn off. They'll try to tell you that the way THIS dog does it is not easy to fix, and that their neighbor says they've never seen behavior THAT bad, and how they already tried doing that and it didn't work.

Even people who haven't gotten to the really terrible stage of looking for a reason to get rid of a dog or put it down are pretty inexorably heading that way. Why?

Because they see the relationship between themselves and their dogs as being adversarial. It's them against the dog. It's me against the chaos. It's my job to make this bad dog good. 

They are not fans of their dog. 

Because they see their entire relationship as one of adversity, when the dog REALLY disobeys – eats the couch or kills the neighbor's cat – it is not just a bad behavior but a personal affront. They start to use language like "The dog doesn't like me anymore" or "I guess he doesn't like his life here enough to behave properly." 

I have seen this in myself with my own dogs. If Clue disobeys, it makes sense to me. I trust her enough, and like her enough, and feel that we are connected enough, to be willing to take her word for it that something is wrong and she feels she can't do that right now. It doesn't mean I don't make her come in or make her get off the couch or make her do whatever, but it goes "I'm sorry, hun, i believe you; but I really do need you to do that now." When Bramble refuses to come in, my instant reaction is "Oh, one MORE TIME. He KNOWS this command; what is wrong with him?!"

I've been working very hard lately to be Bramble's fan, to spend enough time with him and to see things from his standpoint so that I like who he is, not who I think he should be. My actions don't change – I still march out there barefoot and walk down whichever dog isn't responding to a recall – but my attitude needs to change. I need to root for him, to be proud of the small changes that are a big deal to him. He was pretty much completely screwed up by being kenneled for ten months, so the improvements are not exactly by leaps and bounds. For example, I realized today that he hadn't bitten anybody in a couple of months. He is still occasionally losing control and threat-barking, but he's pulling back and not connecting. And when I tested him off-leash this week, he only ran away for five minutes, and when he came back he high-fived me because he knew he'd done something good. By most definitions both statements are complete failures (he DOES panic and bark; he DOES run away), but  honestly improvement to that point is a pretty dang big deal for him. Maybe a year from now I'll say that he's no longer threat-barking. Maybe a year after that we'll be able to let him off-leash when we're hiking. 

No matter which dog you're dealing with, and no matter which problem or training challenge or goal you're trying to tackle, you're missing so much if you go into it convinced that it's you against the dog. And how much joy there is in acting like it's the two of you against the world, both of you braced together for whatever comes. To genuinely enjoy your dog, to not just love but like them, means that any challenge is just a bump in the road. It's not going to change your relationship and it's not going to change how much you groove on each other. 

My final little story: Yesterday we took Juno out solo for the first time in a long time; we're always trying to exercise as many dogs as we can so she usually comes along with Ginny and Friday. Once Juno finished her solo socialization we slotted her in to the regular rotation and haven't had her out alone. But yesterday Ginny was having tummy troubles and we were going to the rock beach (the hardest place in the world to clean up the result of tummy troubles) and Friday is going into heat, so it was just Juno by herself. 

A couple of hours into it, with this puppy who is such a thinker, so herdy, so funny, I turned to Honour (who is her real owner) and I said, "Wow, I really like your dog." Which, of course, is the death knell for any possibility of placing her if she doesn't turn out, because I really LIKE that puppy. I can enumerate every conformation flaw and the things I think are good, and maybe she'll finish and maybe she won't, but yesterday I bought a jersey with her name on the back of it. 

So, my question is – are you a fan? Whose name is on your jersey?

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Laine July 28, 2010 at 6:33 am

    I was such a fan of my dog, the best girl ever. She passed away yesterday, in my arms in the yard where she loved to be. My jersey says “Jane, 14.”

  • Reply Dawn July 28, 2010 at 6:49 am

    I will be honest, it took me a good 9 months to become a fan of my girl Gracie. She had me in tears almost every day for those first 9 months, but then something changed in me, I started to understand her, and our ability to communicate changed. She still is not an easy dog, but dang, she is MY dog. We have conversations, I understand (usually) what she is trying to tell me, she understands that I need her to listen to me (usually) and when we arent seeing eye to eye, we can usually come to an understanding. My days would no longer be the same if I came home and didnt get greeted by her woo woo arrooos, and honestly I dont think I am able to go to the bathroom alone anymore, at least not at home. Its lonely in there, but not with my best girl at my side.

