Balance in dog ownership: love, work, and play

Written on July 26th, 2017

Our first family dogs, two Bichons named Larry and Lucy, were just that — family dogs. We trained them in the beginning and kept up a few basic obedience behaviors, but for the most part they didn’t have to “work” at all.

This was for a lot of reasons: my sister and I were very little when we got them and didn’t understand the importance of consistent training, Bichons are naturally lap dogs, and they weren’t particularly “unruly” in the first place, among other things.

We were totally content just having our two loving family pets. They were well-enough behaved and brought us so much joy.

When Larry got sick towards the end of 2016’s summer shortly after turning 14, we were devastated.

And because we loved him so much, and because he was old, and because we hated the thought of him not being around… we spoiled the crap out of him.

In his last days, when the seizures became more frequent and we knew the time for that tough decision was near, he got whatever he wanted. Cuddles. Treats. Massages. Car rides. Everything he had ever loved was at his pawtips, offered by us with breaking hearts.

As a side effect of this, Lucy got spoiled too — we called them “sympathy treats”. In the weeks after Larry’s passing we clung to Lucy’s presence with everything we had. We were so saddened by our loss that we felt a need to spoil Lucy, to love her, to make happy the one dog we still had.

It all came from a good place, truly, but it wasn’t ideal: up until we lost Lucy this past fall, she had no manners to speak of. So much of her already limited training was undone after we lost Larry, and then she grew old and confused — the poor thing hardly knew where she was at times, so how could we expect her to be able to consistently respond to commands?

We still loved her dearly, of course — and we own our mistakes in the situation — but I was determined when we got Snort that she wouldn’t be “spoiled” in the same way. Lucy was wonderful until the very end… but I wish we had better kept up our consistency for her sake.

When we got Snort, we started working with the trainer who regularly volunteers at our local humane society since she had known our snow dog throughout her time at the shelter. Snort was a wonderful companion, but we wanted to ensure that we were equipped to help her become even more wonderful — and to not lose the great traits she already had.

Snort is absolutely brilliant and learns quickly, but we ran into one big roadblock: her shyness.

In the beginning Snort was afraid of many things inside of our house. She hid in her kennel for hours and sometimes what felt like full days. She loved to be pet but not too close, and any noise could send her flying away.

We knew that it was a big adjustment, and we still saw how sweet she was, but the constant eye drop applications made it hard to feel like we were bonding with her. It was truly so difficult — sometimes when we would simply stand up off the couch she’d go sprinting away for fear of medicine.

What this meant was that sometimes during training time we’d be tempted to reward her even when she didn’t follow the command. We wanted her to “like” us. If she rolled over for a belly rub, then she’d get a belly rub… even if she was supposed to be doing something else.

We had to work hard as a family to find a balance between love and work. Snort needs to simultaneously know that she is safe and cared for with us but also that she has to listen when told. It was tough in the beginning!

When I returned home for summer I took over most of Snort’s training, and we came so far. She still gets love without “earning” it, like in the morning when she jumps onto my bed for a massage or after work when she greets us with a wagging tail. There are plenty of times where I love on her just for the sake of loving her, but there are also times where I expect her to work for me.

When we’re training she gets rewarded with both food and physical affection, but only when she does what is asked of her. We use strictly positive reinforcement methods because of her timid nature, so she’s never punished but knows what is expected. Gone are the days of her being able to collapse at my feet in the middle of a training session to get a belly rub!

It’s a continual balancing act, but I’ve come to appreciate the importance of well-managed expectations. Yes, Snort is naturally pretty wonderful — that was clear to us by her sweet behavior even after the rough start to her life. But she deserves consistency. She deserves boundaries. Making her work for me doesn’t mean I don’t love her; it means I love her even more than if I didn’t.

Snort is well-adored and a little bit spoiled — what dog isn’t from time to time? — but she’s also becoming well trained. Different methods of giving her medicine, countless hours spent bonding on hikes and in the yard playing, and consistent work have transformed our relationship.

The truth is that she loves to learn, and she also loves to be cuddled. Who says she can’t have a good mix of both? Most dogs enjoy working just as they enjoy being a part of the family. It’s okay to spoil them from time to time, as long as you do it in a healthy and balanced way — and your dog certainly deserves your love and patience without earning it — but there is no shame in making them work for most things.

Consistent boundaries and training effort are some of the greatest gifts you can give your canine. It might feel like “giving them whatever they want” is the way to show love, but they’ll appreciate your steadiness far more in the long run.