  • Reply Julie July 28, 2010 at 7:45 am

    Awww….very nice post. I can honestly say I fans of both my dogs. Ike is a tough cookie and I respect him and know he tries to use the skills we have worked on to the best of his advantage. I get that sometimes things go over threshold and I don’t hold that against him (even if I sometimes find it depressing). And Bug, well….Bug is a special boy. I am lucky to have two great partners (three if you count DH, too!).

  • Reply Sterling July 28, 2010 at 7:46 am

    I don’t remember writing those words but so glad that I was able to say something that was a tiny bit helpful in an awful time.
    I have to say that I am a huge fan of Hazel’s-she amazes me every day by doing things that Danes are not supposed to be good at-ie she loves her dumbbell! She is such a want-to-please dog that she is a delight. Once she understands, she wants to please so repeats the behavior.
    I am a fan of Pi-how could I not be??
    Chrissy and Gilly are now the grand dames of the house and thus, I am a fan of them as well. Even though Chrissy managed to open the oven door last night where the pizza was stored out of reach and eat the whole dang thing!! But you gotta admire her dedication and persistence! There was a small tear in the box and not a crumb of pizza but all else was exactly as I left it!
    And Zeki-he knows everything so…….gotta be a fan of his too.
    The puppy, Thyme, seems to have all the potential to be fan-worthy!! Stay tuned on that one but all signs are positive!

  • Reply kelly July 28, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Great post, Joanna. It’s amazing how much this parallels a discussion I was having recently with other parents about raising teens.

    We are all big fans of Agatha. It took a little while for my youngest daughter to start seeing past her puppy behavior enough to be able to encourage her and teach her with patience but it did happen. For the rest of us it was instant.

    I was a big fan of Lucy as well. She was a wonderful dog.

  • Reply Erin July 28, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Thank you. What a beautiful post. I think this is a good reminder for all of us. Dogs, like kids, are harder to like some days.

    I have to admit, when my puppy started acting reactive a couple months ago, I started a me v him mentality and “what do I have to do to make him behave?” It didn’t help either of us. Just a week or two ago I turned the corner in mind to “how can I help him feel comfortable in these situations so he doesn’t need such bravado?” Acknowledging the small things helps. For example, at class last night he still lunged twice(and I’m not totally convinced that his lunging isn’t more excitement than reactivity, but I honestly don’t trust him enough to find out), but there were half a dozen times excitement was going on and he just looked at me and he didn’t growl once. Because I didn’t focus on the two times his emotions got the better of him, but on the many times it didn’t, I was very, very proud of him. In turn, my pride kept me calm and that made it easier for him to keep his body under control. The more I keep the “we’re working together” mindset, the more in love I fall with this dog (and I can tell he likes me better too!).

  • Reply Tammy Kozoris July 28, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I am a HUGE HUGE fan of my heart dog Bella. She’s smart and funny. Talented. Great with kids. My best friend. I am becoming good friends with my Trinity every single day and the more we work together, snuggle, cuddle and do one on one activities I am becoming her fan every day. She’s so DIFFERENT then Bella. She’s not a big herder or barker… she’s very very mellow for a collie with pretty low drive (her lines are very like that) so it’s been different relating to her and finding out what makes her tick.

  • Reply Beth July 28, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Hmmm. I wonder how the person who asked for advice feels? I hear where you are coming from. I’m not so quick to jump to the conclusion on the person’s motivation. I distinctly remember writing on another forum of some issues I was having integrating our new adult dog with my existing male— she was ignoring him completely and I was concerned, and looking for feedback on how likely it was that they would eventually warm up to each other (or rather that she would warm to him, since he was the one trying to be friendly and she was rebuffing him). I got lots of thoughts on the matter, and then you suggested I should send her back if I was not completely thrilled with her because breeders want their rehomed adults to be the apple of the new owner’s eye, or something to that effect.

    I was stunned. You made a lot of presumptions that were totally false. I had been in tears over the situation because we were already attached to the new girl, but also wanted a friend for our existing dog. I did talk to the breeder, and she suggested no such thing as bringing her back. We worked through the sticky spot and are very happy with both our dogs, but honestly your words were the farthest thing from helpful and the last thing a teary-eyed owner needed to hear.

    I appreciate your assessment of how you feel about your own dogs, and your honesty, but from personal experience I hestitate to accept your summary of the motives of the person looking for advice.

  • Reply Amanda L July 30, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Wonderful post, and very timely for me. I agonized for weeks and weeks over which puppy to keep from my last litter. I tried and tried to be a fan of the one my head said I should keep, because she was the most beautiful, most conformationally-correct and clearly the “pick” puppy, and she was very sweet. But the one my heart wanted, the one who told me she wanted to stay, the one with that special spark, was kind of funny looking some days, and sure wasn’t the conformation prospect the other was, but I was her fan anyway. Then I realized one day on my way back from an agility trial that I could imagine the first puppy leaving, but I couldn’t bear the thought of the second one leaving. So I kept the one I was a fan of. She has the makings of an awesome agility dog even if she never earns a point in the breed ring, and more importantly, I love her, she fits in, she demanded to stay, and I am her greatest fan.

  • Reply Christina June 23, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    I found this post last fall after finding your blog and browsing through. Since I’m already commenting on old posts, I’m going to make a go of it and let you know how much this post impacted our lives. I was not a fan of my pem corgi – he has health issues and behavioral issues stemming from health issues. What was supposed to be my versatility dog has turned into a dog whose body can tolerate only minor sports events. Tracking, RN and CD titles are probably about as far as we’ll get and the amount of sitting/standing for rally and ob can be uncomfortable on his hips so training can be slow.

    I read this last fall and I realized everything I wrote up there held me back from being his fan. I loved him, I took care of him but I knew he was not my heart dog like our older female is and I thought that was just it for us. I made a commitment to change MY attitude about our situation. Combined with joining my local training club, our relationship has improved so drastically since 9 months ago he’s almost not even the same dog. What I perceived as huge, horrible (dramatic) behavior issues have started regressing due to that change. I had already been counter conditioning but something about that change in my attitude made our relationship so much better than in the last 3 months we’ve seen huge, sweeping changes in his attitude towards life.

    I only have so many characters to express how big it was to realize it was me holding us back, not him. So thank you from the bottom of my heart! We’re not there, but we’re getting there and now I actually think it will be possible in his lifetime to add a third dog to our home – hopefully that dream versatility or dual champion.

    • Reply rufflyspeaking June 23, 2011 at 10:49 pm

      What a wonderful, wonderful comment. And you brought me back to this at exactly the right moment. You know what? Bramble hasn’t threat-barked at one of the kids in months. MONTHS. He tolerates even Zuzu. And right now he’s asleep pressed against my foot; he sleeps on our bed every night. He’s still a complete nutter but this year I DID become a fan of his. When he refuses to come in I say to myself “He can’t run through resistance – turn and walk away and he’ll come in,” and he does. I had honestly forgotten that I wrote all this stuff to myself, but here it is almost a year later and I am so glad I am re-reading it. Thank you, Christina – and I am so, so happy that that your dog is getting closer to one you can genuinely enjoy.

  • Reply Niki Tudge December 13, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Great post, how often as professional dog trainers and behavior consultants do we face this with our clients. We have to take the emotion out of the problem, engage our clients and re-frame how they see their dogs. In my opinion this is the core of our work. It is when the rubber hits the road and with the slip of a tongue, an insensitive comment or error in judgment we can be contributing to the rescue population. On the other hand with the right communication skills and empathy we can turn around the situation leaving us feeling so good about what we do knowing we have helped another dog become a family member.

  • Reply cheryl June 1, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    What a great post – I was struggling today with my new rescue dog of almost 4 months and feeling overwhelmed. I am her fan. I have been feeling a but upset with other things, I was out of town for 5 days and she has not been feeling well and I think she sensed that I was not tense. I need to be her fan always and she needs to know I will always come back for her.

  • Leave a Reply

    CommentLuv badge